If you were born between 1981-1996, you most likely identify as a millennial.
If that’s the case, I’m sure you remember the 2000s era quite fondly (maybe not the ’96 kids, there might be some identity crisis in action). The era of teen pop stars transformed the early developments of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound into a squeaky-clean and flawless 3-and-a-half-minute bop; Cultural- and ethnic-based “booms” in the Top 40; The desire to wear pink on Wednesdays and go to law school just ‘cause; Shameless borrowing from different decades. Plenty of moments grew from the 2000s and influenced the music of the 2010s. It’s interesting not only to see the return of certain references and trends, but also how these elements will develop into what will be known as the pop culture of the 2020s.
The return of “sugar-pop™”, but more chill
Remember the days of “Hit Meh Babe One Mo’ Tiyme” and “Since U Been Gooonnneee?” I sure do, and they were bops back than as they are now. The sound was dense and compact with a focused, almost piercing, percussion and a lot of snapping and clapping (both timbre-wise and literal sound bites); it’s similar to the quality of an 808-drum kit but denser. The songs were always loud and in-your-face, leaving no pitfalls for the energy to get lost. That said, there was a nice balance of lightness in the mastering that made it easy to listen to (which developed more so around 2004-ish), on top of a motivational message about proclaiming your independence and how you don’t need a man, yet you’ll let them get it if they behave. Or that you’re looking for a shawty with Apple-bottom jeans. And of course, let’s not forget the indie / emo era of 2004-2006 with a depressed outlook on life — even though Twenty-One Pilots pretty much brought it back in 2016, claiming their subpar version of punk rock / pop punk (or whatever trendy genre they categorized themselves) was innovative. Anyhow, the danceability of the music in the 2000s was generally lighthearted and didn’t require bumping and grinding (unless you were rachet like me – you too Kristen, we all saw you at Homecoming 2010).
Around 2007, trap music was finally introduced to Top 40, being led by the likes of T.I., Timbaland, Darkchild, and Rick Ross to name a few.
With synths taking place of live instrumentation and more a more dynamic 808-like percussion ushered the beginnings of modern hip-hop / pop music today. Timbaland and Justin Timberlake’s 2007 album FutureSex/LoveSounds provided for a breezier trap beat to get you ready for summer clubbin’. It wasn’t until Darkchild and Britney Spears’s 2007 album Blackout, however, that Top 40 would come to maintain the influence of the heavy urban hip-hop elements and dark themes that have carried into the majority of music in the 2010s. Aside from Katy Perry’s efforts with Max Martin and her pop-rock song “I Kissed a Girl” (which was very controversial back then, believe it or not), 2007 seems to be the year that “sugar-pop™” and its dominance in Top 40 radio started to fade away.
Around 2014, we did see a glimmer of “sugar-pop™” through the writing and production of, you guessed it: Max Martin.
Amongst the EDM and heavy hip-hop sonorities that took center stage of Top 40 music, artists like Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry (even though she’s been stretching that style of pop since the beginning of her career into early 2014 – good on you, girl) briefly returned to the dominance of the simple, cookie-cut song structure and maybe a little heavier bass to meld in with the times. Eventually, that trend faded and the introduction of a hip-hop x EDM fusion took place thereafter.
Fast forward to early 2018. Meghan Trainor released a new song “No Excuses” as a promo single in early March. She pretty much took everything that is Max Martin and just did it, though she is no stranger to utilizing Max’s technical writing and production. While it didn’t really stick, I think Meghan was just ahead of her time at that moment. It was like “uhh yeah I’m happy you’re bumpin’, but, uh, I’m not ready for THAT much pop”. “Thanks”. She was smart to postpone her album until the end of January because I think everyone is ready for more positive vibes rather than protest and fighting with each other. Ariana Grande’s latest catalog, including “no tears left to cry”, “God is a Woman”, and “thank u, next” also led the pack with their focused and poignant energy while still able to keep it mellow through heavy sliding bass lines. I’d argue that she’s leading into the inevitable: a pop x hip-hop fusion.
What’s so great about R&B and Hip-Hop/Rap is the importance of authenticity and depth in the lyrics.
Of course, the beat and overall production of a song are vital for a good bop, but lyrics are a huge factor that can make or break a song. I’ll give it to the 2010s, the lyrical content not only touched on heavy issues but also told a coherent story that allowed for a clearer storyline and easier executions of concept projects (Lemonade for instance). The 2000s were just like “as long as the lyrics fit the cookie-cut structure, who cares about coherency in the lyrics?” (“Now that I’ve become who a really are”, anyone?) Stiffness in song structure on any level, especially when done over and over and over, eventually goes stale, which makes sense as to why “sugar-pop™” became less popular. Combined authentic lyrical content (with a seeming departure from the depressing storylines of 2016-2018) and a skewed cookie-cut structure, 2019 seems to be ushering the era of ‘mellow’ “sugar-pop™”.
The “Latin Boom” 3.0
In the late 90s to early 2000s, Top 40 was gettin’ loud and livin’ la viva loca. Though brief, artists such as Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Shakira followed the footsteps of Gloria Estefan and Selena Qunitanilla-Perez (who didn’t get to witness her successful crossover) and incorporated Spanglish lyrics all in the while maintaining the “sugar-pop™” sonorities of the time. 2004 introduced the second wave of a “Latin boom” in Top 40 with the likes of Daddy Yankee and Shakira (again), this time not only incorporating Spanglish, but also a mix of “sugar-pop™” elements and urban Latin American style that developed the beginnings of reggaetón.
2017-2018 saw the third wave of the “Latin boom” with the likes of Daddy Yankee, Luis Fonsi, Camila Cabello, and Cardi B.
This time, however, a majority of music in this “boom” incorporated different styles of Latin American music. From Camila Cabello’s salsa-infused“sugar-pop™” song, Havana, inspired by Celia Cruz to the infusion of reggaetón and the trap styles of modern hip-hop, Latin music dominated Top 40. The music also introduced the return of Spangish; the only difference is that Spanish dominated the lyrical content this time around.
With Hispanics becoming the largest presence in digital music consumption and social media usage, paired with the growing rate of Latinos in the US, it’s hard to see Latin music and the introduction of Latin American artists slow down anytime soon.
2000s pop culture references
The 2000s produced gems such as Legally Blonde and Mean Girls that help to define clear entertainment stylings of that decade. Though the 2010s incorporated these storylines into Amerian Musical Theatre, it wasn’t until late 2018 when pop references became apparent in Top 40 music.
Sabrina Carpenter based her music video for “Sue Me” around the storyline of Legally Blonde (2001).
Ariana Grande did the same with “thank u, next” with references from Legally Blonde (2001), Mean Girls (2004), Bring it On (2000), and 13 Going on 30 (2004). Top that off with the song’s strong incorporation of “sugar-pop™”, Ariana helps to establish a stronger case in proving the return of the 2000s.
So are the 2000s really coming back?
Now I’m sure some of you are probably thinking, “didn’t the 2000s borrow from the likes of euro-pop energy of disco in the ’70s, the funky edge from the ‘80s, and contemporary R&B that layered different melodic lines on top of each other from the ‘90s?” You’re absolutely right. All Top 40 music is an endless cycle of washing and repeating music from past decades — even centuries (samples Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane). All music steals elements from their predecessors. What makes the music unique is how the modern decade further develops and molds extensions of that music to form the [hopefully] unique style of 2020s pop culture.