The glossy, glorious return of adult modern pop in 2022

On her second album Hold the girl, Rina Sawayama, the breakout British artist known for the mashup style of her 2020 debut—Y2K pop meets nu-metal meets 90s R&B—doubles down on her sonic signature. This time, she hones the sounds of early 2000s adult modern radio, updating them with stadium-sized drum fills and stompy club beats to tell the story of re-educating herself.

From the acrobatic “ay-ee-ay-ee-ay” choruses of “Catch Me in the Air” and “Forgiveness” to the acoustic country-pop sweetness of “Send My Love to John” and high-gloss sheen on piano power ballad closer “To Be Alive,” Hold the girl creating a world of vintage pop songs for the emotionally literate millennial looking to recapture the joy of the music of a 2000s childhood with a grown-up perspective on the decade’s ills.

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Rina Sawayama – Catch Me In The Air (Official Visual)

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If 2021 saw the mainstream revival of pop-punk with albums from artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Willow, then 2022 marked the glossy, glorious return of adult contemporary. This is exactly the music I remember from my own childhood, sitting in the driver’s seat in the back of my mother’s ’96 Town and Country, the voices of Sheryl Crow, Faith Hill and Shania Twain building on the chorus. it, vocal flourishes swooping out of overdubs. This was deceptive music, its acoustic guitar and piano-driven pop the foundation of strong voices to drive the feeling of venturing into new beginnings (“I want to ask everyone to lighten up“), predicts your luck in love (“Baby, isn’t that how love should be?”), or completely surrender to it (“And for your love I would give my last breath”) to the fully saturated edge.

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Like the decade of romantic comedies that preceded it, the adult contemporary genre was home to music that explored women’s emotions in all their seriousness, leaving melodrama to the straightforward feel-good-chasing Hot 100 pop hits, a fleeting taste of emotion , which lasts as long as a song but does not linger. Songs spun on contemporary adult radio were all about the emotional residue left behind: women torn apart and unable to let go—far past the point that anyone else cares—falling back in love with the shadow of the past creeping over their shoulders , or explore the clarity of feeling that comes after a personal disaster. Ultimately, it begs the question: Who am I now that I know I can survive this?

This year’s albums from a new vanguard of pop musicians – Sawayama, Maggie Rogers and LA three-piece MUNA among them – provided similar responses about reclaiming their agency and freedom by using adult contemporary as the base of their sound and building on it with their own range of influences. Sawayama added the arena rock of the 80s and the neo-futuristic visions of early Max Martin; Rogers took the lifeblood of the new wave in New York and pushed herself into warped male-dominated territory as she grew up; MUNA kept the dark nightclub pulse of their previous albums for an electronic and soulful effect.

All three acts are on their way from arena opening to big ticket billing, not only supporting Taylor Swift, Lorde and Kacey Musgraves, but filling those seats themselves for the next few years to come. Their albums are all a product of the universe imposed self-reflection that stems from the beginning of the pandemic, and in response to fame and success.

Maggie Rogers

For Sawayama, it manifested as going back to her childhood and using the popular music of the time (and especially Shania Twain’s country pop) to relieve herself of old traumas and create something she didn’t have growing up queer. , Asian girl living under Section 28 in the UK. The best example of that is the rollicking “This Hell,” but the entire resulting album—its power-ballad beginning swept into a rave and industrial rock interlude that went straight back to stretched-out, soulful pop—leaves you bewildered, as leaving a therapy appointment, everyone cried out. “If I can heal someone around me or someone that I don’t know with the songs that I write and I’ve been given an opportunity to do that,” she shared ELLE in June, “why wouldn’t I take it?”

For Rogers, weighed down by the intense pressure to deliver his debut and the non-stop years of touring that followed, stopping in Maine at the start of the pandemic was a chance to return to the roots of his creative process and making music as a way of being rather than serving an industry that expected something from her.

The adult contemporary genre was home to music that explored women’s emotions in all their seriousness

“I think I returned to songwriting in a way that feels as vulnerable and intimate as it did in high school or college when I was making songs just for myself,” she shared. earlier this year.

Surrender, her second album released in July, is a full-throttle offering that pushes everything to the brink of emotion: her voice, untamed on the single-take recording of “Horses”; the production, its stark contrasts between the slower, Vanessa Carleton-esque opener “Overdrive” and the new wave frenzy of “Shatter”; and its emotions, self-possessed on “That’s Where I Am” and unconsciously optimistic on the acoustic slow burn “Begging for Rain” and closer “Different Kind of World.”

