The argument that popular music “all sounds the same” is not a new one. Have a teenager of any era ask their parents what they think of their favorite band, and you can be assured they’ll claim it an almighty racket. But in our post-1989 world (referring to the Taylor Swift album, of course, not the year), the comment has taken on enhanced meaning. Think pieces across music publications have talked of the turn towards pop throughout the industry – and across genres – not just with surprise but praise. Chairlift’s new album Moth has distinctly more lush, “pop” bangers than their previous, ostensibly more “alt” offerings. Chvrches gets compared to Taylor Swift. Ellie Goulding’s new album Delirium departs from EDM rave tracks for more shimmery, hook-driven “pop.” Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek actually had writer and producer credits on the latest Beyonce album – proof that even Queen Bey is moving towards what Idolator has called the “pop singularity.” Perhaps most notably, the freaky electronica of alt-pixie singer-producer Grimes has morphed into something remarkably mainstream. Grimes has discussed her pop obsession (like so many of us, she’s a Mariah Carey devotee) previously, but her newest LP Art Angels still surprises with its bubblegum choruses, especially when compared to her early hallucinatory tracks.
But while alt, indie, and even pop acts themselves (looking at you, Beyoncé) get more pop, several weeks ago something strange happened. After a leak, the world got a surprise new album from Rihanna. While artists across genres are getting more pop-inspired, queen of top 40 Rihanna (holla at “We Found Love” and “Umbrella”) included zero straightforward pop songs on her new album, Anti.
It’s funny to listen to Grimes’ Art Angels and Rihanna’s Anti back-to-back (and not just because they’re both rather long albums and by the end of it your boss will ask you what you’ve done all day). Although one embraced pop and one rejected it, they actually have a lot of similarities. While both albums were in creative stages, a little song was released called “Go.” Written by Grimes for Rihanna but ultimately rejected, Grimes went on to record it with producer Blood Diamonds. The song was “too Grimes” for Rihanna, but “too Rihanna” for Grimes, who said it upset “a lot of my fans, and I get why it upsets them. Everybody was like, ‘Oh, Grimes is pandering to the radio.'” Apparently “Go” was too mainstream – but Art Angels is just mainstream enough.
The title of Art Angels hearkens to Lady Gaga’s decent-enough Artpop, which is ironic because Art Angels seems more “art” right off the bat. Anti is titled much more blatantly. As a whole, the album really does appear to be Rihanna’s own sort of “art” album. In this case, of course, she’s rejecting the chart-driven production and sound of earlier albums in favor of a diverse sound drawing from multiple genres. “Anti,” indeed.
They also both include weird-ass head-scratching tracks. Rihanna’s “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” a cover of Tame Impala’s (amazing) “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” is a relatively straightforward cover, but that makes it all the more bizarre. (Prior to this, no sane person would conflate Tame Impala’s psychedelic rock with Rihanna’s dance-pop.) And Grimes’ “SCREAM,” featuring the Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, features a blood-curdling scream as the chorus – perhaps on-brand for an earlier Grimes offering, but on Art Angels it stands out just because it requires more than a few listens to really appreciate.
Interestingly, after listening to both, I felt guilty for underestimating the each of them vocally. Sure, it sounded like Rihanna could sing, but my bet is that the majority of listeners thought it was autotuned or over-produced to fit the Calvin Harris-esque beats of earlier songs. We were wrong. “Love on the Brain,” a total doo-wop croon, is one of those instantly classic songs that proves a pop star can actually sing. I had a total Lady-Gaga-singing-Julie-Andrews-at-the-Oscars revelation. And Grimes – although of course less of a vocal powerhouse – can actually hit a fair amount of high notes. Compare the Joanna Newsom-esque talk-singing on Visions’ “Oblivion” to Art Angels’ “Pin.” She’s talked about having issues belting out high notes in numerous interviews – and most of her earlier songs hide her voice behind a haze of beats of electro-noise – but you’d never know it while bopping to this album.
So. What’s the point here? Well, I’m not really sure. Maybe this means genre as we know it is dead, if dads and teens alike can get down to top 40 ranked music. Maybe this is an example of “pop” being democratized; people’s tastes diversifying or broadening, allowing for new sounds to be allowed into the “mainstream.” Or maybe, thinking more bleakly, artists are simply reinventing themselves (and switching genres with one another) to stay relevant. But, like, whatever. We like it.