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Let’s get one thing straight right from the outset. Music is neither produced in nor released into a vacuum. Everything that you have ever listened to from Beethoven to Doja Cat is a product of its time and its influences. So, when someone listens to a song and says to you “oh, this sounds a lot like…” it’s probably because it does. However, musical influences are not the only thing that impacts an artist when composing a song or an album. The society and global situation into which music is released has an enormous impact on the music as well. It is certainly no coincidence that that during the ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967, The Beatles released ‘All You Need Is Love’, or that just 12 years later The Clash would proclaim “phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust” as the 1980s loomed and the hangover of the 1960s was just beginning to wear off.
Clearly then, music nearly always reflects society and 2020 represents one of the finest years to investigate this hypothesis as it was, for the vast majority of people alive today, the most significant year of our lives. So, in the year when the world seemingly stopped and we all locked ourselves away, did music reflect these feelings?
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the music of 2020 is that, within all of the music of the pandemic era (March onwards), maximalist pop has almost completely disappeared. The two biggest maximalist albums of the year – The Weeknd’s After Hours and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia – were both released just as the pandemic took hold, so would have been written and recorded many months prior. Instead, what we have seen is the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to using music as an escape. Much of the year’s pop music has been minimalist and toned down. Perhaps the best example of this is Taylor Swift’s two albums Folklore and Evermore. Both records are minimalist indie folk in style and are a whole world away from, say, 1989. Of course, Swift’s artistic ambition has something to do with this major change in style. However, given that Swift cancelled a global arena tour as a result of the pandemic, it seems almost certain that the isolation which dominated lockdown would have had an impact on the sparse and melancholic sound which dominates the two records. Moreover, Charli XCX’s how i’m feeling now was the first genuine ‘lockdown album’ which is an eclectic mix of styles ranging from hip hop to dance pop. The record is perhaps the ultimate product of its time as the lo-fi production is a consequence of Charli being stuck indoors, and the feelings of loneliness and insecurity which run at the heart of the album are feelings which many of us know all too well after this year.
However, the landscape of 2020 was not solely shaped by coronavirus and lockdowns. The year saw the unprecedented rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as protests swept across the globe. And, as is so often the case, music has been front and centre in the high-profile uproar following the backlash after the murder of George Floyd. And there is no better example of this than Run The Jewel’s RTJ4, an album which serves as a soundtrack to the BLM movement and to our rotten world more generally. There is even a moment on the track ‘walking in the snow’ when Killer Mike eerily states “I can’t breathe”, which was originally in reference to Eric Garner’s killing in 2014 but became a tragic reminder of the circularity of systemic racism as the exact same phrase was uttered by Floyd just minutes before his death.
The music of 2020 has, therefore, provided us with one of the most fascinating case studies in recent memory. As the year unfolded before our eyes, music underwent a seismic shift in its output. And as you look back at the music, you can see the styles changing and the themes become increasingly real. And it is fitting that the album that, for many people, has been regarded as the best of the year is perhaps a succinct summary of all of our feelings. Fiona Apple’s era-defining Fetch The Bolt Cutters is both a quiet and measured record as well as a stunning cry for freedom. It is wonderfully simple and yet complex at the same time. It is an album which sums up the confusion, anger and defiance of the year. Perhaps it was Fiona Apple who produced the true ‘album of its time’. Music provided relief and escapism, but it also challenged us and helped us to see what is truly important. And consequently, we have been treated to a fantastic year of music, despite all the hardships that inspired it.
Article by Richard Cooper Smith