Rogers made the kind of album she wanted to hear live during a period without shows, but perhaps also one that creates a vision of her future as a more centered person, sure of her place in the music industry. “I think that’s so much of what creativity is, right?” she told in July. “You create the world you want to see, and these acts of imagination inevitably become super aspirational.”

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Maggie Rogers – Horses (Official Video)

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For MUNA, their third self-titled album was the result of a professional shake-up, an unexpected exit from major label RCA in early 2020 that sent Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson back to the drawing board and wondering. what it would sound like to make music as if they were “a huge dyke boy band”.

“I really love the idea of ​​recreating our childhood, but coming across as the cultural icons that we wish we could have had,” Gavin, the group’s lead singer, said over Zoom in December.

“It would have really meant the world to me as a 12-year-old, 13-year-old to see a band like us,” McPherson shared back in June.

“The record we made sounds like an early 2000s record, but it’s much more explicitly queer than an early 2000s record could be.”

It led to a certain amount of happy irony when MUNA dressed as Lindsay Lohan’s band Pink Slip from the movie Cool Friday for their tour-ending hometown shows in late October. For someone like me, who began to form memories and seek out my own musical interests at the turn of the century, it seemed like the only bands without anyone cis men in them (and where the members played instruments, unlike pop groups like the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child) were fictional, like Pink Slip or Josie and the Pussycats. That era was arguably more defeating for McPherson, who is non-binary. But even Maskin, who remembers seeing the band Heart perform while growing up, says there was something reductive and tokenizing about the way the rock band was talked about at the time. She notes that the oversimplifications about MUNA are also similar.

“It couldn’t be like a woman performing rock music, it’s like ‘The heart was like girl band“back then,” she says. “I feel like there’s always a sort of token girl band … and Heart was so sexualized.”


Naomi McPherson, Katie Gavin and Josette Maskin from MUNA.

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Gavin expresses similar unease about what she internalized about the music industry and her chances of success in it growing up.

“I was so sure that the keys to the kingdom were held by powerful men and they were only given to the women that they would fuck,” she says.

Let’s be clear: MUNA is fuckable. But the kind of people who lose their minds over the band’s chemistry on stage probably aren’t the same kind of people who could make or break artists’ careers in the 2000s based on their desire to be male record managers. These days, MUNA is under the wing of fellow queer musician Phoebe Bridgers and her label, Saddest Factory, and they’ve made a record of shiny pop music without sacrificing emotional intimacy, the lyrical lived experience of queer existence, or surrendering their more adventurous electronic impulses. On their self-titled album released this summer, wind-in-your-hair buzz from “Silk Chiffon,” an ode to letting yourself fall in love with a girl that sounds destined for a 2000s teen rom-com ( and ended up i one this year), can sit right next to the full-throated “What I Want” and the downtempo, country-pop ballad “Kind of Girl”.

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MUNA – Kind Of Girl (Official Video)

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“There is something beautiful about revisiting the sounds of our elders and trying to honor that legacy by fighting to be equally filled with the versions of ourselves [as possible]”, says Gavin. “The record we made sounds like an early 2000s record, but it’s a lot more explicitly queer than an early 2000s record could be.”

Rina Sawayama, Maggie Rogers, MUNA, and so many other artists who might have felt excluded by the essentialism of gender and sexuality in the 2000s have grown up to make great music this year—music that builds on the adult contemporary tradition of acoustic guitar and piano music that was popular at a time when attitudes were completely different. iLe explored the socio-political landscape of the world and her place in it as a Puerto Rican woman in the cubist self-portrait Nacarile; Britain’s Connie Constance dissected the power dynamics of interpersonal relationships as a black woman Miss Power; SZA took another acoustic turn SEA. getting more real than ever about insecurities and unflattering romantic impulses.

Outside of the music world, early aughts nostalgia began to filter into the mainstream this year, with young audiences on TikTok raving about the aesthetic of miniskirts and skinny jeans while overlooking how those styles were born in an era that emphasized impossible standards of beauty about thinness and whiteness and femininity. Raised in the 2000s? That decade was pure brain poison. But if we can resist an oversimplification of the past, if we can deconstruct it and rebuild it in ways that better serve our adult selves, as Rina Sawayama, Maggie Rogers and MUNA did in 2022, then vintage sound can be fertile ground to plant a garden in

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