SZA, Lorde, and the Pazz & Jop Rise of Songs of the Self


In some ways, Katy Perry, ever a woman of the zeitgeist, understood perfectly how the cards were shuffled in 2017. After years of making ooey-gooey songs that kept step with whatever trends were then dominating radio, she took a turn to something more political, more strident, on her latest album, Witness. Trump’s victory was, Perry told the New York Times, “a revelation…a reckoning,” and it inspired her to reimagine herself as an “activist.” The first single, a woke disco song called “Chained to the Rhythm,” critiqued political bubbles. Included in her promo blitz was a filmed discussion of appropriation with DeRay Mckesson, a leader in Black Lives Matters, in which she apologized for stealing tropes from black and Asian cultures (amends for her gay-shaming 2008 song “Ur So Gay” are still, as far as I know, withstanding).

But while Perry’s intentions were within the Venn diagram of relevance, her execution was stuck in the past: The sentiments had evolved, but the songs were — in their bombastic exuberance and cheap hooks — the same. Some, like the petty “Swish Swish,” were moderate successes, but none compared to past hits.

Other old reliables like Taylor Swift, who doubled down on crunching synth pop, and Miley Cyrus, who ditched shock and awe for country-lite, also staged dramatic reinventions that felt thin, and their new albums faltered. Cyrus all but disappeared from the cultural conversation, and while Swift did big numbers with Reputation (she was the second-most streamed female artist on Spotify, after Rihanna), pop, like electoral politics, is a game of additions, and it’s hard to believe that she gained any new fans with her rebranding as an indignant post-Trump bully.

People yearned for something different, something more idiosyncratic, less formulaic, always personal. Honesty became its own kind of politics in 2017. This shift has roots. In 2016, the artists who felt the most fresh took an individualistic attitude: Solange’s A Seat at the Table meditated life as a black woman in America; her sister Beyoncé’s aching film Lemonade reimagined the idea of the album release; and Frank Ocean’s Blonde offered a stream-of-conscious ride through genre (he kept the stream flowing in 2017 with a string of wonderful one-off singles, released on a random schedule). Even Rihanna’s Anti was an unexpectedly nihilistic and subterranean dirge from one of the world’s most celebrated women.

This new mode turned even more inward in 2017, further into the psyche and away from the larger world, perhaps a protective or escapist move. Living in your truth — being yourself, no matter how flawed or fucked-up — was its own kind of statement, and artists like Lorde and SZA achieved urgency by letting listeners into their lives with a magnifying glass.

Lorde both predicted and pioneered a new, more personal pop style in 2013 when, as a sixteen-year-old, the New Zealand singer released “Royals,” a protest song of sorts against over-the-top opulence and decadence as epitomized by acts like Miley. According to the New York Times, around that time, David Bowie “proclaimed that listening to her music ‘felt like listening to tomorrow.’ ” Now, at twenty, she had set her sights on something less overtly statement-y with Melodrama. Like some pop Frank O’Hara, she wrote much of it in a diner near Columbus Circle, and it tracked her breakup with her boyfriend and life as a young free woman. When she played the key-shifting first single “Green Light” for Max Martin — the man pretty much responsible for inventing hook-heavy modern pop — before its release, he told her it was a case of “incorrect songwriting.”

She didn’t change a thing.

It was SZA’s Ctrl that delivered best on the promise of this era of individualism. The New Jersey r&b-pop-electro artist — signed to TDE, the same label as Kendrick Lamar — has been bubbling for some time, putting out well-liked if under-the-radar work that glittered and sparkled with neo-soul ambience. But after years of delays, she finally released her debut album, and it felt like a fresh shift in the focus of pop to something, well, a little out of focus: In contrast to the manicured clarity of Katy Perry, SZA excels at a loose impressionism that defies genre, with lyrics that are conversational in their casualness. It is the opposite of the laser-sharp songwriting of pop past, and she excelled by being herself, filling the songs with stories of insecurity and bad decisions and awkward interactions. As she told me last summer, she came by her candor authentically. “I’m a mess,” she said. “An actual mess.” Maybe so, but she’s at least in control enough that she was able to make certifiable hits from these disheveled diary entries, like the pugnacious and undeniable “Love Galore.”

