Bitter and Frustrated: A Retrospective of Pop Music in 2017

Looking back at Music’s most melancholic year

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With political and social tensions increasing in the U.S., disturbance from this broken climate consumed American pop music in 2017. Artists responded to a frustratingly chaotic year with more down-tuned, grim and drained music — an appropriate companion to the multitude of global problems. 2017’s glum music was necessary in validating people’s doubts of a positive future, but 2018 needs to promote pop songs that rejuvenate hope within listeners.

The burnt-out sound of 2017 transcended into even the most hype musicians. 2 Chainz experimented with spacey, sedated and sinister backing tracks on “Pretty Girls Like Trap Music” while Drake conveyed a sense of ambivalence and detachment on “More Life.”

Illustration by Ania Webb

In popular hip-hop, Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert released “XO Tour Llif3,” a song about Vert’s substance abuse and his failed romance with an ex. Although the song featured lyrics about emotional detachment in relationships and suicidal ideation, Vert’s emo-rap resonated with today’s youths overwhelmed by modern societal pressures.

“Llif3” peaked at number 7 on the US Billboard Hot 100, was one of Spotify’s most streamed tracks of the summer and won “Song of the Summer” at the MTV Video Music Awards.

While the song’s tone and lyrics may be triggering for some listeners, Vert’s extreme psychological frustration in lines like “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead” struck a chord with listeners from varying upbringings, especially those navigating mental illnesses.

Although melancholic emo-rap shouldn’t become a norm in popular music as it encourages listeners to assume a dejected mindset, Vert’s presence certainly helped millennials and generation Z youths from all backgrounds cope with the U.S.’s increasingly unstable social dynamics.

When commercial radio didn’t focus on down-tuned, grim beats, pop artists criticized the very state of popular music and U.S. politics in their singles. Although she’s gained a reputation for creating cheerful, consumable pop-rock, Katy Perry’s first 2017 single “Chained to the Rhythm” was an indirect response to President Donald Trump being elected, simultaneously critiquing present-day pop music.

While 2017’s cynical, post-modernist attitude toward popular music validated people’s anxieties around the divisive social atmosphere, pessimism can only be so productive.

The only logical direction for pop music is to indulge in metamodernism — a cultural philosophy that helps us rationalize hopelessness to rekindle an optimistic worldview through an honest belief that all experiences will end in positivity. Roger Ebert articulates this philosophy best in his My Dinner with Andre review when analyzing the film’s protagonist Andre, stating that he “feels the quest for transcendence is important even if there is, in fact, no transcendence to be found.”

Fortunately this approach to pop does exist in the form of PC Music, a London-based art-pop collective founded by producer A.G. Cook. Through its ironically sincere appreciation of internet culture, Cook and company revel in their youth-filled, darling pop cuteness. This is also emphasized by artists like QT (played by NY-based performance artist Hayden Dunham), a fictional popstar from another planet whose sole purpose is to market their energy drink “DrinkQT” with cheery songs about boys.

Possibly the pinnacle of contemporary metamodernist pop, Charli XCX’s latest mixtape “Pop 2” (co-produced by Cook) indirectly responded to the barren state of pop in 2017 with arguably the brashest display of hyper-femininity recorded thus far.

The mixtape’s opening track, “Backseat,” has XCX feeling stressed by a failed past relationship, passionately wailing “all alone” twenty times in a row. Towering melodies accompanied by a gargantuan bubblegum bass rhythm and artificially manipulated audio samples presents the listener with an otherworldly, futuristic soundscape. This harmonious combination transforms the generic lyricism from feeling like commonplace melancholy to a psychologically exhausting experience.

Throughout “Pop 2,” XCX wants you to embrace a peak sentimental apex as she belts out lines about partying to escape her fears and getting high while thinking of a past love.

Unlike her contemporaries, XCX doesn’t attempt to reaffirm her audience’s existential worries nor cheer them up. XCX understands a morbidly sardonic belief that everyday living isn’t productive nor is it benefiting a greater good. Like the mixtape’s closing track, “Track 10,” a musical sound collage of glitched vocal samples, bombastic drums and heavenly synth chords, XCX correctly demands you come to the proper revelation that life is hard, that’s okay and everything will be alright in the end.

Don’t forget to check out our “Positive Pop Songs of 2017” playlist: