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New year, same beats

To find out what song will be popular next, pay attention to history
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Popular songs on streaming services can be traced back to historical events. RIDA KHAN/THE VARSITY
Popular songs on streaming services can be traced back to historical events. RIDA KHAN/THE VARSITY

I have a theory: the popularity of music is influenced by the prominent historical events during the time period of its conception. By following this pattern, I can predict what genres will be popular next — and so can you.

The ties between history and music

After the end of The Great Depression and World War II, Western society experienced great change. Along with newfound freedoms —  of speech, expression, want, and fear — being outlined in the US by then-President Roosevelt, people shared an abundance of creativity and a desire to forget the war-torn past. Similarly, music shifted to disregard previously established norms: the complex chords, chorus of instruments, and improvisation that dominated jazz, the genre popular before the war. In other words, people said goodbye to the dulcet tones of Vera Lynn and the Andrews Sisters.

As the world emerged from this darkness, so did rock and roll. Though it’s never been clear who invented the genre, it was inspired by Black culture and music. In fact, the term itself was popularized by DJ Alan Freed; its original meaning came from Black communities, and was used as slang for having sex. However, the genre took off when it gained exposure to a white audience, who liked it very much. As Bill Wyman writes for Vulture, “Consumers… [were] in the grip of an inchoate desire for something new.”

After the rock era came the 1960s’ ‘Motown decade,’ which ran alongside the Civil Rights movement — a political movement and campaign to abolish institutional racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement in US. The great increase in the representation of Black artists is important to note — the word ‘motown’ itself refers to music released on or reminiscent of the Detroit record label, officially named Tamla Records, which was the first Black-owned record company in the US. 

The artists that helped shape this era would also impact the genre that was to come: disco. In the 1970s, vibrant tunes and dance music contrasted serious social movements such as feminism, which made significant advancements over the course of the decade. One such advancement was the verdict of the Roe v. Wade case, which legalized first-trimester abortion and reversed many American states’ restrictions on abortions. Acts like the Bee Gees; ABBA; and Earth, Wind and Fire —  my personal favourite — created music that encouraged the public to dance away their troubles. 

With the introduction of the 1980s came the reappearance of rock and roll; presumably, this time in response to the New Right conservative movement and the worst US recession since the Great Depression. Either way, the decade produced unforgettable acts such as Queen, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses and The Rolling Stones. 

During the 1990s, the music world shifted to all things digital. For consumers, cassettes became CDs and MP3 files. However, it wasn’t just consumers who were affected; digital power gave producers and musicians more opportunities to experiment during their production, with tools such as Antares Auto-Tune. Though designed to correct pitch imperfections, the device soon became known for its vocal manipulation — for example, listen to Cher’s “Believe.”

Where are we now?

Although the shift in popular music is just starting, I believe that the gloom of the pandemic will continue to emerge into lyrical, sadly beautiful songs from artists such as Phoebe Bridgers and Lizzie McAlpine. The primary example of this phenomenon is the popularity of artist Olivia Rodrigo, whose song “drivers license” became the global most-streamed song of 2021.

“drivers license” is a song about a heartbroken teenager watching their ex-partner form a relationship with someone else. It was released on January 7, 2021 — during the height of the pandemic’s third wave and two weeks after Ontario re-entered lockdown. It’s safe to say many fans empathized with Rodrigo’s feelings of despair during the period following the song’s release.

Likewise, Rodrigo’s SOUR — the album that was streamed the most globally in 2021 —  consisted of heartbreak ballads, lyrics about the angst of being a teenager, and songs about mental health. In many ways, the project is reminiscent of the popular rock music that followed World War II.

Our attention spans are shortening due to living during a pandemic; because of this, I predict any popular musical genre will only reign dominant for a few years. Needless to say, I sympathize with any new artists trying to find their place in our culture — and I hope they enjoy their 15 minutes of fame.