New Year’s Eve marks a new day, month, year and — this winter — decade, and with that, a new era for music. Because of the internet, music is present in our lives more than ever, whether we’re commuting, cleaning, cooking, circuit training or catnapping.
I chose 19 songs that represent music in 2019. From one-hit wonders that launched careers to long-awaited comeback tracks (both failed and successful) to TikTok anthems that spread around the globe in days, these songs impacted the music industry and our lives — for better or worse.
You Need To Calm Down — Taylor Swift
Released during Pride Month, “You Need to Calm Down” may be more than blatant appropriation of LGBTQ+ identity to rebrand Taylor Swift’s reputation (no pun intended) into that of an “activist.”
Its video’s ending (a call to sign a petition for the Equality Act, banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity) may be a genuine attempt to raise awareness of the petition.
But the song manages to miss the mark on the oppression of LGBTQ+ people, demonstrating the dangers of those outside a community seeking to define (and profit from) it in music.
Swift’s songs are heterosexual and catered to audiences whose only problem in life is love. She has repeatedly stated that she identifies as straight and is only an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.
Yet in the song, she compares the decades-long persecution and oppression of gay people to the criticism she has received.
Both she and the LGBTQ+ community, Swift sings, received “shade,” but it never stopped them from being themselves. In an upbeat pop song, Swift rebrands homophobes who harass or even physically harm LGBTQ+ people as “haters” who need only to “calm down.”
Unsurprisingly, the feedback to the song was mixed, demonstrating that using your platform to amplify marginalized voices and movements is appreciated, but speaking over those communities by relating your own experience to theirs? Not so much.
prom dress — mxmtoon
The internet has changed how we listen to music, as well as how we produce it, allowing artists to attract audiences without the help of record labels.
Mxmtoon, for example, gained fame by posting songs on YouTube as a teenager. “Prom dress” was popularized through social media platforms such as TikTok.
The song isn’t just an example of the web’s impact on the music industry, though. It signals a shift in what kind of music we listen to.
“Prom dress” isn’t relatable. mxmtoon has described her songs as “rhyming diary entries”; they include specific quotes and descriptions.
The song’s hook, “I’m sitting here, crying in a prom dress,” is inspired by an incident in which the singer broke down in tears while wearing a prom dress. Many listeners don’t know what that feels like.
Nevertheless, “prom dress” encapsulates a nearly universal feeling of disappointment, melancholy and frustration.
Follow God — Kanye West
Kanye West isn’t known for humility. He’s likened himself to Steve Jobs, Ralph Lauren and — in his 2013 album “Yeezus” — even God.
Yet West is also known for piety. Religion infiltrates his music, most notably in the inclusion of Pastor T.L. Barrett’s 1970’s gospel in “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1.”
His 2019 album, “JESUS IS KING,” seems to declare a triumph of religion over humanity, even West himself. He raps that “God is king, we the soldiers.”
In “Follow God,” West discusses another element triumphing over his will: himself. He documents his struggle to be “Christ-like”; he scrolls through social media without getting satisfaction, fights with his father and grapples with his ego and stubbornness.
From a man who recently said he might change his name to “Christian Billionaire Genius Kanye West,” this display of humility is jarring and has been seen as insincere. But it also brings hope.
Like many of us, West wants to live his life “right.” He may have his downfalls and boastful displays, but at the end of the day, he says his prayers and keeps creating. Perhaps we can, too.
ok boomer — Peter Kuli, Jed Will
“OK, Boomer” is just a phrase. It’s a good phrase, allowing members of Gen Z (and millenials) to respond to the dismissal of problems that will impact our generation (climate change, minimum wage issues and systemic oppression, just to name a few) by dismissing the dismisser.
But the whole point of “OK, Boomer” is that nothing comes next. One single phrase is meant to end the conversation. Can that translate into good music?
Peter Kuli and Jed Will attempt the feat, filling two whole minutes with the repeated cry of “OK, Boomer” over thumping bass. It’s interrupted only by Jed Will’s single, heavily auto-tuned and mostly yelled verse, featuring lyrical lines such as, “It’s funny, you think I respect your opinion when your hairline looks that disrespectful.”
The song encapsulates everything “Boomers” may hate about younger generations: their slang, their music taste, their “disrespect.” Not only is its content designed to shut out the close-minded and old-fashioned, but its modern form is too.
That connection between purpose and appearance is sophisticated and effective, showing listeners that even a one-line meme can transform into an auditory experience.
