A year or so ago, I wrote an article concerning the music industry and its glamorization of the lifestyles of the rich and the famous (cue Reliant K flashback here). But lately, as I’ve listened to what currently dominates Top 40 charts and radio stations desperately trying to convince you that they’re different from the other nine currently playing the same set list on repeat, I’ve noticed something interesting. Don’t get me wrong—the overwhelming majority of music across a myriad of genres still panders to the delusional aspirations of wealth that have long been evident in music videos and lyrics which glorify glamour, unchecked spending, and the largely unattainable dream of fame and riches. But what is steadily creeping in between such odes to excess is a growing trend of realism—admissions of normalcy and fiscal responsibility set to music.
Just take a look at some of the chart toppers of the past decade, like “Price Tag” by Jessie J or “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, which demonstrate a complete 180 from the traditional money-grubbing tracks which dominate the world of modern pop and hip hop. These are songs that cast a favorable light on the relatable pastimes of us lesser humans—humans who have to deal with depressingly normal things like a monthly budget, paying bills, and crying on the inside as we watch our paycheck disappear beneath a torrent of groceries and that decorative key dish you just had to have at Target. Even slightly older tunes, like “The Way I Are” by Timbaland or Jay Z’s “Can I Get A,” reveal a movement towards a more accessible and relatable form of musical expression, something you, me, and the weird guy in apartment 6B can gel with, as we count the flies hovering slowly out of our open wallets. In brief, these musical equivalents of the “let’s stay in tonight” mindset have always been lurking on the edges of mainstream music, but only in recent years have they really exploded and taken center stage. If you’re still unconvinced of the rise of relatable pop music, just take a look at current Billboard chart topper, “Cheap Thrills” by Sia featuring Sean Paul. Lines like “I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight” are easy on the ears, easy on the wallet—and make us all feel a little bit cooler for lurking at the bar and waiting until the exact second happy hour begins to order that reasonably-priced drink.
So why the sudden and decisive reversal on the long-standing glitz and glam model of popular music? Perhaps, in a weird way, normalcy and being relatable to the common man has in itself become a trend. When you think about it, it makes sense. All you have to do is close your eyes, spin around, and point randomly to any number of conventionally “hip” eateries, gastropubs, or craft breweries and you’ll be treated to a predictable line-up of shabby-chic décor, mismatched silverware, and mason jars used as glasses (I write with convincing disdain even as I sip tea from a mason jar *cough cough*). Or if you’re too last for spinning and too poor to eat out, just turn on HGTV for half a second and come to terms with the sheer number of people in my generation who believe firmly in their uniqueness and fiscal savvy as they brag about their decision to move into tiny homes, despite the fact that all the benefits of said transition can just as easily be found by living in a mobile home (a.k.a. tiny home sans cool factor) or a one-bedroom apartment. In short, the current generation reflects the mixture of high rolling music and more down to earth tracks currently in circulation—we all aspire to grandeur and wealth, but in the absence of that unattainable dream, we glamorize normalcy and the common man. We strip away the façade of glamour until the distressed, chipped, pedestrian life below is circulated, hashtagged, and retweeted to the point where it becomes “cool.”
Will the glorification of high spending and overtones of materialism every truly disappear from the contemporary music industry? Decidedly no. We will be listening to cash-dropping anthems until currency ceases to exist…and maybe even in that hypothetical future people will still be rapping about their sweet bartering skills. The persistence of relatable songs in and amongst the top forty simply shows us an interesting microcosm of the music industry, even as it reveals recurrent themes of our shabby-chic and bargain friendly pop culture trends.