Changes in Music, 1998-2022
An analysis of the Billboard Hot 100 across time
As we grow older, we lose touch with popular culture. Within the last few years, I’ve started noticing that I’d never heard of some of the biggest music artists in the country.
Since my job is to write about American politics and culture, this struck me as a problem. I was also curious. I therefore decided to spend some time exploring popular music and thinking a bit about how it’s changed from when I was growing up.
Wikipedia conveniently has the Billboard Hot 100 list of top singles for every year. Limiting ourselves to the top 20, if I look at 1999, when I was 13-14 years old, I recognize every artist and all but 3 or 4 songs. By 2009, a few artists pop up I don’t recognize (Jason Mraz, The Fray), and I only know about half the songs.
I’d never even heard of most of the top artists of 2020, and when I had it was sometimes because of a culture war controversy. Harry Styles is to me the guy who put on a dress and made Ben Shapiro angry. Justin Bieber I knew because he’s been around for a while. I recognized the names Drake, Megan Thee Stallion, Billie Eilish, and Post Malone, but they didn’t mean much to me.
This reflects a very strange quirk of human psychology. It seems that we are primed to seek out new forms of music, and perhaps other cultural products, between around 12-20, and then our interest declines after that. The popular songs from when I was in that age range stick with me, while even when I hear a new song today it generally doesn’t. This was the premise of a South Park episode.
That being said, it is my professional obligation to know what the kids are up to. For that reason, I decided to listen to the top 20 Billboard songs of the years 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022, 80 in total. In some cases I watched a music video or briefly looked up some biographical details of an artist. Below are my observations regarding what has changed relative to when I paid the most attention to popular music, which was circa 1998-2003.
Overall, we shouldn’t exaggerate the change, as the comparison confirms Ross Douthat’s ideas on decadence. In 1959, the top song in the country was “The Battle of New Orleans,” which sounds like it came out when Andrew Jackson was still alive. Four decades later, Marilyn Manson was a superstar, and pop looked mostly like it does today. Even the change between 1979 and 1999 was massively more consequential than 1999-2019. Still, I did find a few developments in the latter period that are worth noting.
The Rise of the Self-Satisfied Black Female
Around 2000, there was already a genre where an artist, usually black, would simply brag about how great they were, to a rap or R&B track. If he’s a man, he talks about his wealth, physical bravery, and capacity for violence. Female artists see themselves as “bad bitches,” which incorporates many of the same characteristics as their male counterparts, but with the ability to manipulate men through sex and less emphasis on violence. My impression is that there is still about an equal number of male versions of these songs at the top of the charts as there was before, but definitely more female ones. Examples of the latter category:
Lizzo, “Truth Hurts” (2019)
Doja Cat, “Need to Know” (2021)
Latto, “Big Energy” (2022)
I was sort of heartened how little the male version of this genre has changed over the years. Jack Harlow’s “First Class” (2022) even takes its chorus from Ludacris’ “Glamorous” (2006). And Harlow isn’t even black, though I assumed he was from his voice, but rather a white guy from Louisville. Lil Nas X has gotten attention for being a successful gay rapper, and this would indeed have been unthinkable two decades ago, as back then Eminem was talking about how much he wanted to kill all queers, I suspect as a way to gain credibility as a white artist in a black industry. But his “Old Town Road,” the top single of 2019, is a pretty conventional rap song about how tough and cool the artist is, although it is something of a parody of this genre. Drake and The Weekend are two modern artists who I think wouldn’t have been out of place in the early 2000s (keep in mind again please I know very little about these people or their work and might be missing quite a bit).
Among non-black artists, Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles don’t seem that distinct from male singers of a previous generation. And Maroon 5 is pretty much just Nickelback?
What’s mostly gone is the highly produced boy band, although, strangely enough, that role appears to have been filled to a limited extent by K-Pop, since we don’t make Backstreet Boys types domestically anymore. Male singers are more likely to combine folk and rock, which is I think part of a turn in the culture towards less formality and what people call “authenticity.” Just like how corporations are less likely to require men to wear suits and ties, people are turned off by singers that look like they were designed for mass appeal in a lab. More could be written about BTS, or K-Pop more generally, as the exception to this, but someone once cautioned me against analyzing this phenomenon, as the fanbase can be particularly rabid. I usually don’t shy away from controversy, but the sternness with which they delivered this warning frightened me and so that’s all I’ll say.
