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Pop Music's Nostalgia Obsession - The Atlantic

Why do older sounds seem to dominate music lately?
The Grammys have always been more than a bit old-fashioned. The ceremony typically consists of exciting new artists covering the songs of yesteryear, interspersed with awards going to established acts over those same exciting new artists. But though reforms at the Recording Academy, which hands out the awards, have led to better representation in recent years, this past week’s Grammys renewed debate about whether they’re still too stuck in the past.
Few artists have dominated a year of music the way Olivia Rodrigo did 2021. Her song “Drivers License” had such a rare crossover pop appeal that Saturday Night Live had a whole sketch about how well it had connected with unlikely audiences. Many expected this past week’s Grammys to be a coronation for Rodrigo. And while she had a few key wins, some of the biggest trophies went to more throwback sounds. Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year went to Silk Sonic and Jon Batiste for soul albums that are magnetic but also undeniably retro.
It’s not just the Grammys though. Modern music as a whole is going through a nostalgic phase.
What explains our love of throwback sounds right now? Are we comfort-listening through hard times? Or is the industry just finally able to see (and monetize) a type of listening we’ve always done?
Spencer Kornhaber, Shirley Li, and Hannah Giorgis assess the state of pop music following the Grammys on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast, The Review. Listen to their conversation here:
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Shirley Li: In case you didn’t see, the 64th Grammys were this weekend. There were some surprise wins and some possible snubs, but we wanted to check in on music in general this week on the podcast. Spencer, the last time you and I talked about music on this podcast, we were talking about how pop music was in its breakup era.
It was all big, cathartic emotions. Adele’s latest album had just dropped, and it was dominating the charts. Taylor Swift was going through her rerecord phase. Billie Eilish was Happier Than Ever rather than playing the “Bad Guy.” And, of course, Olivia Rodrigo was the story of 2021 with the ballad “Drivers License” and her subsequent single-spawning album Sour. But the story of the Grammys wasn’t really about all that catharsis.
There seemed to be a theme to the evening that’s run throughout recent pop music, and that is nostalgia. The Grammys have always been kind of old-fashioned, but even the big artists themselves have been in a nostalgic phase, and we saw that over the weekend. Spencer, where did we see nostalgia on Sunday night?
Spencer Kornhaber: Right, a lot of people expected the Grammys would be the evening of Olivia Rodrigo, who is 19 years old and mostly unknown—except for viewers of Disney TV programming—prior to her song blowing up in 2021. Sometimes people think that music has no future and no new ideas, that we’ve stopped making culture-uniting pop stars.
And Olivia comes along and she’s like: “What if we had a Disney Channel star who grew up listening to Taylor Swift and emo music, with a really good pop sensibility and who’s really good at social media? What if this is the next sound in pop music?” And everyone was like: “Yes, let’s do that. That sounds great.”
Li: (Laughs.)
Read: Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour demystifies the breakup album
Kornhaber: And so this year’s Grammys were expected to be a kind of victory lap for Rodrigo. And they were, sort of. She won Best New Artist, which is a big prize. But she didn’t win Record of the Year, Song of the Year, or Album of the Year. Those prizes went to artists who make pleasant, throwback, wedding-ready soul music.
And I want to tread lightly here because I do not want to come for Bruno Mars or Anderson .Paak of Silk Sonic, who are very talented musicians and put out a hilarious single with “Leave the Door Open,” which won Record and Song of the Year. And I don’t want to come for Jon Batiste, an amazing jazz pianist and bandleader who—besides also being a great guy and the music director of The Atlanticwon Album of the Year.
But it was a little surprising that this kind of very familiar sound, the sound that you could have heard at the Grammys or really at any point in the last 50 years, was what won out over arguably more vital and dynamic and innovative artists like Olivia and some of the other nominees. And that was a little deflating for some people, but also: Grammys are going to Grammy. (Laughs.) What did you think, Hannah?
Read: How Jon Batiste’s Album of the Year win broke Grammys expectations
Hannah Giorgis: You know, I thought for the first time in a while, it did actually feel like music’s biggest night. (Laughs.)
Kornhaber: Really?
Giorgis: Yeah; I mean, nostalgically, yes, in the sense that you had this big, sweeping performance from Olivia Rodrigo, you had a few things gesturing toward pop music of now and of the future, but the night also tied in music that’s palatable to people across multiple generations.
Li: I agree with you both. It is really hard to judge all of music and package an awards show that appeals to everyone. You have someone like Lil Nas X take the stage doing “Industry Baby” and then you’ve got Lady Gaga doing her 1940s cosplay. You’re trying to hit all the beats, but when you look at the Grammys as a whole, there was certainly a preference for Silk Sonic. They had wrapped the previous year’s show and they opened this year’s show. But if we zoom out from the Grammys, there’s also been a lot of nostalgia in the sound that we hear.
It’s interesting that we can talk about Olivia Rodrigo as a new, shiny pop star, but she is also borrowing a lot of the sounds from her past. And if we look at the other pop stars on the scene, they’re similarly borrowing from the past. Dua Lipa, for instance, is in the middle of a disco revival. And so I wonder whether the two of you agree that nostalgia is shaping the biggest hits of our current era.