ARE WE STILL FRIENDS? — Tyler, the Creator
Tyler, the Creator is one artist you wouldn’t expect to end his latest album, “IGOR,” with a ballad about his relationship with a former lover. Throughout his five previous albums, his music has taken many forms, yet many still associate him with emotional, but mostly angry, hip-hop.
Here, though, a gentle beat and the soft crooning of “Dream, just dream,” (sampled from Al Green’s “Dream”) begin a track slow enough to play at a wedding. Then, Tyler begins to sing. His voice contains some roughness, and the song gradually emotes frustration and confusion (ending with screams), but its first “verse” doesn’t appear until halfway through. Can such a musical metamorphosis still provide commercial success?
“IGOR” outsold all but one of Tyler’s previous albums. Its second track, “EARFQUAKE,” is Tyler’s most-streamed song on Spotify. In a rapidly evolving world, musical evolutions may be more welcome than ever.
Sucker — Jonas Brothers
Nostalgia. In a world of turbulent politics, changing climates and increasing awareness of injustices, there’s comfort in returning to childhood favorites.
After a six-year hiatus, the Jonas Brothers are back, and their popularity certainly involves their fame from the previous decade’s Disney Channel, appearing in the “Camp Rock” franchise and their own TV show, “Jonas.”
“Sucker” doesn’t have a revolutionary subject (love) or sound (guitar and drums). While the Jonas Brothers have changed their marketing from single teenagers to married millennials, “Sucker” succeeds not because it offers something new, but because it evokes the brightness and optimism of the Jonas Brothers’ 2000s hits.
It’s a simple song. It doesn’t display the struggles of a relationship or the Jonas Brothers’ anxieties. There are no mentions of the past or the future. It only describes a beautiful present, in which love is triumphant.
“Sucker” captures the stability its listeners crave.
7 Rings — Ariana Grande
As the reality of climate change becomes a larger part of our daily lives, the call for sustainability is louder than ever. From the rising popularity of reusable straws to the decline of fast fashion, exuberant displays of wealth through short-lasting items are frowned upon more frequently.
Nevertheless, Ariana Grande started the year with a celebration of empowerment through wealth.
Inspired by a trip to Tiffany & Co. with her best friends after her breakup with Pete Davidson, Grande informs listeners, “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems must not have had enough money to solve ’em.”
Whereas most of her previous songs emphasized Grande’s relatability — her success and failure in love, her grief over losing a loved one and her fear of the future — she now draws a clear divide between her listeners (most of whom cannot afford trips to Tiffany) and herself.
The song is taunting, perhaps even cold. It should have been criticized by fans in disbelief over its boastfulness. But it wasn’t.
Grande’s new sound — including a rap segment — aesthetically pleasing music video and well-executed harmonies outweighed its message.
Old Town Road (remix) — Lil Nas X, Billy Ray Cyrus
From the twang of its opening guitar strums to its mentions of cowboys, horses, boots and — naturally — old town roads, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” sounds like the definition of a modern country song. In fact, Lil Nas tagged it on streaming services as country music.
Thus, when the song went viral due to a challenge on TikTok, it entered Billboard’s Hot Country Songs. After a week, though, Billboard pulled it, as it did not embrace enough elements of modern country music.
Immediately, a debate about Billboard’s treatment of Lil Nas (and, more broadly, its treatment of people of color in the country music industry) ensued. Listeners wondered why electronic dance music (Bebe Rexha’s “Meant to Be”) and pop songs (Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”) by white artists were allowed on Billboard’s country charts.
Then, Lil Nas released a remix featuring country legend Billy Ray Cyrus. Although the song never re-entered Billboard’s Hot Country chart, it charted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 19 weeks.
Did “Old Town Road” need Cyrus? No. Did Cyrus change the song’s eligibility on the country chart? No. But the charting controversy around “Old Town Road” and its ability to break records despite that controversy will hopefully inspire Billboard to modify its charting requirements as artists bend, combine and create genres more and more.
Truth Hurts — Lizzo
OK, so “Truth Hurts” wasn’t released in 2019. However, the song didn’t climb charts and reach first place on Billboard until this year — thanks, again, to social media trends.
Although Lizzo stated she dislikes being labeled as “brave” for simply existing in the music world as a plus-sized woman of color, there is something wonderfully audacious about “Truth Hurts.”
From its opening chords and enthusiastic “Woo!” Lizzo is confident in herself and her ability to complete herself more than any significant other ever could. She sings about how great she could be for a man, describing herself as part “goddess.”
However, she doesn’t describe these assets to win someone back, or even to focus on what an ex lost by losing her. She’s praising herself to herself. (In the song’s music video, she even marries herself.)