Otherwise, Women Are Not Ok
While women who are either highly sexual or black and obese appear very happy with themselves, female artists otherwise give the impression of not doing too well. For the entire period of 2019-2022, it’s remarkable how few top hits are of women singing about love in a positive way. The year 1999 alone had the songs “Angel” (Sarah McLachlan), “I’m Your Angel” (Celine Dion w/R Kelly), and “Angel of Mine” (Monica) in the top 20. To the contemporary ear, these songs sound as hopelessly naive as “My Girl” must’ve to a previous generation.
Now female artists either don’t need men as “bad bitches”, only use them for sex, or have just had their hearts broken by them. These kinds of songs existed before, but there’s now no room for a female perspective that isn’t completely cynical. The closest thing I can find to the older kind of female love song in recent years is “The Bones” by Maren Morris, the only country song to crack the top 20 in 2020.
Contemporary female songs about heartbreak are much angrier and indicative of serious mental illness, while two decades ago they presented breakups as challenges that could be overcome. The most negative among these I found to be “ABCDEFU” by Gayle (2021), “I Hope” by Gabby Barrett (2019), and “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo (2020).
In a previous era, Blu Cantrell maxed out all of her boyfriend’s credit cards in “Hit’em Up Style” (2001), and Carrie Underwood destroyed her redneck lover’s truck in “Before He Cheats” (2006). But female artists today lack agency. Gaby Barrett lists all the misfortunes she wants to befall her ex, in vicious painstaking detail, but doesn’t appear willing to take any initiative to make them happen. Rodrigo just drives by her old boyfriend’s house, and ruminates on the blondness of his new love.
Interestingly, if you look at the numbers over the last two decades, young men are slightly more screwed up than they used to be, while young women have completely lost their minds. Here’s one chart of many that show this trend.
It’s quite striking that what I noticed from listening to hit music of the last few years matches up well with this data. I don’t know whether pop culture is causing kids to be miserable, or the most famous songs simply reflect what people are feeling.
One way to conduct a sanity check on my impressions is to see if there’s empirical data backing them up. One automated analysis of Billboard Hit 100 songs from 1951 to 2016 shows increases in anger, disgust, and fear, and a decline in joy. Sadness stayed consistent. I’d like to see a similar analysis go further, as the decline in mental health really took off in the 2010s.
Female Sexuality as Aggressive or Nonexistent
Earlier eras had female pop stars who were intriguing to the opposite sex, innocent but also growing up and in a sense becoming available. The most notable examples are, in their younger days, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, and Katy Perry. Among black singers, you had Monica, Aaliyah, and Ashanti. The female artists today either are, as mentioned before, overtly sexual, or else refuse to make the least bit of effort to be attractive to men.
is was until recently fat, and Halsey and Billie Eilish seem to go out of their way to look less pretty than they otherwise could. We can see the transition towards ugliness even in the careers of individual artists, like when Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry started to cut their hair shorter and got tattoos.
Now that I think about it, there is another racial dynamic here, where the overtly sexual artists are black, or sometimes
Hispanic Sicilian, like Arianna Grande, while the asexual ones are white.
There used to be a middle ground of “pretty, doesn’t want to sleep around like a man or talk crudely about sex, but still not waiting for marriage,” and that’s mostly gone, at least at the top of the charts. I don’t think men have become less attracted to this type, so I’m guessing this is a top-down phenomenon. Of course, there was a certain kind of song that went with this kind of pop star — “Baby One More Time” (1998), “Genie in a Bottle” (1999), “California Gurls” (2010), etc.
Note that the period 2019-2022 doesn’t include any Taylor Swift albums. I really enjoyed Max Meyer’s analysis of the Swift phenomenon, which appears to indicate that there’s still demand for a more optimistic, less anti-male style among female artists, even if cultural gatekeepers really prefer not to provide it.
This isn’t about the songs themselves, but nothing makes me feel older than seeing artists with face tattoos. The rise of tattooing in the United States as a general matter is very underexplored. One of the first things that anthropologists studying a new culture note is the existence of body art. I lived through the transition where tattooing went from something that marked one as a criminal or thug to completely normalized. Why did this happen?
Justin Bieber was one of the few artists I recognized still making successful music over the last few years, and I was surprised to find out that his body now looks like this.
One weird thing to me is that Bieber’s music doesn’t look to have changed as much as his appearance. Tattooing doesn’t even necessarily signal edginess, it can be completely decorative and divorced from most of the rest of a person’s work and character.
I can tolerate body art, at least when the person is in shape. Face tattoos are different. Here, my disgust reflex kicks in. I can’t stand to look at Post Malone for more than a few seconds. Yet, his music is pretty standard pop and doesn’t give much indication of what a freak he looks like.
