By Erica Russell
Over the past half decade or so, pop has noticeably morphed from the most recognizable iteration of the genre — that of the shiny, hook-driven, dancey music of the 1990s and 2000s — into a hybrid of expansive sonic influences. These days, its sound and style (at least, the pop dominating the radio) has more in common with R&B, house music, and, particularly in recent years, country music, with artists like Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa, Ella Mai, Kelsea Ballerini, and more redefining what a mainstream pop star sounds like at the final precipice of the 2010s. And while that '90s and '00s sheen is still lacquered onto many of today's more alternative pop offerings, it's the exception rather than the rule, with rising artists like Kim Petras, Slayyyter, and Ava Max acting more as fringe standouts for the genre proper than full blown heralds of a gloss-pop renaissance.
But just months into 2019, a new trend has emerged, with some pop artists tapping into sonic corners more unexpected than typical millennium-pop nostalgia: trip-hop, nu-metal, industrial, and breakbeat hardcore. In January, Billie Eilish, one of the singer-songwriters positioned at the top of pop's new class, released "bury a friend." The song was a spooky, unsettling slice of weirdo electronica that found the 17-year-old drifting from the ethereal alt-hip-hop of previous hits "Ocean Eyes" and "Bellyache," and leaning into dark trip-hop territory, resurrecting the slow, cerebral lurch of Massive Attack's "Inertia Creeps" (off their 1998 opus, Mezzanine) and the eerie wobble of Tricky's "Strugglin'" (off 1995's Maxinquaye).
Her trip-hop-inspired lean continued heavily on her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (released March 29), manifesting in the skittering melancholy of "xanny," the eerie dreariness of "goodbye," and the ambient, stormy sorrow of "listen before i go." Eilish also veered into heavier electronic industrial avenues on tracks like "ilomilo," a song preoccupied with death, and "you should see me in a crown," an explosive and diabolical dance-floor slammer with a pit-in-your-stomach beat.
But Eilish isn't the only artist bypassing more accessible, perhaps predictable pop-stalgic influences in favor of dark, '90s (and very early 2000s) genres. Earlier this year, enigmatic digital star Poppy released "Voicemail." Unlike the bouncy post-Robyn electro-pop of many of Poppy's previous offerings, it was a throbbing Reznorian shocker which wouldn't sound out of place on Nine Inch Nails's 1994 album The Downward Spiral, or even cushioned within the first half of Marilyn Manson's 1998 classic, Mechanical Animals. It was dark and brooding and difficult to place alongside pop's current strain. The following month, Halsey, one of pop's most chameleonic chart toppers, teamed up with English alt-rock musician Yungblud and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker for "11 Minutes," a melancholic rap rock ballad that immediately drew comparisons to the early work of nu-metal titans Linkin Park. Her raspy, emotive voice gliding over a gloomy guitar riff, Halsey's contribution specifically appeared to conjure an urgent longing that was so often present in the vocals of the late Chester Bennington.
Elsewhere, Brooke Candy appeared to take a few sonic cues from the sinister, hardcore rave beats of The Prodigy on her transgressive thumper, "Oomph," and on her stomping 2019 single, "Legends," Estonian pop singer-songwriter Kerli channeled the electro-menace of Björk's 1995 trip-hop-industrial-rock oddity, "Army of Me." Meanwhile, Grimes's entire new musical era seems to be directly influenced by '90s industrial and nu-metal: Her ominous late 2018 release, "We Appreciate Power," was a propulsive techno-industrial banger not dissimilar to the work of Machines of Loving Grace, while her chaotic collaboration with the aforementioned Poppy, "Play Destroy," fused early Madonna-esque bubblegum with rollicking heavy metal. Grimes also collaborated with Bring Me the Horizon on "Nihilist Blues," a driving, tranced-out metalcore anthem.
But why exactly are pop players like Eilish turning to the 1990s' more aggressive and cerebral genres for inspiration in 2019? Genres like industrial and nu-metal flourished in the '90s as disaffected youth turned away from the pristine pop, energetic hip-hop, and upbeat dance hits that dominated the airwaves. Particularly in North America, the rise of rock's heavier genres appeared to be part of a larger reaction to culturally dominant conservative attitudes, as well as a general suburban listlessness felt by young people who were bored of the status quo and eager to rebel, similar to the rise of grunge in the early years of the decade.
As Julie Weir, ex-founder of metal and rock label Visible Noise (Bring Me the Horizon, Bullet for My Valentine) told The Guardian in 2017, nu-metal was "something for kids to get their teeth into in an otherwise vanilla musical landscape – this was during a political lull, and before 9/11 and the Iraq war. Suburbia needed rebellion."
Meanwhile, in the U.K., trip-hop, though not as demonstrably antagonistic as industrial and metal, began to thrive as a more experimental alternative to pop and Britpop. The mutant genre — with its downtempo beats, spectral vocals and ambient tones — captured the detachment felt by so many discontented British youths. The genre also tapped into a growing sense of world weariness and technological tension. As The New York Times described in 1998, trip-hop "evokes alienation and fear ... a palpable ambivalence toward technology," as well as a sense of uncertainty that "has much to do with race riots and terrorism as the emotional risks of post-modern romance."
In 2019, the world is undoubtedly more fragmented and stressed out than it was in the 1990s. With social, political, and cultural anxieties mounting, it's no wonder an overall sense of dread is seeping into what has typically been our most irreverent and escapist of musical genres. There is rage and angst to spare. Perhaps our favorite pop artists are trying to vent alongside us, or maybe they're just preparing for the inevitable. For all her youth, Eilish's stark, confrontational, sometimes morbid debut album strictly refuses to flash a fake yearbook photo smile while soundtracking the forthcoming apocalypse. But we don't mind immersing ourselves in the doom and gloom — as long as there's a few bops.