To talk about pop music in 2015 is to be constantly unsure of sound.
While artists like Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and One Direction (RIP) fulfilled the quota for what we typify as something being “pop” — and, for that matter, so did Adele, Mykki Ekko and Brandon Flowers, albeit differently — to say you like pop music has been rendered almost completely meaningless. And while saying that it hasn’t always had its disparities would be ahistorical — to like Madonna is not the same as liking Cyndi Lauper, etc — weirdos became even more relevant this year. Sure, it seemed like “alt-pop” had its moment two years when Charli XCX released EP compendium True Romance, Sky Ferreira’s wowing debut Night Time, My Time was finally released and the circular conversation about Lana Del Rey continued into oblivion. But 2015 saw pop, or at least its stars, go full-throttle into a bizarro world where it is probably going to stay for some time, lest Walk the Moon has anything to say about it.
There were three figures this year who all had a stronghold on crafting this weird-pop landscape, each coming from different reaches but all changing the way we look at the genre. Brooklyn singer Halsey’s debut album Badlands should, technically, be considered an alternative album. For all intents and purposes, it is. Released by Astralwerks with simmering production by Norway’s Lido, Badlands has no real brightness. It meditates on drug use, disheartening sexual relationships and the pains of being in love with an addict. These may not be particularly accessible topics to her demographic, which skews toward early to mid teens, but her availability to them on social media is what has changed her from the small club set to being able to sell out Madison Square Garden almost a year in advance.
No doubt her single ‘New Americana’ helped to find her positioned differently than most singers doing dank electro-pop, as well. Its chorus, “We’re the new Americana / Raised on Biggie and Nirvana / High on legal marijuana,” was both beloved and reviled. Seeing it without satire, it is truly obnoxious. But as Halsey noted in an interview with PAPER (which, full disclosure, I conducted), the references to The Notorious B.I.G. and grunge’s preeminent poster boys were a winky way of talking about her being raised by a black father and a white mother. It is also a marker that people like Big and Kurt Cobain are on the cusp of becoming dorm poster icons, if they are not already. Those references are also a sign that young people are looking for something a little bit different than the glossiness that a Katy Perry, or previously Miley Cyrus, has to offer.
Cyrus is also a prismatic look at the stretching and changing of a pop star. If ‘New Americana’ is a reflection of the dorm room, then Miley is representative of what is actually goes on from freshman to sophomore year of college. While it seemed like she and Mike Will were going to maintain a fruitful collaborative relationship — remember when she throwing bows at Rae Sremmurd concerts and referring to Will as her best friend? — her other partner-in-crime, Wayne Coyne, became her true guardian angel this year and he helped her to let her freak flag fly. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is what happens when you get really into psychedelics, freeing the nipple and your roommate’s LP collection (loaded with entries from The Flaming Lips). If Bangerz was Miley’s heel turn from the Disney Channel, then Dead Petz is her finally declaring herself an art major, but still finding her exact medium. Still, the kids who grew up with Hannah Montana are getting older at the same time. To see Miley go from fresh-faced to properly Coachella-shackled is to, potentially, see their idol mirror their own experimental phase.
In many ways, Claire Boucher, bka Grimes is Miley’s inverse. With her album Art Angels, she delved deeper into the shine that Cyrus backed away from. This is not to say that her 2012 album Visions was not replete with bright spots, but her work this year is far more indebted to her interest in Mariah Carey and her aspirations to write songs for Rihanna. When the demo track for the Rih-rejected ‘Go’ was unearthed, it was clear that Boucher was traipsing into new territory in her songwriting, but she operates with an artist’s eye and not one that necessarily understands the machine. It is still her most radio-friendly song to-date, primarily for its EDM-informed hook, but it foretold the buoyancy of Angels. If pop music continues to morph and bend as it has been doing over the past five years, then Boucher is primed for stadium status. (And by the development of her live show, it is clear she already has the chops to engross such a large room.)
And perhaps the magnet pull between Miley and Grimes toward respectively spacier and glossier aesthetics is how pop’s sound centers itself going forward. It is likely that the lines between indie and pop will continue to blur. Just look at Chairlift: They have gone from iPod commercial fame to an excellent, but largely ignored sophomore album Something to writing songs for Beyoncé. Their 2016 release has the potential to reach a much wider audience and one that is more prepared to be challenged. For now, it remains satiating to have no real absolute in pop music. But should “alt-pop” ever stop being so weird, then we might even get that Katy Perry album Anthony Gonzalez said he wanted to write.