This may be related to a broader phenomenon, in which kids are more likely to adopt labels like bisexual or get strange piercings or whatever, while they’re at the same time having less sex and otherwise getting into less trouble. Covering yourself in tattoos just to sing like Justin Bieber seems like the musical equivalent of this.
In contrast, Kodak Black looks scary, and the music video for “Super Gremlin” (2021) reflects that, giving the swaggering young buck genre a kind of horrorcore aesthetic. In what I find a hilarious twist to his life and career, he was given four years in prison in 2019 but had his sentence commuted by Trump as the president was leaving office.
Words Are Simpler and Harder to Understand
This sounds like an “old man” complaint, but the words to my ears now sound harder to understand. Maybe this is related to the rise of Bhad Bhabie talk, which goes out of its way not to be understood. The lyrics also strike me as somewhat simpler, although I’m unsure about this too.
It’s hard to know what this means. Maybe my hearing is just worse? I suspect this is the same kind of avoidance behavior that makes one less likely to form relationships, get a drivers license early, or engage in a fist fight. Words are an invitation to grapple with ideas or emotions. They invite you to ponder what they mean. If thinking hurts because you’re depressed and your mind is too clouded, then you mostly just want a nice beat.
A beautiful song in the old tradition was “Shallow” (2018) by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. This is from when Lady Gaga had gone so far in being avant-garde that she decided to make art that was abnormally normal for late 2010s culture.
Plus Ça Change…
I think that how pop music has shifted provides insights into the “on the ground” effects of the cultural changes in elite circles of the last decade. Our prestigious institutions have this idea of “diversity” where blacks are no different from whites in ways that matter but also bring a unique perspective and outlook that must be understood and respected. What this translates to in practice is a consistent application of a philosophy that blacks are either equal to or better than whites at everything; on no measure may they be stereotyped or thought about in a way that carries negative connotations.
In contrast, in the world of hit music, blacks continue to exhibit, and even celebrate, many of the classic stereotypes about themselves. And while universities were in an uproar over “cultural appropriation” in the mid-2010s, a white boy named Jack Harlow would in a few years become a star with a voice and style that he had made indistinguishable from those of black rappers. I wondered whether this had caused any controversy, so I googled “jack harlow cultural appropriation” and found a lot of complaints from the usual suspects, including headlines like this:
Yet this chirping seems mostly ignored, apparently even by whoever it is that puts forward nominations for the BET awards. The cultural appropriation craze seems to have missed the music industry as black and white artists collaborate and sample each other’s music without such things being considered remarkable.
On gender issues, in contrast, there’s been a sea change. Female sexuality has to be completely let loose, for black women usually, or repressed, as among the young white female. Men continue to do their own thing, writing songs about desire and love, while women’s role is to choose from a menu of jaded options. Country music, implicitly white, conservative, and rural, remains a partial exception to this trend, although it has as far as I can tell moved in the same direction as the wider culture.
On both race and sex, there are parallels between popular sentiments and what has been happening in music. Liberal elites haven’t been able to get the public to go along with ideas like the multiplication tables are racist, or we should not punish crime because too much of the burden of doing so falls on young black men. Even affirmative action remains widely unpopular. Pop culture follows, with the racial dynamics and scripts not being all that different from what they were twenty years ago. See also me and Rob Henderson on how surprisingly little things have changed even going back to the 1950s.
Meanwhile, we went from the biggest rapper in the world talking about the joys of killing homosexuals to the top rapper being a homosexual. There’s a lot more gender-bending, but with men mostly remaining the same, and women being notably less attractive and mentally stable. This also reflects what is going on in the wider society. It’s almost like you don’t need data or social science, that if you just pay attention to the Billboard Hot 100 you can have a pretty good idea of the state of mass culture.
These are the biggest changes that I noticed. As someone who grew up in the 1990s, the pop music of 2022 is by no means shocking. It’s only the face tattoos that get me (that’s probably the point of them). I sometimes feel bad for old people who have lived to witness much more extreme changes, which must be bewildering and make them feel alienated from future generations and the path that their country is taking. I suspect that this explains much of the anger of our politics. We stereotype boomers as glued all day to cable news or going on Facebook rants because we’ve all seen it happen, and much of right-wing politics centers around channeling their rage into voting for the right candidate or scamming them out of their retirement savings. One benefit of a stagnant culture might be that in the future the elderly won’t be so depressed and angry.
Anyway, I know nothing about music and, as I’ve said, I wasn’t even familiar with the names of many of top contemporary artists until a few days ago. So take my views on this for what they are. I’d be interested in hearing what others think.
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