Since its humble days as a one-off show at New York’s Madison Square Garden organized by regional pop radio station Z100, the touring spectacle known as Jingle Ball, a rambling musical review of the year’s most successful top-40 radio artists, has evolved into a multicity extravaganza and solid barometer of the state of pop. It’s a reflective look, at least in the immediate term, at who has triumphed and who’s about to. 2017’s tour, which kicked off earlier this month, has been rife with evidence that pop is experiencing a seismic sonic transition. While it seems like the country at large and people as a whole are getting dumber (see: President Donald Trump, fidget spinners and Burger King’s Flaming Hot Mac and Cheetos), pop music is experiencing a renaissance—a shedding of stupidity, if you will. Throughout the year, some of the most popular tracks had something to say, whether about the world at large or more internal battles.
One of the most pointed examples is the success of rapper Logic, whose ubiquitous breakout song, “1-800-273-8255,” doubles as the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. With its soaring chorus that yells out “I just wanna be alive,” it’s a call to action on suicide prevention and surprisingly, it peaked at number three on Billboard’s Hot 100.
The year’s other breakout artist, and a Grammy nominee for Best New Artist, is Julia Michaels, who dealt with similar themes on her smash “Issues,” an emotional look at one’s personal flaws. Michaels capped off her breakout year with an op-ed on Glamour.com in which she describes anxiety as a “prison with yourself.” On the success of “Issues,” she writes, “This is the most alive and free I’ve ever felt.”
Another of 2017’s biggest hits is Alessia Cara’s anthem “Scars To Your Beautiful,” which could be seen as a companion piece to “Issues.” The resounding success of all three emotionally raw songs seems like a harbinger more than an anomaly, especially when suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 12 to 18.
Throughout 2017, mindless bubblegum pop was abandoned by artists who had formerly peddled it. Kesha rose to fame with 2009’s monster smash “Tik Tok,“ which had her pontificating about brushing her teeth with Jack Daniels. This year, reeling from Dr. Luke’s alleged abuse and subsequent legal drama, Kesha suprised everyone with her Grammy-nominated record Rainbow, which included chill-inducing songs like “Praying” (sample lyric: “I hope your soul is changing"). The powerhouse lead single not only serves as a revenge anthem against Dr. Luke, but as the perfect soundtrack for the year’s #MeToo movement.
Former One Directioners Niall Horan and Harry Styles both left behind youthful themes and synths to craft newer sounds. Styles evolved into a 1970s singer-songwriter whose style references Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. (Stevie Nicks made a memorable appearance on Styles’s debut album.) Even Miley Cyrus, known for sticking out her tongue, abandoned bubblgum trappings in her down-home, quasi-country album Younger Now.
In an era of Muslim bans and white supremacist rallies, somehow the country doesn’t care as much about who Swift isn’t friends with anymore.
Sam Smith’s The Thrill of it All and Lorde’s Grammy-nominated Melodrama tackled songwriting with nary a commercial thought in sight; Smith’s brooding gospel tracks are a purer reflection of who the singer is at his core, romance-induced depression and all. Lorde, meanwhile, went a similar route with piano-driven tunes like “Liability,” which explores being lesser-than in its chorus. “They say you’re a little much for me / You’re a liability / You’re a little much for me/ So they pull back, make other plans/ I understand, I’m a liability.”
Some top-charting acts didn’t get the memo that the personal was the artistic route of the year. Aside from releasing an album that was downright bad, Katy Perry learned that inane songs like “Swish Swish” and “Bon Appetite” aren’t discerning enough to feel relevant in today’s climate. Taylor Swift’s new music, while still a massive draw, wasn’t as well-received as her past songs. In an era of Muslim bans and white supremacist rallies, somehow the country doesn’t care as much about who Swift isn’t friends with anymore.
2017’s biggest songs are in sharp contrast to the hits of the recent past, whether it be Fifth Harmony’s idiotic “Work From Home,” Justin Timberlake’s party-starter “Can’t Stop This Feeling!” or DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean.” All three had been obviously concocted for commercial success without a hint of depth. 2016’s Twenty One Pilot’s “Stressed Out” is a notable exception, and its surprise success may have paced the way for the revolution the genre is experiencing.
There are still some inane stalwarts in pop (ahem, The Chainsmokers). Meanwhile, the latest waves in hip-hop are indictiave of another trajectory, with the year’s biggest smashes written by a former reality TV star with no musical background (Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow”) or a wildly short track which simply repeats the same line ad nauseam (Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang”). For any music fan, however, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the progression and future of a genre, and industry, endlessly in flux.