Charts, change and Covid-19

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

Isabella Ambrosio dissects how Covid-19 has affected modern music.

While the world seemed to halt in March 2020, the music industry kept going. Even with cancelled festivals, tours and contests – as well as thousands made redundant – the artists themselves were finding new meaning. Some released their albums early, some rescheduled them for later release, and others dropped new albums with no warning. Artists have created albums inspired by the pandemic or released music as a way to comfort themselves as well as others. They found themselves with excessive amounts of time and the ability to be creatively free was at their fingertips. But, looking at the music charts, many of the singles topping them don’t make any mention of the virus. Between the weeks of March 27 to October 25, BTS’ ‘Dynamite’ and Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande’s ‘Stuck with U’ are two of many that topped the charts in the Official Top 40 Charts in Ireland, while Tyga’s ‘Bored in the House’ and Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ dominated social media outlets like Instagram and TikTok. The music industry is booming, but many different ways.

For Charli XCX, she created her latest electro-pop album How I’m Feeling during lockdown. It was created in the span of six weeks in collaboration with her fans and had a very transparent creative process. She had quick video updates on her YouTube channel and allowed fans to pick songs to be put on the album. Her lyrics capture the feelings that have been brewing in all of us. ‘Anthem’ expresses the ennui of being stuck at home, unable to see anyone, and ‘Claws’ talks about trying to take care of yourself while in such a situation. In an interview with Stereogum, she said “I didn’t just do the album to fill up my time. I did it because, for me to feel positive, I need to be creative. But also, I kind of wanted to document how I’m feeling and my emotions and experiences during this time. Obviously, it’s something the entire world is going through”. 

‘Stuck with U’ by Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 list, their music video featuring tons of stars such as Demi Lovato, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, 2 Chainz, Lil Dicky and more - but what stands out the most, is the fact that it was a charity single. The proceeds were donated to the First Responder’s Children Foundation, which provides scholarships for children whose parents are first responders during the Covid-19 pandemic. While the lyrics touched on being stuck at home, and not wanting to be stuck with anyone else, there was no direct mention to quarantine as compared to some of Charli XCX’s songs on her most recent release.

Then there are other artists, like BTS, who completely avoided mentioning the virus, as they were “discouraged by the situation so [they] took on a new challenge which was ‘Dynamite’”. The single is a light, 70s-inspired, disco-pop track which evokes the carefree, chill feeling of summer. But it wouldn’t have released when it did if the pandemic didn’t happen. Talking on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon about their upcoming album BE (Deluxe Edition), they discussed how they saw the song as something for them, but also for their fans who “they wanted to energize and give joy to”. The positive energy is radiated throughout the song and it gives a sensation of being carefree, a stark contrast to reality, but a lovely thought.

Tyga’s track falls in between Charli XCX’s most recent release and ‘Stuck With U’ in terms of lyrical content. "Okay I'm bored in the house, and I'm in the house bored/ Bored in a house and I'm in the house bored" Tyga x Curtis Roach’s song "Bored in the House" states, existing as an ode to safety orders and government lockdowns. Compared to Charli's songs, it's a lighter take, but it still discusses how a lot of people actually feel about quarantine - they’re goddamn bored. The song feels like a bit of comedic relief between Bieber and Grande’s love ballad in quarantine and Charli XCX’s blunt commentary on the pandemic. 

Oftentimes, popular music tends to have patterns such as similar beats and themes, especially during the summer and winter. One may expect that Covid-19 would be a common theme within new music but there is no real distinctive pattern. Songs like ‘Bored in the House’ and ‘Anthem’ are distinctively about quarantine, whereas songs like ‘WAP’ and ‘Dynamite’ have absolutely nothing to do with Covid-19. Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande straddled the line with ‘Stuck with U’, not directly mentioning quarantine, but being stuck indoors with someone they love and using the proceeds to donate to charity. 

Covid-19 and quarantine have truly been interesting influences on the music scene. Whether people are listening to music more or less because of isolation, new or old artists, finding a different meaning within music, Covid-19 has changed music’s relationship with pretty much everyone. If anything, the variety of music that is topping charts and blowing up on social media is the variety of music that everyone is consuming right now. There is no specific genre, so many people’s music tastes are evolving and growing and the variety on the charts reflect that. While there is no singularly distinct influence of Covid-19 on the music industry, the music industry is beginning to hold up a mirror to their audience’s taste - changing and varied.