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How Pop Music Went Through Puberty

Words By Jericho Igdanes

Art by Julianna Montenegro

In the late 90s to early 2000s, teen pop music was characterized by bright, maximalist soundscapes. From Britney Spears to NSYNC, young listeners all over the world were enamored by upbeat tracks like “Baby One More Time” and “Bye Bye Bye”. Both tracks were released by Jive Records, a subsidiary of global music conglomerate Sony Music Entertainment. During these times, young singers were rarely noticed unless their sound fits the blueprint of what was then known as “teen pop”. Nowadays, however, the music kids make is instead marked by minimal production with lyrics that are simultaneously confessional and complex. They are now able to create music simply from their bedrooms instead of studios as dreams of becoming a famous singer are not beholden to the demands of music moguls.


Despite its undeniable impact in the industry, the bright and preppy brand of teen pop is no longer a fixture in the charts today. In its place, teenagers are listening to downbeat music characterized by a blend of hushed beats and confessional lyrics. This movement can be traced to the days of Tumblr where Lana Del Rey and The Neighbourhood found a strong cult following. Songs like “Summertime Sadness” and “Sweater Weather” became crossover hits, introducing alternative music to a bigger audience. 


Lorde (L) and Frank Ocean (R) are two acts who ushered in a new trend in pop music. 

Photo: TIME / Mark Mahaney (L); The New York Times (R)

As the 2010s progressed, more alternative acts started to appear in the mainstream musical sphere with its respective distinct sounds and aesthetics. Frank Ocean’s debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra appeared in 2011, which was a fresh collection of songs that were equal parts relatable and polished. He would continue garnering critical acclaim with his albums Channel Orange and Blonde that are both considered “Essential Albums” on his Apple Music page.

In 2013, Lorde’s “Royals” skyrocketed to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. She was 16 at the time of the song’s recording, impressing millions of listeners all over the world. Her debut album Pure Heroine—featuring themes like the media, teenage life, and social anxiety—maintained the hype and was certified platinum in less than a year. David Bowie even called her “the future of music”, and he may have been right.


Upon Lorde’s arrival in the industry, many acts started to incorporate a more subdued approach to their music. Taylor Swift’s Blank Space, an electropop song with a more minimalist sonic palette, became one of the biggest hits of 2014. In the following years, new artists like Halsey and Alessia Cara would later garner hits with a similar sound and aesthetic.

However, it wasn’t until the explosion of streaming that “moody pop” would become a permanent fixture of mainstream music. With the rise of Spotify and Apple Music came a surge in popularity for artists with a more casual style of songwriting. Teenagers account for a huge percentage of these listeners, possibly because a lot of these acts are around the same age bracket. 


Billie Eilish is one of the most popular artists on streaming services. 

Photo: W Magazine / Sebastian Sabal-Bruce

Eighteen-year-old Billie Eilish has become one of the most recognizable faces in this new breed of pop. At the time of writing, she currently has 43 million monthly listeners on Spotify. Eilish’s personable style of songwriting made her popular with teens, talking about a wide range of themes from anxiety to global warming.

Her biggest hit to date is the synth bass-heavy “bad guy”, reaching number one in 11 countries. Upon close inspection, the track actually shares similarities with Britney Spears’ 2000 hit “Oops!... I Did It Again”. Both songs feature tongue-in-cheek lyrics taunting a love interest, as well as a spoken word section. It is also notable how the riffs in their intros are very recognizable. Sonically, the two couldn’t be further opposites. “bad guy” is a minimalist and bass-heavy track, while “Oops!” is a dance pop song bearing the signature 90s bubblegum sound. And, the differences between these songs don’t stop here—they were received very differently by critics.

“bad guy” was lauded by critics with praise attributed to the song’s casual but anthemic nature. On the other hand, “Oops!” was called by writer David Browne as a “jailbait manifesto”. Both Eilish and Spears were teenagers during the release of these tracks with the latter actually being older. The difference in the perception of the tracks could be attributed to the time period of their respective releases.

“Oops!” was released in March 2000, over twenty years ago. Today, teenagers are given a lot more leeway to express their thoughts as a sizable portion of the political and economic discourse on Twitter comes from young users. They are encouraged to speak and be open-minded. In this sense, a song about a teenage girl asserting herself will be received better in 2019 than in 2000.

“bad guy” was also a product of the brother-sister duo composed of Billie and Finneas, whereas “Oops” was written and produced by pop veterans Max Martin and Rami Yacoub. Nevermind the fact that Spears has co-written some of her biggest hits—to many, she and her music are a product of the record label machine. Billie on the other hand, has been praised for crafting her music solely with her brother. Even other artists, like Avril Lavigne and Lana Del Rey, consider her arrival in the pop music scene as a game changer.


Perhaps then, the perceived authenticity of “bad guy” played a part in its meteoric rise. Along with Eilish, many other young artists are marketed with a DIY, relatable approach. Most of them really create music on their own, a testament to the power of the internet as a platform. Acts like Clairo, Wallows, and Declan McKenna are frequent features on Spotify playlists, which are followed by many listeners all over the world. Such a platform paved the way for young listeners to discover more acts with the same appeal as Eilish.


With these teenage artists creating music tackling current social issues, it is not surprising that they take on a “sadder” vibe. After all, mental health, racism, and corruption are all pretty heavy topics. They are not afraid to face the reality of their oppressive society and seek to topple the structures that perpetuate these toxic cultures. Perhaps the bleak state of society today has also lessened the public’s thirst for danceable tracks, seeking out somber songs instead. Combine the two masterfully, and one might have a streaming hit in their hands.


For instance, Declan McKenna’s songs “Brazil” and “The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home” are highly political. The former speaks out against corruption, while the latter is a commentary on the experiences of kids in warzones. Both feature the same minimalist but anthemic sound heard in a lot of songs made by teens. Browsing through his Twitter page will give one videos of fans screaming back lyrics that call out British military presence in Yemen. His music is both fun and eloquent, two characteristics that draw in young listeners.


This new breed of pop music is fostering an age of creativity among teens, and a lot of it happens inside the comforts of their own bedrooms. It is marvelous to think about how young these artists really are and how easily they can express their own artistry. Some lyrics may still talk about love and suburban life, considering that teenage years are marked by forays into romance and partying. However, some do talk about the state of our world today, opening the eyes and ears of teens all over the world. Moody pop is a movement in itself, one so spearheaded by young minds advocating authenticity and change.

JULY 1, 2020

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