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Don't worry, be happy: 2020 is the year of the 'poptimistic' chart topper

You might think that in troubled times, we'd reach for the sad songs. But as this year's big hits prove, the opposite is the case. Tanya Sweeney explains why


Doja Cat performs her uplifting track ‘Say So’ on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Doja Cat performs her uplifting track ‘Say So’ on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Lady Gaga went upbeat with her latest album Chromatica

Lady Gaga went upbeat with her latest album Chromatica

Doja Cat performs her uplifting track ‘Say So’ on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

When the going gets tough, the beats get going. It's official: as we search for a soundtrack in troubling times, we are more inclined to reach for a banger than an indie bed-wetter.

Where slower, smouldering pop songs have reigned supreme in recent times, Covid-19 has evidently ushered in a new change in the pop charts. The average tempo of the top 20 best-selling songs in 2020 so far registers at a rather pulsating 122 beats per minute.

According to new research, this is the highest average since 2009; around the time of the last global recession. In 2017, the average tempo of a UK chart-topper was 104 beats per minute in the US (it was as low as 90.5 beats per minute).

In more recent years, artists like Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran and Kodaline have taken things relatively slow.

These days, however, the charts are stuffed to the seams with uplifting dancefloor anthems, from Harry Styles' 'Watermelon Sugar' to Doja Cat's 'Say So'. Even Lady Gaga has shrugged off the tender balladry of her Oscar-winning hit 'Shallow' to deliver Chromatica, her most energised and uplifting album in years.

"We knew that [Gaga's single] 'Stupid Love' felt good, and the other songs we were writing gave gloomy, hard, tearful days bright endings," BloodPop, a music producer who worked on Chromatica, told Rolling Stone magazine.

"I'm looking at the top 20 now and if you were to play the chart in order, you wouldn't think the world is going through a crisis," popstar Raye, who has written for the likes of Beyoncé, Little Mix and Stormzy alongside her own solo hits, recently told the BBC.

"You would expect political or emotional music matching the aura of the time to be more prevalent, but it's actually the opposite - which shows how we're coping in the UK especially.

"Tempo, pace, escapism: music that draws you out of the reality of what is going on right now and transports you to somewhere more positive and uplifting."

Singer Charli XCX also revealed that she was pleased about this new shift in pop music.

"I feel like everything was so hip-hop infused for so long that maybe it's fun for it to be about it being so sugary and pop and happy," she told Billboard's Pop Shop podcast.

"That Doja Cat song makes me feel so happy. And same with the Dua [Lipa] song - it feels like I'm in a rom-com. I think that's really joyous and cool because I feel like there was a lot of darkness in pop for a long time."

It does make you wonder about the relationship between national mood and pop trends, and whether in moments of great uncertainty or negativity, 'poptimism' provides the perfect foil.

Neuroscientists have already established that pop music releases the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain. Stefan Koelsch, music psychologist at the Freie University in Berlin, also posited that music heightens a sense of human connectedness.

As the world went into lockdown and practised social distancing in 2020, it stands to reason that dance bangers would rise in prominence. With nowhere public to dance, party and shake off our daily lives, it's quite likely we blew off some steam at home and sought joy within the grooves of a joyous pop record. We were looking for the natural mood lifters where we could, and they don't come more immediate than a pop anthem.

"There is a clear relationship between our listening choices and personal mood," observes Professor Eoin Devereux, co-director of the Popular Music & Popular Culture Research Cluster at the University of Limerick.

"One really interesting aspect of the Covid-19 lockdown was the way in which songs were used to express fears and uncertainties. This was strongly in evidence in the many 'Survival' playlists on Spotify.

"Songs act as reservoirs for our experiences and our moods," he adds. "My own listening patterns during the lockdown focused on songs which were introspective and more high-octane ones to lighten the challenging days and nights. I returned to albums which were about certainty, energy and hope."

Professor Emery Schubert, a musicology academic at the University of New South Wales, had noted: "A cursory flick through premier fine music radio stations BBC Radio 4 and ABC-Classic shows programming of far fewer sad pieces, and a surge in music that brings cheer and a sense of community, including marches, light jazz, and 'singalongs' on stations that were known and respected for specialising in hardcore classical art music.

"We are less inclined to find or seek tunes that get us down in times of crisis. The sense of global reality is already doing this, making positive, uplifting music become an important part of our well-being."

Searching for a song that helps us deal with a social or economic climate is not a new phenomenon. In fact, global downturns and periods of crisis have long affected the way we consume popular music.

As far back as the 7th century BC, the poet Thaletas was requested to sing hymns when the plague struck. In 1723, Bach wrote his 'Cantata No.25' a year after the great plague of Marseille ended - a piece that could comfort in times of distress. Even during the Irish famine, millions sought solace in folk singing.

During World War I in Europe, singalongs, music hall attendance and the buying of sheet music boomed in popularity. 'It's a Long Way To Tipperary', Henry James William's jaunty marching tune, was a standout track of the era.

WW2, similarly, ushered in a sea change in how people consumed popular music. The US War Department, realising the beneficial impact of music on morale, joined forces with various recording companies to compile V-Discs (V for victory), shipped to troops overseas.

More recently, radio stations across the USA played songs such as 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters' and 'God Bless America' in the aftermath of 9/11, which gave people a sense of getting through difficult times together as a unified nation.

We have yet to see how Covid-19, and the uncertainty that has marked 2020 in general, will manifest itself in the pop charts of the future.

It's probably a certainty that Gal Gadot's star-studded rendition of 'Imagine' won't be bothering the Top 5 any time soon. But the smart money says that whatever we will be listening to, we'll be dancing at a pretty decent clip to it.

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Irish Independent