The 20 biggest pop songs of the year so far are set to the fastest average tempo since 2009. And the lyrics are brightening up to match the tempo; after a couple of years of mournful themes, pop music is sounding cheery again. (BBC News)
NH: We’re in a moment of sustained national stress and anxiety. But you wouldn’t know it from the pop charts.
This analysis from the BBC shows that the average tempo of hit songs has climbed steadily since 2017 and is now 122 beats per minute, the fastest since 2009. Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain on Me,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar”, Doja Cat’s “Say So”--they’re all designed to get listeners dancing the night away.
This marks a reversal from the past few years. From 2014 to 2017, the tempo of pop hits got slower and slower.
Part of the reason is that more artists were jumping on the trap music trend, but it’s also that the lyrical content was getting darker. Top 40 artists like Sam Smith, Billie Eilish, Adele, Lorde, and Drake are known for singing candidly about heartbreak, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
But now the hit songs are getting faster, and their mood (as measured according to the lyrics) is perking up somewhat too.
You might suppose that the tone of pop culture ought to reflect (or even anticipate) the national mood. But historically the two seem to run in opposite directions. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, young affluent Boomers had it good:
One of the most-discussed policy issues at the time was what would Americans do with the accelerating rise in material affluence and leisure time everyone was predicting was coming their way.
Yet the hit songs were practically apocalyptic (think the Doors' "This is the End" or CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen Rain... on a Sunny Day?”). Young G.I.s were the opposite. No matter how bad things got during the Depression and global war, they felt determined to "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive."
The oppositional relationship of pop culture and social trends may reflect the fact that young artists tend to create music that reflects their own generational archetype more than what's actually happening in the world. In a recent interview with The New York Times, 24-year-old Dua Lipa explained that she chose to go ahead with the release of her hit dance pop album Future Nostalgia during the pandemic to give her listeners an escape.
But she also described her music not as made for dancing, but for “dance-crying,” since it mixes feel-good anthems with darker emotional territory. Spoken like a true Millennial pop star.
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.