The end of a decade looks like a clean line on paper, but it’s an imperfect divider. We think of the ’70s as music's disco days and the ’90s as the decade of grunge, but in reality, musical trends couldn’t care less about bookends. Which brings us to this very moment. The 2020s are nearly upon us. But when it comes to music, is it possible that...we’ve been living in them all year?
We’ll remember 2019 as the year in which the old stars receded and new ones emerged. Lil Nas X made charts history with “Old Town Road.” Billie Eilish became the youngest artist to be nominated in all four of the Grammys general field categories. Lizzo was a phenomenon. So were Bad Bunny, Rosalía, DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion, and the late Juice WRLD.
It didn’t hurt these new hotshots that many of pop’s established veterans took the year off. Beyoncé didn’t release an album; neither did Kendrick, Adele, Katy Perry, Rihanna, or Bruno Mars. But the few old stars who did put out full-length projects were shown up by their younger counterparts. Kanye West’s long-delayed Jesus Is King was met with a quiet shrug. Taylor Swift’s Lover was critically well-received but lacked staying power. The two foes would’ve needed to concoct a feud if they really wanted to compete with an organic movement like Megan’s #HotGirlSummer.
In many ways, the entire decade led us right to this point. Spotify and SoundCloud were founded toward the end of the ’00s, and as streaming became the dominant mode of listening in the middle of this decade, services like Apple Music and Tidal sprang up as competitors. Streaming changed the way people listened and, in turn, what they listened to. Last year, The New York Times dubbed music’s paradigm shift “Pop 2.0”: a changing of the guard marked by a move toward stars with versatile delivery, melancholic moods, trap production, global appeal, ample guesting, and larger-than-life social-media presences.
If that change was already visible in 2018, then 2019 was the year it fully came to fruition. The youth were simply not to be reckoned with. Only three songs that topped the Hot 100 this year were by artists over 30 (Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s “Shallow,” Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”). And the dominance was even more protracted when it came to streaming. Spotify’s top five most streamed artists, songs, and albums were exclusively by artists under 30. By now, artists like Billie Eilish and Lizzo are so well established, it’s hard to believe that this was the year they released their debut albums. Surely they've been here since at least 2013?
Some of 2019’s emergent stars will fade, and others will continue to ascend; that’s always been the name of the game. But the question moving forward is whether these stars are the new normal or new stars are the new normal. For Ricky Reed, who produced much of Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You, it’s a little bit of both. Reed obviously doesn’t think artists like Lizzo are going anywhere. But also, he says, “I think we're at a new place where it’s a more level playing field between up-and-coming artists and the legends that still occupy the landscape.”
Where the remaining legends have name recognition and a built-in fan base on their side, the up-and-comers have an equally powerful asset: digital fluency. Each generation of kids is only getting better at using the tools of the internet. And as Lil Nas X can attest, those tools allow for a rapid rise. It’s easier said than done—and maybe a bit banal to point out—but a song by an anonymous artist can literally become an internet sensation overnight. Play your cards wisely, and you can ride that horse to the bank—and even the Grammys—for a long time thereafter.
But the importance of youthful energy also can’t be overstated. A hit is great, and a masterpiece album is even better. But for artists who want to grow as big as possible, a steady stream of material is better still. Post Malone was Spotify’s most streamed artist of 2019 thanks to his guest appearances as much as the success of Hollywood’s Bleeding. “The type of traction that these younger artists are able to generate versus the older artists that precede the social-media era is like night and day,” says Carl Chery, Spotify’s Head of Urban Music. “Younger artists fit into more spaces. The audience is able to consume them through search, but also through a lot of the playlists that are being served up to them.”
As artists and labels adapt to the music’s new ecosystem, there’ll likely be plenty of craven attempts to game the system. So before the next decade begins in earnest, perhaps we’d be wise to appreciate 2019 as an innocent prelude. Beyond skill and drive, the artist-producer Benny Blanco thinks that an authentically outsize personality is the key to being a star going forward. “If you look at an artist who broke through this year, you can't tell me they don't have a huge personality and they're not one hundred percent themselves,” he says. “You look at Lizzo, Billie, Rosalía, you know who these people are...and they're fucking tight!”
Originally Appeared on GQ