Quarantunes and Lockdown Listens

Mia Smith explores how the pandemic has affected both the production of music, and the ways we choose to listen to it.

With this summer’s festivals cancelled and live music no longer, our contemporary consumption of music seems just as improbable as a sweaty mosh pit. The corona-marked musical landscape has been carved mostly by Tiktok; the singles chart is sprinkled with songs made popular by the video-sharing platform. Annoyingly catchy hits like Powfu’s remix of Beabadoobee’s ‘Coffee’, and more recently Internet Money’s ‘Lemonade’ have routinely fought over the number one spot, often to success. 

The app has proved equally as significant in catalysing an indie revival, Mitski’s ‘Strawberry Blonde’ and Phoebe Bridger’s ‘Motion Sickness’ equally as unavoidable (though less annoying). The platform has quickly transformed from something embarrassing you’d hide from your home screen to a comforting space during these ‘unprecedented times’. A strange feat has been achieved by the app in which the barrier between social media and the real world has been blurred: songs that were previously a 10 second highlight transform into a complete song played on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show. Over in the US, history was made when for the first time four Black female soloists occupied the Hot 100’s top two: Doja Cat, Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé; the timeless reign of ‘Say so’ and ‘Savage’ undoubtedly solidified by their accompanying Tiktok dances. Whether the app is a reflection of contemporary music tastes or just creating a weird stream of identical one hit wonders curated by Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae is yet to be decided, but for now, we will continue to scroll until our brains turn to mush.

A Pitchfork article by Jeremy D. Larson, entitled ‘Why Do we Even Listen to New Music?’ recently explored the strange act of musical discovery in a world where our brains would rather reward us for seeking familiarity. This may be the secret to Tiktok’s firm hold on the music industry, repeated 10 second clips sparking routines and making the complete song less of a task to listen to. Larson questions why we risk spending time on something we might not like, especially as we crawl through this current ‘tar pit of panic and dread’. It is simply human to return to things we love, because we know we love them. The physiological explanation involves our brains receiving dopamine when locating a recognisable musical pattern, triggering a powerful emotional reaction. In this moment of uncertainty, we need certainty, and a certainty that is comforting – so listening to the Taylor Swift album you were obsessed with in your teen years, or returning to your ‘Summer Rewind’ playlist shouldn’t make you feel guilty.

The pandemic has not only changed the way music is consumed, but its production too. London rapper Little Simz spent the first lockdown earlier this year mastering a mixtape, while hyper-pop legend Charli XCX set herself the task of producing an entire album. Both projects dropped in May, but are just as relevant as we now find our feet in lockdown 2.0. Living alone locked down in London, the lyrics of Little Simz’ Drop 6 tackle loneliness and anxious thoughts; the perfect sign of the zeitgeist. Opening track ‘might bang, might not’ repeats ‘This is for the now’, Simz confidently aware of the power her music holds in defining our current historical moment. Standout track ‘you should call mum’ continues to  address the ‘now’: ‘This 2020, there ain’t no hindsight’. Repetition of ‘Bored out of my mind / How many naps can I take? / How many songs can I write?’ captures the painfully relatable monotony of isolation, Simz’ creating a project that is deeply personal, but at the same time universal. 

Charli XCX also nods to the pandemic in her album How I’m Feeling Now, but steers away from cringey clichés equally as masterfully as Simz. Tracks like ‘anthems’ reminisce normality, perfectly mapping out the average lockdown day to the tune of hectic synths: I’m so bored / Wake up late, eat some cereal / Try my best to be physical / Lose myself in a TV show / Staring out to oblivion / All my friends are invisible / Twenty-four seven, miss ’em all. The album reaches for familiarity too, ‘c2.0harks back to Click, a fan favourite from her 2019 album Charli, sharing moments of identical vocals. XCX is an artist in tune with her following, the album’s production completely transparent, every moment shared on social media. Her Instagram followers watched over snippets of initial instrumentals and live streams debating possible lyrics, eagerly waiting to see if XCX could make her self-imposed deadline. Fans were entrusted to create cover art for singles, creativity encouraged during an otherwise bleak isolation. Fans were further involved in the production of lead single ‘forever”s music video, pre-corona fan-recorded videos amalgamating in a home video style, leaving us yearning for normality. Both projects will inevitably be returned to again and again, expertly defining this moment in time.

For now, we can only be patient as the music scene returns to normal, embrace new adjustments as live venues get back on track; and in the meantime continue to scroll through Tiktok, listen to new lockdown releases, and return to old favourites. 

Here’s a short list of some of the best albums that came out of the pandemic to make your lockdown 2.0 sound sweeter:

  1. Drop 6, Lil Simz 
  2. How I’m Feeling Now, Charli XCX
  3. Folklore, Taylor Swift
  4. Ungodly Hour, Chloe x Halle
  5. Women in Music Pt. III, Haim
  6. Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers
  7. Fake it Flowers, Beabadoobee
  8. Shamir, Shamir
  9. Positions, Ariana Grande
  10. Good News, Megan Thee Stallion

Artwork by Yasemin Akyol.

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