Kornhaber: It’s a perennial debate in popular music, but it’s become a little more pronounced this year. There’s been a number of artists in this super explicit retro phase. For instance, The Weeknd came out in January with this impeccable concept album about, basically, dying in a car crash in 1984 and living in the radio station of that moment. It’s excellent, and it’s completely pastiche.
And you’re right; I was just saying Olivia Rodrigo is so innovative, but if you listen to her single “Good 4 U,” it’s so close to Paramore’s “Misery Business” that they had to give the band a writing credit. I was just listening to it, actually, and the very last seconds of the song have the exact same guitar stabs as Green Day’s “Brain Stew.” Her music is absolutely this pastiche of things we’ve heard before, but on the other hand, that is what pop music always is!
What’s maybe different right now is that, due to streaming, we are very aware of how much people are listening to what they’ve always listened to. Perhaps it feels like there’s a bit less of an appetite for the new, though. Are you feeling that in your own life, Hannah?
Read: Is old music killing new music?
Giorgis: Definitely. I also don’t drive anymore, so all the time that I’d normally spend organically discovering music by virtue of New York DJs is gone. Radio doesn’t occupy as big a place in people’s music diet as it used to. And so, when you listen to Olivia Rodrigo now, [you’re on streaming where you] can immediately listen to Paramore after and get stuck on their albums. It’s a very different way of discovering music. I also think we’re seeking out the familiar during a time when we’re all perhaps still actively seeking comfort.
Kornhaber: And streaming has done something similar to Hollywood, hasn’t it? There’s an appetite for comfort-viewing and for rehashes.
Li: Right. When it comes to television and film, companies are trying to keep you in their streaming libraries by showcasing their previous hits. Audiences have a warmth toward something they’ve seen before. It’s safe watching.
I want to mention Jon Batiste’s speech from Sunday night though, when he said music “reach[es] people at a point in their lives when they need it most. When a song or an album is made, it almost has a radar to find the person when they need it the most.” It’s a profound statement, and it almost goes against what we’re saying about streaming pulling us into our old habits. What’s out there finds us when we need it.
Kornhaber: Yes, and this March, Steely Dan found me.
Li: (Laughs.) But going off of that, I did want to ask you specifically about Batiste’s win. What did you make of it? Was it the Grammys Grammy-ing again, or does it capture a moment that we’re feeling?
Kornhaber: Well, the album peaked at 86 on the Billboard charts and Rolling Stone only gave it a one-sentence review. It wasn’t this momentous thing in the musical discourse. But Batiste is a fixture. He’s on TV every single night on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert, which tons of people watch. He did the soundtrack for the Pixar movie Soul and won an Oscar for it. He’s a good industry guy. He plays instruments. He leads a band. There’s a lot of reasons for why the general body of the Recording Academy, which is made up of other people in the music industry, might see his name on a list of 10 people and say, “I like that guy the most,” and vote for him.
There’s also a structural factor. This year, the Academy expanded the nomination pool to 10 nominees, which is a lot of people. And what it means is that you have someone like Olivia Rodrigo, who perhaps seems like the consensus pick, but is competing against Billie Eilish and other Grammys favorite Taylor Swift. And the three of them are going to split a lot of votes because they appeal to similar sensibilities. And when you go down the list, you see a couple of different acts that may cancel each other out.
Someone might vote for Doja Cat, or maybe they’ll vote for Lil Nas X, but you’re not going to get the plurality because they’re both competing against each other. And so vote-splitting may help explain some of Jon Batiste’s win, too, and there’s no scandal in that. But you end up with this slightly older-style, not really in-the-conversation album winning, which is something that’s happened again and again in Grammys history. But it’s not his fault.
Read: Lil Nas X isn’t a fad. He’s the future of pop.
Li: That’s so interesting. So to win a Grammy today, a supernova like Olivia Rodrigo might not have the advantage you’d expect next to, say, more of a north star like Jon Batiste. And that’s not a knock against him.
Giorgis: Spencer, you called him “one of the most visible working musicians in America.” And it’s not just that he’s on late night and that he did the music for Soul: I’m curious if the Academy sees something particularly valuable in awarding someone who’s so publicly working and putting the hours into the craft in a way that we don’t necessarily see as vividly or as clearly with someone like Olivia Rodrigo or Billie Eilish.
Kornhaber: Yeah, it’s an old-school idea of musicianship. He literally presses the keys on a piano and creates sounds that move through the air. And that’s different from Olivia and her producer laying down tracks in a studio. And it speaks to how it takes time for people to adjust their rubric for the work going into a lot of pop music, but also other genres such as hip-hop, which has always struggled at the Grammys. People often don’t understand that the musicians in those genres can be working just as much as Jon Batiste, who they see on TV every night sweating it out.
Li: Yeah, it’s a bit like how we honor acting, where these big, histrionic performances tend to be the ones that get Oscars because that’s what we think is capital-A Acting. It can be hard to explain the subtleties that go into an actor’s work. But if you’re seeing someone actively plinking on a piano, that’s a display of musicianship that’s different than just stepping up to a mic. I think that’s probably why Justin Bieber, after his performance at the Grammys, was crying.
