Over the course of the last 10-ish years, pop genre has been evolving and branching out like never before. Due to underground musicians who experimented with new sounds to see if "more and new" could be achieved within the genre, pop music gained a new definition. Artists like Grimes, Charli XCX, SOPHIE and Carly Rae Jepsen helped to push the genre outside its preconceived boundaries by incorporating alternative features to their songs.
In the radio-friendly pop sphere, we had a lot of artists who weren't necessarily experimenting with the new but reviving the past with their 80's inspired, nu-disco & retro sound. In this lane, Dua Lipa, The Weeknd and Doja Cat stood out the most.
Personally pop was a genre that I dismissed for quite a long time. When somebody mentioned pop music, I would think of the cheesy and catchy (in the worst possible way) songs that everybody involuntarily knew the words to. However when I got rid of my "let me define what I'm listening to based on cool genres " complex at age 17, I really learned to admire certain artists who were basing their music off of very interesting concepts. Charli XCX and Dua Lipa would be great examples.
Charli XCX manages to mix sweet and harsh textures perfectly to create a well and uniquely meshed sound. Her music is super-processed, loud and definitely interesting in every way possible. Her sound design and arrangements are unparalleled though it took some time for her to become this unmatched.
Charli hit number one in the UK in 2012 with the song I Love It by Icona Pop. Two years later, we witnessed her big feature moment on Iggy Azalea's song "Fancy". (The song: Decent, kind of bad. The outfits and the concept: Amazing) She achieved big success within the mainstream with her synth oriented rock-ish pop sound. Eventhough her music was catchy, if we take Boom Clap and Break The Rules as a reference point it's safe to say that she was making music that wasn't different from any other pop artist. Commercially, she was doing everything right but her success didn't last very long within the mainstream. Her sophomore album "Sucker" sold 29.000 copies when it first came out which was a big commercial failure.
After releasing Sucker Charli released the "Vroom Vroom" EP and two mixtapes. Vroom Vroom was probably one of the most pivotal moments in Charli's career. It was produced by the one and only PC Music pioneer SOPHIE and the production didn't shy away from any exaggeration. Alongside the Vroom Vroom EP, the two mixtapes Pop 2 and Number 1 Angel caught the attention of many critics. These releases were drastically different from her previous work. She adventured with new and mechanical sounds that weren't present in her mainstream hits. It was "quirkier" if you will, not appealing to everybody, not a chart material.
With these mixtapes, Charli officially showcased her stylistic change. She knew what she was doing was commercially risky as renouncing a mainstream image doesn't always come with success. Coldplay for example, started off with an album as wholesome and era defying as Parachutes and got worse and worse over time to make profit. Charli on the other hand, gave up on cliché pop formulas to do something unique and genre-bending. Coldplay should take some notes... but oops it's too late for them to have a serious career.
Photo by Marcus Cooper // Provided by Atlantic Records
In 2019, Charli XCX released her third album "Charli" a loud, in-your-face statement. It was a complete success. With her futuristic and overflowing production she did something that wasn't done before. The gimmicks and quirks that I would truly dislike like heavy autotunes and a very loud shout-y production elsewhere, worked cohesively and purposely on this album.
Her latest album "how i'm feeling now" is probably one of my favorite albums ever made. It's Charli's strongest form, it's mature, raw and crazy at the same time. She gave herself 3 weeks to make the album during quarantine. She wrote the songs, produced and mixed the album. It's a multi-layered electronic fever dream that encompasses all the themes that feeds Charli's soul: Gatsby-like huge parties, raves, wild nights and a lot of self questioning.
With giddier songs like forever and 7 years, we also see a softer side of Charli which we haven't seen before. In her previous album "Charli" we encountered many lyrics that were passive agressive, that tried to convince her partner that she wasn't good for him and she was going to hurt him eventually, that she can't say "I love you" back. However with this album we see that she finally realizes the more intimate feelings that she has and acknowledges them. Way to go Charli.