It’s a wonderful inspirational message of self-love, accompanied by a solid beat intertwined with piano segments.
No Guidance — Chris Brown, Drake
“No Guidance” doesn’t offer anything we haven’t heard from either artist before, musically or lyrically. It praises an independent woman while desperately attempting to woo her with a series of questionable compliments and vocal whines and twangs.
More interesting — and problematic — is the history of its two vocalists.
Drake settled a lawsuit against a woman who had accused him of rape and has had questionable friendships with young women, most notably child actor Millie Bobby Brown.
Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna. While Drake has said he loves Rihanna, he’s collaborating with her abuser.
In an age when news spreads faster than ever through social media, websites, podcasts and more, this should be enough to destroy, or at least impact, a musician’s career.
Yet the song was nominated for Best R&B Song at the 2020 Grammy Awards. It speaks to how much some listeners, as well as The Recording Academy, are willing to ignore for a popular song. And that’s concerning.
Señorita — Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello
It’s overplayed. It’s repetitive. It lacks emotional depth and sophisticated descriptions. Yet “Señorita” is so catchy it makes up for all its flaws.
Although the idea of Shawn Mendes (half-Portuguese but raised in Canada) calling the Cuban-American Camila Cabello “señorita” is a bit strange, the duo’s live performances and music video of the song seem to be filled with joy.
The song is bright and doting. Guitar twangs and smooth melodies transport listeners to a sunny beach where worries wash away with the tides.
It’s just fun, which modern music can sometimes lack. We need music that will help us grow, addresses social issues or acknowledges the past. However, we also need fun, and Mendes and Cabello provide it for us.
Hot Girl Summer — Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj, Ty Dolla $ign
What describes the summer of 2019 better than Megan Thee Stallion’s catchphrase, “Hot Girl Summer?”
According to Stallion, the nongendered “hot girl” embodies embracing yourself and your truth, unapologetically. Though the phrase first appeared in a song Stallion released in May, “Hot Girl Summer” was released in August, after the hype surrounding the “Hot Girl” peaked.
The song seems like an afterthought, not bringing enough of the confidence and action of the memes surrounding the phrase. That may be due to Ty Dolla $ign’s prominence in a song about a phrase that, while in theory meant to uplift all genders, was primarily used by women on social media.
Though Dolla $ign certainly raps his verse well, it’s odd to see a man change Stallion’s message to reject the gaze of others (especially men) into one that calls on men to reject the gaze of women.
While male objectification and toxic masculinity are real issues, they might not be what Stallion’s original “Hot Girl” fought for. Should Dolla $ign be able to claim his version of the phrase, or should he create an anthem (and community) of his own?
Act Up – City Girls
Like “Hot Girl Summer,” “Act Up” is an anthem for (mostly female) confidence and independence that calls into question the role of men in a song catered to women.
The song received much attention after it was revealed that Lil Yachty wrote most of it. While Lil Yachty identifies as a straight man, the song is from a female perspective and directed at men. However, its uplifting messages are mostly directed to women.
The song was extremely popular. Nevertheless, something about this case of ghostwriting feels different.
Lil Yachty might be presumptuous by telling a story about female desires, instead of amplifying the voices of female artists by, for example, collaborating with them but allowing the artists to write their own verses. With “Act Up,” Lil Yachty almost tells women what they should want and how to empower themselves, without truly knowing the female experience.
Nevertheless, no one suspected the song may have been written by a man. Lil Yachty captures a female perspective realistically enough to cater to a broad audience.
But should he be able to?
Harleys in Hawaii – Katy Perry
Katy Perry was an icon of the early ’10s, releasing instant hits such as “California Gurlz” and “Teenage Dream” that blasted on iPod Nanos and during middle school dances. Now, she’s trying to recapture some of her lost fame with “Harleys in Hawaii,” one of her four songs released this year.
The song recalls the innocent, optimistic romantic themes of her earlier work. It has a nondescript but melodious tune. It is simple and repetitive — no masterpiece, but enough to appeal to Perry’s past audience, right? Wrong. It never topped any charts — save for New Zealand’s.
Why? The song may be too carefree. Yes, the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” among others, succeeded because of its depiction of an ideal romance. Grande’s “7 Rings” topped charts while displaying her immense wealth. But Perry doesn’t have the online following Grande does and couldn’t capture the attention of her past fans like the Jonas Brothers.
Perry’s past songs were released just long enough ago to lose relevance, yet not long enough ago for this to be proclaimed a long-awaited comeback.
