Anxiety Pop Is the Sound of 2019


Ask any millennial for her self-medication of choice when it comes to dealing with the latest racist Trump tweet or climate-change scare piece, and you’re bound to hear an equally digital remedy along the lines of “streaming old Disney flicks” or “image-searching ‘I’m baby’ memes.”

For years now, young women have been scrubbing away the psychological residue of a 24-hour news cycle and endless social media scrolling with sugary nostalgia for a more analog world.

Need proof? See Lisa Frank, the elusive artist behind all those swirly dolphin-bedecked ’90s Trapper Keepers, who, upon quietly joining Instagram earlier this year, racked up hundreds of thousands of followers.

But as we careen toward the end of 2019, some cultural observers are starting to wonder whether we’ve entered a phase of the Information Age that requires existing in a near-constant state of fight-or-flight, a condition that’s resistant to even the most bedazzled video of tween sensation JoJo Siwa hanging out with an adorably starstruck North West.

Interestingly, some of the most thrilling music coming out of this confusing time reflects this mash-up of sad feelings and shiny imagery. Like a “Just got bad news; send kitten videos” tweet, this emerging genre of “anxiety pop” acknowledges how dire our current situation is while simultaneously acting as a balm.

Rising singer-songwriters like Japanese British model Rina Sawayama and German-born, L.A.-based Kim Petras are leading the charge, building upon territory mined by glitchy art-pop stars, like Grimes, Charli XCX, and FKA twigs, and by bedroom artists who came up on SoundCloud (see: Lil Peep, Billie Eilish).

But they’re putting their own twist on the genre: In songs like Petras’s “All I Do Is Cry,” a hypnotic track featuring Auto-Tuned vocals and a trap-pop melody, listeners get the sense that something is awry, but it’s up to them whether to absorb the emo lyrics or simply vibe on her beats and almost-campy pop star aesthetic (it’s no coincidence that Petras’s manager also worked with Britney Spears).

In this way, Petras offers a sort of catharsis through osmosis.

While working on her 2017 debut EP, Rina, Sawayama, a Cambridge graduate with a degree in sociology, politics, and psychology, was thinking about social- and internet-induced anxiety—a condition she herself struggles with—in a scholarly context.

“Societal problems are really hard to talk about in music without sounding like a Live Aid [concert],”she says. But Sawayama’s blistering bubblegum-pop track “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome,”which is “literally the story of someone who has Stockholm syndrome with their phone,”feels thoroughly modern.

“I think [phones are] the capturers that we’ve fallen in love with, that we sacrifice real relationships for, and that we sacrifice ourselves for,” Sawayama says.

Musicologists like University of Southern California professor Nate Sloan have found that, throughout history, “the worse society is doing, the more bubbly and escapist pop music becomes.” But Sloan adds that a common thread among today’s “sad bangers” is a tinge of irony or cynicism, a by-product of the late-capitalist twenty-first century.

“In the past, there was this really clear line between a happy song and a sad song. I’m thinking of the Temptations, who would have one song like ‘My Girl,’ which is love, sunshine, and happiness, and then they’d have a single like ‘I Wish It Would Rain,’ which from top to bottom is sad and morose.”

He thinks media over saturation might be changing our relationship with pop music, “in a sense that it can no longer be this purely escapist fantasy—even the most mainstream pop confessions are always tempered with a dose of reality.”

Petras, who garnered attention in her native Germany at 16 for being one of the youngest people in the world to undergo gender confirmation surgery, intended for her debut album, Clarity (released this past June), to be based entirely around a failed relationship.

“I’d just gone through a really shitty breakup, and I was coming off a tour where I was opening for Troye Sivan,” she says. “My career was going amazingly, but my personal life was kind of trash.”

This emotional discord became the through line of an album that overflows with bops like “Broken,” which details the depression she felt after having her heart broken, and “Icy,” about the subsequent process of hardening her heart.

“The hardest part of being on social media right now is that your mental health suffers,” Petras says. “Music is talking about your emotions, and that’s what feels real.”

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