The candidly personal, the retro and the acoustic have dominated music for about a year.
You could say it started with the massive and simultaneous hits “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky,” two songs that harkened back to an earlier era with their disco beats and gentle falsettos. Pharrell Williams, mastermind behind both songs, returned to the formula to create “Happy,” which predictably became the most ubiquitous song of early 2014.
Finding the real source of pop’s current obsession with low-fi and low-key requires that we travel even further back: to the deluge of glitzy, futuristic, synth-pop ushered in by Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas and nurtured by the likes of Ke$ha, Flo-Rida and Katy Perry. The reign of techno was so relentless, that somewhere in the long expanses of 2012, I propose, the novelty wore off. People got Auto-Tuned out.
The ensuing pendulum-swing has had a few major themes. Stylistically, hit songs have tended toward the acoustic, the folksy, the funky, the disco-ish and the Reggae-esque. In their lyrics and packaging, stars have chased after a stripped-down, vulnerable image. What the post-Gaga pushback has sought is entertainment that feels organic.
We’re still living in the aftermath. Glance at the top 10 songs in this week’s Billboard Hot 100 and you’ll find that Pharrell’s minimalist funk is enlivened with comic candor in Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” Listen to the Afro-Carribean lilt permeating Magic’s “Rude” and Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong.” Think of Sam Smith’s acoustic smash “Stay With Me” or the flavors of neo-soul running through superstar collaboration “Bang Bang.” Left by the wayside are those who refused to evolve — the Britney Spearses and Lady Gagas, clinging to their icy club bangers as current tastes drift away.
It is in this climate that we get “Anaconda,” a song that jumped 37 spots last week, landing at number two and becoming Nicki Minaj’s highest charting single ever. Critics immediately called it an unlikely hit, and, it’s true — Minaj does seem like a holdover from inaccessible, turn-of-the-teens excess. But is she really so out of place? “Anaconda” is built around a sample from Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 classic “Baby Got Back,” which makes it precisely the sort of nod-to-a-bygone-era that has prompted so many downloads and spins for Robin Thicke and others. Insofar as Minaj candidly and playfully boasts of her impressive derriere, “Anaconda” is precisely the sort of quirky, brazen self-empowerment anthem that vaulted Swift and Trainor to the charts’ upper ranks.
“Anaconda” speaks to the playful throwback jams that currently permeate the charts. But it remains to be seen whether the marketing of Minaj’s upcoming album will also follow larger industry trends: Justin Bieber tried to pitch his last collection as an intimate exchange with fans by naming it “Journals;” Taylor Swift’s new album includes Polaroids taken by Swift and a title scrawled in Sharpie; last year, Beyonce released her eponymous album without any promotion and gave a statement which read, in part, “I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There’s so much that gets between music, the artist and the fans.” If you’re wondering whether these marketing techniques relate to pop music’s rootsier sound, consider this: Katy Perry’s “Prism” came with literal seed packets. Albums are now framed as your chance for authentic connection with a celebrity.
We’ll soon see whether Minaj packages her album as a revealing glimpse into the woman behind the constructed persona. Whether she follows the trend or, as she so often has, sets her own.