The album is super upbeat and fluctuating, reflecting Charli's restlessness, mood swings and anxieties. Call it bubblegum bass, hyper-pop or whatever else, she is doing something truly remarkable.
I listened to that album on a very long road trip and my perspective about pop music changed forever. While listening to each song over and over again, trying to capture each layer and drop, I realized that Charli had made something bigger than herself that will guide every other generation to come.
“I’m gonna be around for a really long time. Maybe I’ll be a songwriter but whatever I do, I will have changed the landscape of what pop music is.” - Charli XCX
She is one of the most influential forces in music. She mixes mainstream pop with a maximalist other-worldy and robotic production that offers listeners something interesting to hear every time. From the noisy autotunes to rave music influenced sounds, her boundary-pushing music proves how interesting pop music can be.
Dua Lipa followed a different (but similar) career path to Charli XCX. Unlike Charli's short success in the mainstream, Dua Lipa ruled all the charts with whatever song she released. She had a big spotlight moment with New Rules and the hype never really went away. In Turkey for example, I remember Dua Lipa being everybody's favorite pop singer for two years straight. People loved the sassy and empowering lyrics and her down-to-earth kindness. I myself, was a big fan too. Though I have to admit it was due to her impeccable style and not due to her hits. I always wished her to take up a stylistic change which wasn't crafted solely for commercial success and she finally did with her latest album Future Nostalgia.
I can't say that Future Nostalgia is experimental and futuristic unlike Charli's music. It would simply be the wrong way to explain her music and a comparison is very unnecessary. I would rather choose to define the album as a bright and glittery retro-inspired blast!!!!!
In Dua's case, the media was still very interested about what her next step was going to be considering that she was already one of the biggest pop stars of our generation. She already had a big and supportive following alongside her mainstream success so she could have easily sticked with what worked and stayed in that lane until people got bored. However she chose to go on a different path and execute the music that actually sparks up her creativity, pays tribute to her idols and mixes&matches the best features of pop and disco.
Photo by Pixie Levinson
Her opening track Future Nostalgia really tells us what she is up to, explaining her stylistic change in the most direct way possible. “You want a timeless song I want to change the game.” She definitely achieves her goal with this album. The influence of ABBA, Daft Punk, Madonna, Jamiroquai, Justin Timberlake, Blondie, Carly Rae Jepsen and Kylie Minogue are very out there but it doesn't take away from the originality and brilliance of the production of the album.
Is Future Nostalgia genre-bending? No. Is it important that it isn't ? Not at all because it's amazing as it is. I didn't think a big name like Dua would reevaluate her sound when she was already pushing the right buttons with the radio-friendly music that she was making. She really brings the dance floor to your house with Future Nostalgia and makes you move your butt in this horribly depressing times that we're in.
When it comes to her artistic developement besides her music, Lipa was harshly critiqued for not being able to dance and having a bad stage presence. She took those criticisms, worked on it and delivered amazing visuals. The music videos for the singles are super fun, bright, colorful and representative of the essence of the album.
Her world premier performance of "Don't Start Now" broke the internet. It proved everyone that Dua has worked on her stage presence and took the constructive criticism. It's such an incredible achievement that an artist as popular as her could overpower the sophomore slump curse and create something as confident and bright as this album. She became a fucking superstar with this one.
While Charli repositioned experimental," weird" and electronic music to pop, Dua brought back the pivotal essence that defined it by giving it a modern twist.
Charli constantly plays with new sounds to see what pop music can be and how she can think outside the box with her futuristic and offbeat taste whereas Dua, as her album indicates, brings nostalgia and future together. They both dropped their mainstream appeal to make something that pleases them -which ended up with being way more appreciated anyway-
I think it's influential in every way possible considering that succes within the pop genre demands a lot of cliché formulas. We definitely need more pop artists like these two who aren't afraid to redefine their sound and set their own rules.
We know that Dua has no problems with setting "rules" anyway.