Is Pop Music Growing Up?
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Is Pop Music Growing Up?

Adult contemporary songs are becoming hits again. How?

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Is Pop Music Growing Up?
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Seriously, what is happening to pop music these days? The charts practically look nothing like they did even a few years ago, when EDM was still king. (I mean, it still is somewhat, if Zedd and The Chainsmokers have anything to sya about it.) Nowadays, tried-and-true hip hop is raging back (as opposed to EDM-friendly hip hop), and pop stars who were infallible are seeing their newest singles take an unexpected dive down the charts. All that's missing are bros with greasy hair and no talent to try and make post-grunge relevant again. But maybe the most shocking development is the return of a genre that had been pretty much left for dead: Adult contemporary.

You know what adult contemporary is. It's when the Disney films of the 90s played songs over the end credits. Simply put, it's those gargantuan ballads with the strings and the swelling crescendos and the silky/booming vocalists that made your heart bleed. Think Céline Dion or Mariah Carey when they weren't being poppy, busy dancing or getting down with rappers. That genre was inescapable in the 90s. If teen pop dealt its first big blow, by the time Lady Gaga came around, it was on life support. For heaven's sake, Simon Cowell gave the aughts their own version of Mariah with Leona Lewis, only to see her pop career falter. It didn't matter how great "Bleeding Love" was; Lewis suffered from a case of poor timing. Had she come a few years earlier, she might have had some longevity. These days, her biggest story is that she's performing in Cats. Quite the venture away from the pop charts.

There were other artists that fit snugly into adult contemporary; Josh Groban comes to mind. But even if there were post-Gaga power ballads like "Impossible" that became hits, they didn't fit neatly into the adult contemporary genre. For those neater hits by superstars like Beyoncé, it's likely because of their name recognition that lifted them up. Even the ones produced by pther stars like Bruno Mars and Christina Perri likely became hits from name association and movie soundtracks (for Perri) respectively (Perri was adept at creating hit ballads, though she isn't that big of a star these days). Perhaps one exception was John Legend. Even though "All Of Me" did a boost from getting a dance remix played on the radio, it was still a unicorn: A deeply earnest piano ballad that focused on Legend's impeccable wail. Now he's more relevant than ever, winning Oscars and showing up in movies like La La Land.

Other ballads did break through the fog, whether it was by a British band led by a guy who literally sounds like an elf, or two guys from New York who gave Christina Aguilera her biggest hit in years. Like John Legend, they were exceptions to the heavily-propulsive pop scene at the time; unlike Legend, they didn't stay relevant. In fact, about the only true artist that could be comfortably considered to be adult contemporary is the premier blue-eyed soul singer of our day. Adele's mammoth ballads tug at the heartstrings; even though she's perfectly capable of other types of music, her default setting is with the big ballads. While she doesn't have the vocal range of Mariah and Céline, she runs circles around them when it comes to restraint and emotional range.

Of course, one artist does not a genre make. However, last year saw something of a sea change.

How can an unknown band from Denmark have a breakthrough hit called "7 Years" that was as about as close as the halcyon days of adult contemporary as you could get? Usually, when Scandinavian talent wants to break through stateside, it's with a song about taking copious amounts of drugs to get over a breakup. What made this song different is that it seemed to fit the mood of the pop charts. Tempos were slower than before, even for the dancier songs. The subject matter was also more introspective and mature. Perhaps this is more fertile ground for a comeback.

Indeed, this year might prove the clearest sign yet that adult contemporary is relevant again as a vehicle for pop stardom. One of the most famous winners of the British version of The X Factor overcame a series of disastrous career choices and other battles to unexpectedly break though in the U.S. While James Arthur's voice has been compared to a mix of Sam Smith and other artists, "Say You Won't Let Go" is the kind of song that Smith probably would gladly trade his Oscar for. It's not only soulful, it miraculously avoids being maudlin (thanks in part to the urgency in Arthur's raspy voice), and it's touching with the appropriate amount of drama.

Now, what stops "7 Years" and "Say You Won't Let Go" from being complete throwbacks is an incorporation of more modern trends like hip hop/R&B-influenced drum/percussion and lyrics that are less vapid and more earthy. Quite frankly, Mariah and Céline wouldn't sell these songs as well. Even John Mayer, who can tackle adult contemporary with aplomb, would sound just a little fake with these songs.

So what is it? Is it the fact that we had the worst election in recent memory, or are the Millennials growing up?

The oldest of the bunch are now in their 30s, and this generation grew up watching Disney movies, so even if we weren't around to see someone like Céline in their prime, we knew of their songs and how they made us feel. Now, there are artists that can make that genre speak to a new generation. The songs will still make our hearts swell, but apart from Adele, the age of the adult contemporary diva isn't here. Instead, ballads are speaking a different language.

It appears that ballads are indeed back. Even more impressive, Millennials are reviving a genre that it seemed they left for dead. Will adult contemporary regain its place as one of the top radio mainstays? Only time will tell.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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