Searching for a summer jam in 2021

Is it unrealistic to expect pop music to reflect the current mood?

collage of Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, Lorde, and Megan Thee Stallion

Recently, I've been having this problem. I'll want to turn on music when cooking or taking a walk or something, so I open Spotify and I'm stumped. I have no idea what to play.

I'm admittedly obsessive about seasonal music, so I silo my favorite albums to the time of year they're most suited for. That means, for example, that it's still too early for Stranger in the Alps or Sam's Town. I need a summer soundtrack, but this isn't just any summer. Normally, I like something light and airy for languid summer days and carefree bangers to pregame fun nights with friends. Normally, I'm not caught in between grief and trauma in the recent past and abject terror in my future. Who's supposed to soundtrack something like that?

The answer has seemed obvious for a while. We've put our faith in Lorde to deliver us the sonic untangling of emotions we can't articulate. We've waited four long years since Melodrama for the next masterpiece from the prodigy who created the pop sound of the past decade. We've been asking too much.

In a recent New York Times profile, Lorde expressed her discomfort with these demands. "They’re expecting spiritual transcendence from me, from these works," She said. "‘I need Lorde to come back and tell me how to feel, tell me how to process this period in my life!’ I was like, oh, man, I don’t know if I can help you with that. But what I do know is that if we all look up here, it’s going to help you a lot!”

By "up here," she means towards the sun and nature and away from our devices. She's not wrong. My attachment to Twitter is a compulsion, and it's certainly not a good thing that I insist on beaming news on the Delta variant, climate collapse, Afghanistan, and celebrities caught grooming children directly into my eyeballs for most of my waking hours. But like... also... I do need someone to tell me how to feel and how to process this period in my life!!

Admittedly, Lorde has always made me feel hideously insecure, because I'm technically always exiting the period of life that she's currently nailing. I was in college when Pure Heroine showed me how I should have spent my high school years, and I was struggling through the miserable end of a five-year relationship when she dropped her magnum opus about entering your 20s partying and hooking up with strangers. Now she's gonna remind me that I wasted my mid- to late-20s being too online!!

None of this is Lorde's fault, and I think that she's doing the right thing as an artist by making the album she wants to make, not the one her fans pressure her for. But I do think it's interesting that the long-awaited L3 is dropping in the tensest month of an uneasy summer.

It's not just me, right? The vibe right now is certified horrific? I can't focus on anything for more than 30 minutes at a time. I feel irresponsible for not paying more attention to multiple different crises that are currently ongoing, and I feel helpless that I can't do anything about any of them. As a single person dreading new waves of lockdowns, I feel the pressure to find my true love with the urgency of a fairytale princess racing to break a curse. And that's just my own personal bullshit – I don't work in a hospital, I don't have to worry about sending kids back to school right now, I don't live in an area with wildfires raging nearby.

meme of Victoria Justice interrupting Ariana Grande to say "I think we ALL like to sing," altered to read "I think we ALL have unresolved trauma"

Anyway. This was about music.

In November 2019, Lorde shared that her third album would be delayed, as she had unexpectedly lost her beloved dog Pearl and needed time to grieve before finishing the new music. She stated that this loss would inform the rest of the album. But the overall aesthetic of the album, she's since explained, is “turn-of-the-century beachside optimism” – think Natalie Imbruglia, Natasha Bedingfield, pre-Timbaland Nelly Furtado. I'm always a sucker for Y2K nostalgia, but I don't know if I want that right now, at least not in that way. (Soccer Mommy, as a point of comparison, also recalled that era, specifically Sheryl Crow's output at the time, for her song "circle the drain;" but she used the nostalgia for bittersweet, sad effect instead of pure homage.) I imagine the album would have been delayed regardless once covid hit – both Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga had their last album cycles obliterated in the spring of 2020 after months of planning music videos and tours, and Solar Power doesn't seem to fit the type of casual release of the Charli XCX, Ariana Grande, and Taylor Swift albums that dropped during quarantine.

On one hand, I wonder if an album conceived and recorded in 2018 and 2019 could ever make sense in 2021. On the other, I don't know what album could make sense right now. I love the pop bangers we've gotten this year. Blasting "Industry Baby" and "Thot Shit" has lifted my spirits and distracted me from all the real-life nightmares. And if I'm being fair, I do have a few late-summer album that speaks to the current horrors surrounding me, but if I listen to Norman Fucking Rockwell! or Punisher right now, I will sink into an even worse depression.

I guess I want something upbeat but dark, not too dark that it will drag me down but not too cheery that it feels grotesque. Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo are both making music with the template that Lorde pioneered, but I can't relate to those famous teens because I am neither famous nor a teen. Solar Power isn't out yet, so I can't say for certain that it won't scratch some of this itch, but it doesn't seem likely that a rich genius living on the beach in one of the countries least impacted by covid will give me the tools to process what I've been experiencing for the past two years.

Then again, how can you make any art right now unless you're an out-of-touch millionaire? Taylor Swift has written two full albums in quarantine and re-recorded one and a half so far, but I bet I could be that productive if I owned eight houses. I can barely keep up with this newsletter, because I'm currently trying to find a new apartment and a new job, plus keep up with groceries and dishes and laundry. If I could go back in time and tell my teenage self anything, it'd be "find a songwriting coach and put out a smash album IMMEDIATELY, because the economy is about to collapse and you'll want to be able to chill down the road."

This burden is too heavy for a pop star's shoulders. I shouldn't have these unrealistic expectations. But I still don't know what album to play while I'm writing this, so I guess I'll keep an eye out for surprise drops from Janelle Monáe or Kesha. Maybe someone will come through with the hedonistic catharsis pop I'm looking for. We can only hope.

More like this:

I want to be selfish
18 months into a now-permanent pandemic, not caring about other people sure seems enticing.
Shiny objects
distractions in the summer of our discontent
The most exasperating, unending celebrity breakup
also some complaints about a terrible local radio station