Giorgis: (Laughs.)
Kornhaber: Well, he cries a lot. You don’t know why he’s crying.
Li: (Laughs.) I was just wondering if maybe he was like: I finally showed them!
Kornhaber: (Laughs.) I mean, that performance is hilarious. It’s the song “Peaches,” which is a sex metaphor about eating peaches. It’s also about smoking weed and getting the hot girl. It’s this laid-back R&B-inflected song, but he did it on the piano so slowly, it was like he was singing a Celine Dion song. But that is the Grammys. That is pop musicians trying to create this aura of respectability so that they can be seen as traditional working musicians in addition to these celebrity supernovas.
Giorgis: And it’s particularly incredible because Justin Bieber has had a following for what feels like forever now, but that’s a TikTok song! That’s a song that found the majority of its footing with people consuming it on TikTok. And that’s not necessarily a knock against it. There’s plenty of music that comes to me from TikTok. But there is a particular dissonance to seeing him sit down with that level of drama to perform this little TikTok jingle.
Li: Especially when TikTok capitalizes on your short attention span, and here he is extending it as long as possible. But going off of that, what do you think the reputation of the Grammys is today? Has it changed because the Academy did expand its membership?
It was trying to break the mold. And, if you look at the results this year, the big four winners were people of color and there were some breakthrough winners and nominees.
Giorgis: I mean, they managed to feel less irrelevant than usual, which I know is a pretty tepid endorsement. It’s true that we didn’t see Olivia Rodrigo win awards people thought that she was going to win, but it’s also a show that finally honored Jazmine Sullivan, where we got to see BTS do this incredible, delightful performance!
Li: Yes! Where they took off their suits and used them as air guitars!
Giorgis: Right! And I have trouble imagining that happening in 2017 or 2018. Maybe that’s me having a bias against those years from this distance, but they did feel a bit different. It felt a little fresher. The moment when Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa were getting ready to introduce the Best New Artist award and did that “Oh, you’re in the same outfit as me” thing. I was like: “Oh, this is 1998. This is Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. And also we’re doing it in Megan and Dua’s young, boisterous way.” But I don’t know that I’d say the Grammys as an institution is kind of barreling toward the future. More of a slow crawl.
Kornhaber: The deal with the Grammys is that they’re this notoriously hated institution because they have, over and over again, just completely missed the ball on awarding what was the most significant and historically memorable album of that year. And this goes way back. I was just reading Variety asking “Was 1992 the Worst Grammys Ever?” because that was the year that Natalie Cole’s album [of 40-year-old songs written by her father, Nat King Cole] won Album of the Year. Nirvana’s Nevermind wasn’t even nominated.
Fast-forward to 2008—which was the last time a Black person won Album of the Year—and that was Herbie Hancock’s album of Joni Mitchell covers. I’m sure it was musically luminous, but it seems a lot less significant in retrospect than Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. And that’s happened over and over again. And so there’s that track record that it’s always going to be fighting against, which you can’t really say that it shook off this year.
But the other thing about the Grammys is that it was run for a long time by the same group of dudes. And one dude in particular, Ken Ehrlich, had produced the show since 1980 until two years ago. All those years of ceremonies with bizarre mashups of artists, of young musicians covering 50-year-old songs, of Elton John performing with Eminem or J.Lo doing the Motown tribute for some reason—all these weird Grammy-specific performances that make you ask: “Why am I seeing this instead of, like, actually the song that defined this year?” For me, that was mostly from Ken Erlich chasing these Grammy moments. But really, we’re in a completely new era now.
Li: The Grammys have been criticized over the years for being nostalgic, as has pop music in general. In this very publication, our colleague James Parker wrote a piece in 2011 saying: “Our obsession with musical nostalgia is strangling pop.” And in January, we also had a piece from Ted Gioia that asked: Is old music killing new music?
Kornhaber: Yeah, that piece got a lot of attention online. He presented data showing that, in the past two years, listenership for catalog songs, i.e., songs older than 18 months old, was outpacing listenership for new songs. And that’s a shocking statistic that people extrapolated a lot from. But one thing it represents is that streaming is allowing us to quantify the things that we were listening to already.
And so, for example, when I listen to Steely Dan’s “Black Cow,” that goes on the ledger in a way that it wouldn’t have gone on 10 years ago when I was just listening to it on CD or vinyl or whatever. There’s also this very noticeable trend of reissues, remixes, sampling—very overt interpolation of old hits going on in the charts.
It’s a tough thing to talk about because the only things that ever succeed in pop music are a blend of novelty and familiarity. That’s the case in all sorts of arenas, but it’s especially true in pop music. You can only iterate a bit on what’s been done before without going into the realm of being too experimental, too far off the curve or too indie to catch the ears of audiences. I mean, when you get obsessed with a new song, it’s not because that song confused you.
So it has to really be on that edge of old and new. But we’re definitely in a moment where we’re very aware that we have these playlists of songs that we all listened to at summer camp in 1998 that we’re going to keep returning to. And that’s being reflected back to the industry and where they are trying to monetize it.
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