EndWorldMusic

The World Is Ending. We Just Want to Dance.

The inevitable return of bubblegum pop and dance-club bangers makes a welcome soundtrack to our American hellscape

It’s 2005 all over again. Motorola Razrs are back, low-rise jeans are fashionable and Jessica Simpson is on the cover of People.

Fifteen years later, Simpson is no longer having “A Public Affair” with bubblegum pop music, and bubblegum pop music is “A Little Bit” less popular than it used to be. High-octane dance-pop — the genre in which Simpson and (on a grander scale) Britney Spears flourished in the 2000s, paving the way for Lady Gaga and Rihanna in the 2010s — has been on the way out.

Rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone and Drake have spent the past decade topping the charts alongside the moody Soundcloud styles of Billie Eilish and Frank Ocean. While there are myriad reasons dance-pop has fallen off the throne of popular music (its overwhelming whiteness, to name just one), the message of careless excess didn’t seem to fit with an increasingly stressed-out world. Lorde wrote an entire song about it.

For many of the young rappers topping the charts today, there’s a pessimism to their music. “If you look at the charts, a lot of the rappers that are succeeding did not have a positive outlook on the future,” Forbes music writer Hugh McIntyre tells me. Prior to his December death, Juice WRLD scored his first No. 1 album with the critically acclaimed Death Race for Love. “Songs like ‘Fast,’ ‘Ring, Ring’ [and] ‘Hear Me Calling’ strike a dynamic balance of raw charisma and profound anxiety,” Danny Schwartz wrote for Rolling Stone.

But recently, a cadre of new pop stars are attempting to reinvent bubbly, 2000s-era pop for the new decade. In November, Dua Lipa dropped the Eurodance single “Don’t Start Now” off her upcoming second album Future Nostalgia. “It’s about moving on and not allowing anyone to get in the way of that,” Lipa said in a press release, saying she wanted to kick off the new decade with a return to dance pop. True to her word, she followed it up last week with the nü-disco “Physical,” reminiscent of Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 song of the same name.

She’s joined by a slew of early-2010s singers making pop the reason to dance in a chaotic world. A leak of the possible new Lady Gaga single “Stupid Love” hearkens back to her Fame Monster days. Don’t count out early-aughts divas the Pussycat Dolls, who just released their first song in over a decade, the electropop “React.”

Unlike 2000s and early-2010s pop, Lipa’s new music isn’t innovating on classic pop sounds to create something new. It’s more of a tribute — a return to comfortably recognizable tunes.

The sentiment extends beyond American Top 40. Japanese “city pop” —  glossy, danceable music inspired by American acts but speaking to Japanese urban life — is also making a YouTube-enabled comeback amid our current global hellscape. “It’s that tension that makes me and other new fans of the genre see catharsis inside all that glossy, singalong pop,” my colleague Eddie Kim writes.

That’s part of the welcome return to pop of the past: a craving for what seemed to be a simpler life. I hear it in Kesha’s new sounds: a call to dance away your sadness, like she did. On her previous album Rainbow (2017), she went pseudo-country and addressed her ongoing legal battle with Dr. Luke over the producer’s alleged rape. Now she returns to her Animal era of excessive pop. “I’m at a place in my life where I’m really okay with how much I love pop music,” she told the Atlantic. “I’m really okay if people think I’m a cheesy bitch — because part of me is.

The new darlings of pop are a welcome sound to New York DJ Ty Sunderland. He’s been cashing in on the nostalgia trend and playing old-school pop classics in lieu of new dance-pop hits for the past few years. “There was a moment in, like, 2010: so many high-energy keeping-on-dancing moments that are special to me,” Sunderland says, adding that “Till the World Ends” by Britney Spears pulls more weight than “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish for partying clubgoers. “A lot of it still works in the club better than what people are putting out right now.”

“Till the World Ends” is an apt throwback track for 2020, a time when it sometimes feels like the world could actually end. On TikTok, dance-pop thrives as the music to nihilistic memes like World War III. In 2018, an early TikTok meme was to dance each day until a certain event occurred. William Hunter III tells me he plans to post dance videos until he’s dead; he’s currently on day 431. “I just thought it was kinda clever to mix that [trend] with my lack of will to live,” he says.

Another trend is pairing the lyrics “This time, baby, I’ll be bulletproof” (from English synth-pop act La Roux’s 2009 song “Bulletproof”) with jokes about surviving an active shooter at school. Sending thot pics to the weird kid in class or buying a bulletproof backpack will keep you safe in the next school shooting, they joke.

Nihilistic humor is coursing through all of culture. Viral memes memes touch on everything from global warfare to Mike Pence’s conversion therapy “camp.” Laughing in the face of tragedy is a new American pastime, and there are few juxtapositions more apropos than boisterous dance-pop as a respite to a somber world. From the club to the living rooms on TikTok, we all just want to dance away the pain.

It’s worth noting that Lipa dropped “Don’t Start Now” on November 1st, and it only hit the Top 40 in January. Kesha’s album has yet to chart. Maybe dance-pop will never return to the height of its success a decade ago.

Sunderland, the nightclub DJ, would like to turn that trend around. He believes his job isn’t to reflect the No. 1 song of the week. He’s here to make sure you have a good time on the dance floor. He says, “We live in dark times, and I’m just trying to create little moments where we can exist and forget about that.”