It’s been hard to ignore the explosive 2020 election, even for many non-Americans. Tight races in over a half dozen battleground states, baseless claims of voter fraud by the Trump administration, and slew of weak lawsuits challenging the result that have almost collectively (and gratifyingly) gone nowhere. And that’s just the last week. As for the last four years themselves, no one would argue the immense changes in political rhetoric and culture the Trump administration has caused, regardless of where your support lies. Tides have changes; curtains have been pulled back and forth, communication is different. There is one aspect specific to pop culture however from the last presidential term that harkens back quite eerily to our last Republican administration, and that is the protest music.
The Chicks famously were boycotted for their infamous dissing of President Bush at a London concert, while alternative mainstay Nine Inch Nails released entire album, Year Zero devoted to protesting the sitting president. While today, songs like YG’s “FDT” (“Fuck Donald Trump”) are pop culture phenomenons. The main difference in the state of pop music between the two eras however, is far less narrow. Cast your mind to the music scene outside of the aforementioned examples. If asked to broadly describe the general mood of the hits most popular during those two stretches of time, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that music of the 2000’s was, for lack of a better word, “happier.”
In fact, many contemporary music critics and analysts, as well as the general American populace seem to be of a mind that we’ve officially moved past the carefree era of music from the late ‘00s to mid 2010’s: the years of dopamine-infused major-key anthems and upbeat summer jams that harken back to an ’80s teen comedy. Cultural anthropologists have devoted their time to tracking the emotional evolution of pop music, and even high-profile scientific studies have concluded that pop music has been on a steady psychological decline for years. Look no further than Billie Eilish, arguably the biggest pop musician of today, and the current poster child of sadcore pop, to understand the trend. What was once “Feel Good Inc.” and “Happy” is now “In My Feelings” and “Bad Blood.” We’ve gone from blasting the “Party Rock Anthem” to crying over “When the Party’s Over.” Even established artist like Lady Gaga went from “Just Dance,” a party anthem, to the emotional “Rain on Me.”
But has pop music actually been getting sadder? Like any good statistician knows, it’s fairly easy to cherry-pick examples that work for your own theory and tactfully ignore those on the contrary. Plenty of hits of the last decade debunk the popular case for the late 2010’s slump. To many, the modern “sad banger” dates as far back to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” in 2009, while contemporary artists like Lizzo turn the party with danceable hits like “Truth Hurts” and “Boys.”
That said, there is a reason we commonly perceive pop music to be moodier, and that is the culture that surrounds the hits. It is not that pop music as a genre has collectively gotten sadder, it may simply be that our collective mood as consumers subconsciously determine what makes a splash. There has always been a healthy flow of serotonin from our most lauded music stars, as well as a balanced mix of depression anthems; we just cling to how we feel, and in times of crisis, those feelings translate to the top of the charts. Sometimes we even focus on the opposite of our current state, relying on this year’s absolute K-Pop domination and its idiosyncratic apolitical and happy-clappy saccharine energy to bring us into a world of escape.
Which brings us back to the election and the Trump Administration, one of the main scapegoats analysts point to when acknowledging pop music’s downward swing. The time of public figures staying strategically apolitical is very much over, and the predominantly liberal entertainment industry is thankfully embracing their stars for standing up for what is right, often through their music.
The last four years have been bleak, and, as many blue state therapists will tell you, has caused a huge spike in the mental health crises of American citizens. The presidential term has caused anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, exasperation and some other choice words, due to a president who has let the majority of his country’s citizens fall to the wayside and embraced fringe groups that peddle racist and violent ideologies. Black and other Americans of color fear for their lives daily, LGBTQ+ rights have begun to regress, distrust has been sowed among us in our government and its agencies, and Trump not only did nothing about it, but facilitated and exacerbated our fears.
With our somewhat newfound openness towards discussions of mental health, thanks to Gen-Z and young Millennials, topics relating to our deepest anxieties are no longer taboos. We have gotten introspective quarantine music from artists like Charli XCX who released an entire album entitled “how I’m feeling now,” as well as soul-searching tracks like Billie Eilish’s “my future” and a slew of Black Lives Matter protest music from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Noname, Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe. All of this music directly addresses not only America’s current political firestorm, but also individual feelings of fear and distrust and anger. The influx of young artist from Gen-Z certainly has also been a factor in music that isn’t afraid to share our deepest emotions.
If you are seeing a pattern it is this: pop music has not gotten any sadder, it has simply gotten more authentic, and the music of Trump’s presidency, particularly in 2020, has demonstrated that immensely. Pop stars, especially those later in their career or on the younger side, have no qualms about expressing their true selves and how they feel in the moment, be that happy, sad, or all those other emotions we associated with 2020. The world macroclimate has always informed music of course, but now pop music is far more free to provide songs that deal with our personal journeys in response to our political situations, whether those directly have to do with any one issue or not.
So what does this mean looking forward? If we assume that we have entered the age of authentic pop music, will the general mood lighten up come January 2021, when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take office? The most naive answer is that the emotional state of pop music will brighten; nationwide anxieties will decrease at a steady speed in the wake of a Democratic president, and our beloved pop stars will turn a corner and make the bops of our teen years again.
But we all know it is far more complicated than that. As confident as many of us are in Biden, we must remember that a significant portion of Americans did not vote for him, but rather against Trump. Placing Biden in the White House does not erase the many systematic problems that existed before Trump in our government, nor does it automatically reverse the harmful actions that Trump did take. The Senate, while not yet fully decided since Election Day due to several January run-offs, is not guaranteed to swing in the Democrats’ favor, meaning that Biden may have to fight tooth and nail like Obama did with them to pass progressive laws. Trump is blocking Biden’s transition of power, hindering his plans for the first 100 days and adding anxiety regarding what lasting damage Trump can still do in his final months in office. And of course, while gone from the White House, Trump will still be a figurehead for many Republicans, and his rhetoric will continue to be the basis for many white supremacist group communications. Our anxieties will not simply vanish, and music will reflect that.
And as we established, the younger generation of artists and even legacy acts who they inspire are not as afraid as they once were to be authentic despite the cruelty of the music industry. Mental health issues do not simply disappear just because our country is on the mend. Certainly that helps, but politics are only one facet of the many factors that might contribute to one’s mental state. Gen-Z artists will continue to pull no punches with their music, expressing their inner thoughts both happy and sad despite the worldwide situation.
Will there be an upturn in pop music come 2021? Maybe, but not in the way we may think. There will likely be a momentary high after Biden’s inauguration, as there should be, and for a few months we might be flagrantly optimistic and blissfully flaunting our joy at the world, inevitably impacting our chosen hits. But when dust settles and we start to understand the massive work that needs to be done (and undone), we may start to begin embracing again the songs that reflect the more anxious and repressed parts of our psyche along with the bouncy escapist tracks. And thus the balance will be restored.