Without those hooks, a song accused of exploiting Hawaii as purely a tourist destination without honoring the local cultures cannot save itself.
Thotiana — Blueface
“Thotiana,” again, combines a repetitive chorus and disrespect toward women to create a hit song. Blueface’s lyrics aren’t original, and neither is his beat.
However, few lyrics create an easily memorizable song. Even the dances are demonstrated through the song: Speed it up, then slow it down.
However, memorability wasn’t the only thing catalyzing “Thotiana” to spread like wildfire. Blueface’s flow is distinct — if often criticized for being off-beat — and rethinks how rappers should follow the beat. Whether you love or hate his rhythm, it stands out.
Moreover, the song combines the factors that led to the success of its precursors: rapid releases of star-studded remixes, broadcasts on pop radio stations and a remarkable music video.
Perhaps musical success in 2019 can be achieved by any song if it follows the recipe.
Boy With Luv — BTS, Halsey
If there’s one genre dominating music charts in 2019, it’s K-pop. If there’s one group dominating K-pop, it’s BTS.
The seven-person Korean boyband has over 14 million monthly listeners on Spotify, created three of YouTube’s top 10 debuts and performed on SNL.
“Boy With Luv” is no different. Its music video gained over 74.6 million views in its first day, making it the most viewed online music video in 24 hours, just a week after K-pop group BLACKPINK received the title for “Kill This Love” with 56.7 million views in one day.
What makes this song so widely successful is its ability to blend with BTS’ previous discography.
Gentle melodies layer throughout, instead of a single voice leading the song. Thus, Halsey’s parts are noticeable to those looking for them, but also interchangeable with BTS’ vocals.
It’s the perfect collaboration, adding to the song without robbing it of the unique sound and English-Korean lyrics that made BTS famous.
Bad guy — Billie Eilish
When you think of bad guys, you might not picture a 17-year-old girl. Billie Eilish, though, breaks the mold in every possible way.
Not only is she the same age as many of her high school fans, but her style — characterized by baggy clothes to prevent her appearance from influencing her fame — differs from that of other teen stars.
Similarly, “bad guy” flips stereotypical power dynamics and musical conventions.
The song’s subject is a “tough guy,” fond of rough play and constantly displaying his puffed chest. But it’s Billie who can scare him.
Stylistic switches complement the song’s unnerving lyrics.
The song begins with bass accompanying Billie’s cool voice, but soon adds unusual noises, such as a creaking door, while Billie’s voice stays cloyingly sweet.
Its hook, too, is the antithesis of what we expect. A drawn-out, ballad-esque “I’m the baaaaaad guyyyyy…” is quickly undercut by a nonchalant “Duh” before the beat drops.
Billie never ceases to surprise.
hot girl bummer — blackbear
Less than a week after Megan Thee Stallion released “Hot Girl Summer,” blackbear released the name of his possible antithesis, “hot girl bummer.”
After announcing the song’s name, blackbear received accusations of gentrification, cultural appropriation and plagiarism (denied by blackbear) for using a concept (the “Hot Girl Summer”) similar to Stallion’s in a close time frame.
Lyrically, blackbear’s song has little to do with Stallion’s anthem.
Instead, blackbear unenthusiastically discusses — and degrades — the girls who use the hashtag over guitar strums and booming bass.
Instead of empowerment, these girls are depicted throwing up in their Birkin bags, hooking up with strangers and buying likes.
Perhaps it’s a realistic portrait of women — and men — in an age dominated by social media, but the negativity in blackbear’s portrayal of his friends, the women in his life and himself are too much to bear.
Social media aren’t going anywhere. Neither, perhaps, are the party-loving, social girls it praises. Perhaps we support women’s decisions no matter what.
i’m closing my eyes (featuring shiloh) — potsu
When you first listen to “i’m closing my eyes,” the beat may sound familiar. It originated in an Instagram video by Shiloh Dynasty, but is better known for its prevalence on “Jocelyn Flores” by XXXTencation.
The lyrics, too, are taken from XXXTencation’s song, albeit modified. In fact, “i’m closing my eyes” may sound like “Jocelyn Flores” taken hostage, mutilated and played in another room.
Nevertheless, the song must offer something different — it amassed nearly 72 million streams on Spotify.
Like many lofi beats, it combines a hypnotizing rhythm with slow, deep, repetitive voices to create a song that almost disappears into the ears of its listeners. While occupied with everyday tasks, we forget we’re listening to “i’m closing my eyes,” and thus, we’ll play it again and again.
—By Héloïse Schep
Originally published in the Dec. 17 edition of the Octagon.