90s Teen Mid-Tempo Optimism: back with a vengeance?
A rare and fairly indistinguishable sound seems to be bubbling beneath the surface of two pop records. But what's changed?
The 90s pop landscape was a peculiar time. The start of the millennium was flooded with the teen pop wave, to many this was just a throwaway genre; the Britney Spears' and the NSYNC's would all grow up to mature in sound - mostly moving into an electronic/dance direction. The genre can be defined by many different qualities, predominantly a play time just under 4 minutes, commonly featuring Spanish guitar, usually just under 100bpm, precise and clean drum rhythms with little to no reverb and of course - the infamous key change.
Over the past few weeks I found this very genre in the heart of two major album releases of 2021. Lorde's Solar Power and Kacey Musgraves' star-crossed. Solar Power boasts a heavy feeling of 90s nostalgia. There's more than just a sonic nod to this era, but visually too. The cinematic universe of the album recalls that of Danny Boyle's 2000s film the beach and its soundtrack. Moby's Porcelain and All Saints' Pure Shores set the musical backdrop for the secluded paradise island. Contrasting the noisy city, nokia commercial, office 9 to 5 job life at the time. Lorde spoke on Solar Powers influence with The New York Times, on their Diary of a Song series.
I knew that I wanted to incorporate the music of my youth, this kind of early 2000's sun soaked thing [...] it has to sound like skateboarding. Jack was like 'what am I supposed to do with that?' I was like, 'I don't know, Steal My Sunshine by Len' [...] and he said, 'wait you actually like this?'
Len's track samples the disco hit More, More, More by pornographic actress Andrea True. Picking out a simple instrumental break the band managed to forge a single with success that most artists dream of. It's lyrics cleverly deceiving listeners as some bubblegum-esque optimism - whilst in reality centring around themes of depression and being disappointed by others. The band never managed to recreate the success of the single, however they managed to encapsulate the very sun soaked sound Lorde was speaking of. The video, filmed in Florida feels drenched in that 2000s summer feeling:
Personally, I find it so interesting that this genre never was able to sustain itself in the pop music landscape. The tragedy of its death was welcomed by listeners and critics a-like, forever branded as too 'cheesy', its reputation as a guilty pleasure still holds up to this day - as its primary audience grew from teens to adults. Conversations around pop music shifted around the release of Carly Rae Jepsen's sophomore album, Emotion. Its cult gay following has grown over time and swayed many critics, ranking on countless decade end lists. Carly's influence? Robyn.
A pop music veteran, she can clearly be defined as the reason why Jive signed a young Britney Spears and the reason for NSYNC's success. Released in 1997 and produced by now infamous mega producer Max Martin, Show Me Love holds all of the qualities of a teenpop breakout song. It's production clean and vocals layered, the polished track peaked at number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Turning down a deal with the company in the US pushed Jive to find their US answer for the teen girl next door, a 15 year old Britney Spears. The rest was history and this bubblegum teen landscape was never the same again. The UK's answer at this time came in the form of bands. Almost a succession of the UK's bigger exports like the Spice Girls and The Beatles, their teen pop audience was easily moulded to adhere to the 'pick a favourite' selling point, for mixed groups like S Club 7 and Steps it could be those in which you relate to, or for the Boy Bands like Busted - the one you want as your boyfriend. Their tracks seemed to overbear in optimism, tracks like S Club 7's Bring It All Back almost serve the same purpose as a pre-school councillor.
This time around, the optimism of these song's no longer feels misplaced. Enter Kacey Musgraves.
Fresh out of a marriage with the lover that reminded her what it felt like to fly on 2018's acclaimed Golden Hour, Kacey jumps into the reality of a failed marriage on the album star-crossed. It feels like an emotional rollercoaster at times, without any timidness. On this album, we see the confidence is Kacey as her own protagonist, not afraid to showcase shame and fear, only blissful what ifs and dreams of how things could have been. Unlike the early optimism of the 2000's, Kacey seems to say all of which she wants to with 0 filter and an honesty that would ruin a young Britney's image. Sonically simple times has that very same sun soaked nostalgia as Lorde's Solar Power. the guitar strums feel just as clean as those found on All Saints Pure Shores.
'I won't be waiting by the phone, so you can hit me on the pager' almost serves as a cheeky wink and a nudge to those that catch it - a reference to the wireless telecom device that could receive messages pre-smartphones - but not send them. This almost parallels a line in Solar Power's lead single, I throw my cellular device in the water, can you reach me? No you can't'. It seems subtle but it's this type of 21st century escapism that sustains the mood of this era. Our tireless summers have lost their teenage spontaneity, as if the good times can only be as good as the instagram story that is streamed.
The guitar is something that has always weaved itself in and out of music, a war between the piano and the guitar or both together seemed to forever exist. Both Musgraves and Lorde swap out the keys for the rich textured backdrop of the guitar, something that seems to add to the cohesiveness of each respective album. A search for this lineage is always hard, especially when this era is so loosely defined. It seemed as though every single artist in the early 2000s was doing the same thing in some shape or form - this probably due to the limiting development of DAWs, sampler synths and instrumental variation that came with the internet in all its piracy.
Lil Nas X's hit single Montero picked the Spanish flamenco guitar as it's weapon of choice, merging hand claps and synthesized banjo plucks into an infectious summer smash. The claps however distanced the similarities between this guitar and that of the teen pop productions - the rhythm seems slightly off too, leaning more towards a freer hispanic feel than the calculated rhythms of the 2000s.
Nelly Furtado's first single from her debut album, Whoa, Nelly! sports this similar sunshine optimism, in all of its teen pop glory Nelly speaks as a carefree wanderer to the youth. It's washing rhodes and strings feel like a summery smile, the sun glaring down as you pass another beach goer. It became one of the most popular songs of 2001. Thus, its fair to say that in the 90s this kind of optimism was much needed, a voice to tell the kids that everything is alright. So what happened? In 2021 popular music still seems caught up in trap and rap which has dominated for the past 4 years respectively. Lyrical themes still seem to have this overarching dullness - which I can't say isn't apparent on Lorde and Kacey's songs - could it be a sign of the times? Tiktok seems to champion those who are moody, optimism is swiftly shut down and teen pop edges closer to extinction.
Maybe this sound has reached its rebirth period, with or without the sense of optimism once prominent, sonically it's an interesting gamble.