Pop goes the Grammys: The young stars ruling over rock'n'roll

It is a script that would likely be rejected as outlandishly far-fetched had anyone dared to write it. Take a teenage girl who’s a bit of an outsider. Have her slightly older brother write a bunch of songs for her. Watch as said young lady becomes a bona fide pop star all over the world. And then conclude your feel-good story with the siblings winning all the top prizes at the Grammys.

Ridiculously unbelievable. Back to the drawing board.

And yet, such a story came to pass at the Grammys on Sunday night. Eighteen-year-old Billie Eilish and her 22-year-old songwriting brother Finneas O’Connell swept all before them. Among the gongs were Best Album, Best Song, Best New Artist… and nobody was even remotely surprised.

The Grammys is about as good a place as anywhere to take the temperature of the pop world at any one time and this year’s — like most of those over the past decade — confirms the pre-eminence of pop and hip-hop stars over old-school rockers, and young, spirited women over long-established men. And Billie Eilish’s win epitomises how dominant pop music of a knowing and urbane hue has become.

The Los Angeles native doesn’t fit the bill of what we might think of a typical pop star and there’s certainly more room now than there has been since the early 1980s for emerging talent to be themselves, and themselves alone. For much of the 1990s and for many years of this century to date, young pop wannabes were ruthlessly moulded by record companies, talent scouts, managers and assorted svengalis.

One need only think of the troubles that Kesha encountered early in her career or the pressure to tour that helped to push Avicii over the edge. Others, like Britney Spears and Justin Bieber, have often spoken about how they felt they were fired headlong into a wild world that they had little knowledge of or control over their own trajectory.

Billie Eilish is different. So too Lorde, another gifted teenager. And so too young female pop stars like Grimes, FKA Twigs and Sigrid. One senses that each is in control of their own destiny and has surrounded themselves with people who have their best interests — and not their money-making capabilities — at heart.

In an industry famed for its ruthlessness, the emergence of such stars is refreshing. And it’s exciting, too, to note just how non-homogenous their brand of pop is. Each of these women makes music that’s distinctly theirs. Sometimes — as in the case with Grimes, for instance — their songs are defiantly challenging, fare that tests the nerve of the radio play-listers. They’re challenging both themselves and the listener — and the pop world is all the better for it.

Another big winner at the Grammys was Lizzo, the plus-sized singer who is about as far as you can get from old-fashioned ideas about what a pop star should look like. She has been a body-positive icon for scores of young people and has prospered in a world that’s more tolerant of difference than it was even 10 years ago.

Lizzo played Dublin’s Olympia last autumn in what was one of the year’s most in-demand shows, and her message of celebrating who you are rather than what others think you should be is one that resonates with her Gen Z and young millennial audience. And if she can fulfil her dreams, others who may have felt ‘othered’ in society will be more emboldened to do so too.

There are other aspects of modern pop that the Grammys highlight too, not least the alternative routes to success that emerging stars can take. Time was when you had to go down the traditional record company route if you wanted to ‘make it’. You’d make a demo, send it to a selection of labels, hope one would want you and then you’d sign a contract that was usually not advantageous to you, but weighted entirely on the label’s side. Now, there are other ways.

Many are bypassing the old route in favour of placing songs on social media and building up a profile there. Then, with a ready-made audience in tow, the balance of power shifts when it comes to interesting record companies. Usually, it’s they who’ll be beating a path to the next YouTube or TikTok star.

And, speaking of TikTok, this platform-of-choice for today’s teens is the reason why Montero Lamar Hill — aka rapper Lil Nas X —is one of the planet’s most in-demand figures. It was thanks to the short-form video app that his Grammy-winning song ‘Old Town Road’ became such a sensation — it was, quite simply, the perfect tune for the platform’s users to soundtrack all manner of witty memes and stunts. And, while there is a cohort of over-30s who would struggle to describe just what TikTok is, the target audience lapped it up — the song was among 2019’s most streamed and it was number one on the US chart for a whopping 18 weeks.

Much like Netflix, Apple and Amazon usurping the traditional movie studios when it comes to Oscar nominations, the 2020 Grammys were as much about who’s hot on YouTube and Spotify as it wass about venerable record companies.

And that’s a phenomenon that’s likely to grow. Consider Irish pair Dermot Kennedy and Eden, the stage name of Dubliner Jonathon Ng: both are on major labels now and have been acclaimed for their accomplished debut albums but both first came to prominence thanks to a willingness to cut out the middle man and develop a far-reaching online presence. Kennedy was already enjoying hundreds of thousands of plays on both YouTube and Spotify when the industry started banging loudly on his door. Similarly, Ng found a large audience for his bewitching music online without having to interest any record company.

Another trend the Grammys underline is how pre-eminent solo artists and genres like hip-hop and pop are. Rock bands brandishing guitars are in as plentiful supply as ever — and many are delivering outstanding music — but they just aren’t at the top of the pile they way they used to be. And they haven’t been for more than 10 years. And yet, with culture so cyclical, it won’t be long until the new U2 or the next Red Hot Chili Peppers change the conversation once again.

While there’s much to celebrate about mass-market pop in 2020,  there are reasons for pessimism too. The all-conquering power of streaming giants result in the so-called ‘Spotify Effect’ — a form of homogeneity that sees emerging artists desperately trying to ape the success of what’s gone before.

And, in a world where virtually every song ever recorded can be accessed in seconds on your phone, producers are often averse to sonic risk-taking. Not only will they attempt to make new music as assessable as possible, but they’ll try to ensure that songs are as catchy as possible from the off — thereby reducing the likelihood of the listener simply swiping to another song.

Happily, when Billie Eilish and brother Finneas were first pooling their talents, they seemed unbothered by such concerns. Instead, they set about writing and recording a bunch of really good songs. And thank Grammy they did.

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