There was a whole bevy of young pop stars who seemed liberated in form, too. Charli XCX and Dua Lipa and Khalid and Harry Styles (who made his solo debut, of all things, a pop-rock album) and even Selena Gomez (who put aside EDM beats for a Talking Heads sample on “Bad Liar”) reprogrammed the boundaries with pop music that didn’t stick to the script. Charli’s latest mixtape, the aptly titled Pop 2, found her deconstructing formula and stitching it back together with a liberal use of Auto-Tune and asymmetry, or, as Pitchfork referred to it, “an uninhibited, anti-algorithm vision of what pop music could be.” Lipa, who was just nominated for a record-breaking five Brit awards, showed on her debut that she could be the kind of artist to inherit (and reinvent) Katy Perry’s mantle. Her self-titled album adhered closest to a hook-heavy synthy formula, but, with a sultry voice and lyrics that teetered between pop bumper stickers and text messages (“Don’t pick up the phone/You know he’s only calling ’cause he’s drunk and alone”), she brought it back to life. “I want people to see a piece of me,” she said in an interview. “For this album I want to be as truthful as possible, then all the club shit can come later.”

There were the finger-on-the-pulse megastars who sensed the same shift that Katy Perry did, but who were able to evolve more naturally. I’m thinking of Lana Del Rey, who I interviewed in July about Lust for Life and found an artist both aware of what she should and — just as importantly — should not say about the Trump moment. It would’ve been wrong of her to all of sudden wake up woke the way Perry did — this is a woman who just three pessimistic albums ago was telling journalists that feminism bored her. But she clearly also had her eyes open in a way that she hadn’t before the election, and had factored what she’d seen into her work, including tamping down on her shticky obsession with the American flag (now a toxic symbol), producing songs meant to provide comfort to women shaken by a misogynistic president, and, for the first time, giving her fans a hit of optimism in the form of “Love,” perhaps her only unabashedly idealistic track ever.

To be sure, there was a counterbalancing movement toward mediocrity and muzak, exhibited by elevator musicians like the Chainsmokers, and there were still traditionalists like Demi Lovato and Camila Cabello, who made straightforward (and excellent) pop songs with big results. But with his schlubbiness and acoustic guitar, even Ed Sheeran — loathed by critics but loved by Spotify listeners, who made him the most streamed artist of 2017 — was closer to a raw singer-songwriter as we’ve had in some time on such a massive scale. And there were some who had come up through the old system but were now certifiable rulebreakers, like Kesha and Carly Rae Jepsen. Kesha spent two years battling to get out of a restrictive contract with the allegedly abusive producer Dr. Luke before finally being able to release Rainbow, a feminist manifesto of sorts that was greeted with wide acclaim (and a number one spot on the charts). Though Jepsen started her career in the most conventional way, as a contestant on Canadian Idol and then with a viral 2012 hit, “Call Me Maybe,” she has trod an independent path since, losing her mainstream celebrity but gaining a cult following, including the 45 Pazz & Jop voters who put the sweet, shimmering dance pop of “Cut to the Feeling” at number four on the singles list.

So I’d like to endorse (of all things) Katy Perry’s read on the situation — if not her response to it — that things in the cultural ethos are just spiritually different than they were even two years ago. I’d want to think it’s a compliment to listeners that we’ve increasingly come to embrace and expect more nuanced songwriting, more off-kilter sounds, more sophisticated experimentation. It is too simple to say, as Perry does, that this is a one-to-one response to Trump’s election — and if it is, there is no music, no matter how good, that could serve as a consolation for that — but perhaps it is fair to argue that complicated times call for complicated music. Whatever is behind this changing of the pop guard, here’s hoping 2018 gets even weirder.