In 2012 and 2013, some of the best pop singles of this decade came out. Taylor Swift’s “22” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together”; “Live While We’re Young,” “Kiss You” and “Best Song Ever” by One Direction; “C’mon” and “Die Young” by Kesha; Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”; Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” and “Roar”; the inescapable “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, followed by her collab song with Owl City, “Good Time.”
It was a great time for pop music — not that I paid much attention. Most of pop music during that time went over my head, believe it or not.
I can think of two reasons for this. Reason #1: the (ugh) hipster scene was still thriving during those years and I was listening mostly to songs related to that movement (The music was great. The postmodern-hippie thing, not so much). Folk songs, indie-rock, and synth-pop mostly dominated my playlists. I was listening to a lot of The Weepies, Passion Pit, Two Door Cinema Club, Bloc Party, Frightened Rabbit, Empire of the Sun, Santogold, some Lykke Li, etc.
Reason # 2 relates to a specific time in my life. 2012 remains one of my most emotionally trying years. Having just turned 25 and in the throes of a cliché quarterlife crisis, I had no clear direction then. I had just quit my second job. I lost a parent. I was freelance writing left and right but in an uninspired automaton kind of way. I applied for local creative fellowships that I’d been eyeing for years, and did not even hear back. The future seemed obscured by dark clouds. I felt like I was floating at sea with no land in sight. Around this time, listening to pop music — with its catchy hooks, in-your-face lyrics, and mostly joyful melodies — seemed to be the farthest thing from authentic for me.
My life situation has vastly improved since then. I’m currently enjoying the stability of corporate life, occasionally boring though it may be. I’ve had a, shall we say, colorful love life these past few years. My fiction and poetry have gotten published in anthologies, literary magazines and journals — which makes the creative writer in me happy. I’ve been travelling to some of my dream destinations.
In this generally auspicious time mostly spent inside an office, seated in front of a flat screen monitor and wearing a headset to filter the sounds coming from my fellow corporate ants (lol), my love for pop music began to return. I began backtracking through the best pop music of this decade.
Katy Perry became the gateway drug to my pop renaissance high. I went through Teenage Dream and Prism the way an eight-year-old would an ice cream float. The thing about Katy’s music is that it’s so easy to digest. Her songs can be sung karaoke-style virtually by anyone. The lyrics veer between fun (“Teenage Dream,” “Legendary Lovers”) empowering (“Roar,” “Part of Me”) and verbose nonsense (“Hummingbird Heartbeat”). I took great pleasure listening to “Dark Horse,” which had Katy parallelizing a love connection to a devil’s contract. That dark imagery gives it power.
Taylor Swift came next. 1989’s depth and musical polish surprised me. The 80s sound, coupled with Taylor’s intoxicating (and sometimes toxic) paramour persona, made the album memorable and addicting. “Style” and “Wildest Dreams” contain poignant narratives about an intense albeit doomed love affair that I found relatable. “Welcome to New York” captures the feeling of visiting or moving to a new city and believing that anything is possible. Some standouts from her Red album include “22” (a song about the uncertainty of youth, which is a joy to sing in the shower, I tell ya) and “Begin Again.”
You know what’s a complete shock to me? That I would end up loving Carly Rae Jepsen so damn much. Yes, the girl who sang “Call Me Maybe.” It started when I was in the gym, sweating it out on the elliptical and with a random Spotify playlist playing in my earphones. Suddenly, the sound of a saxophone intro broke the monotony of my cardio exercise. I had to stop and actually listen to the track, “Run Away With Me.” It’s about a person calling out to her secret lover to “run away” with her “over the weekend” so they could experience all the joys of their love. The song has a sense of urgency and abandon that would make the listener recall a time when nothing else seems to matter except the person you are in love with.
After that moment I had to listen to the whole album Emotion, as well as its B-side EP, and I Really Really Really Liked it (see what I did there?). Much like Taylor Swift’s 1989, Emotion employs an 80s sound and feel. It details what seems to be a coherent story about a secret love affair and all the highs and lows that entails. Carly is surprisingly adept at exploring and conveying not only the elation of love but also its painful moments without giving up the euphoric melodies that she is now known for.
“Cut to the Feeling” and “I Really Like You” revel in the bliss of romantic utterance. “This Kiss” uncovers the initial excitement of a forbidden flirtation.
“Your Type” goes into the friend-zone realm and mines it for all the self-pitying, unrequited, masochistic goodness it has to offer (“I break all the rules for you/ Break my heart and start again/ I’m not the type of girl you call more than a friend”). The title track “Emotion” is a vindictive song about not allowing a former lover to get over you (“Toss and turn without me, boy/ Let it hit you cold and hot/ All my kisses, say you’ll miss it/ And you can’t forget me”). “Fever” goes in the opposite direction, with the persona expressing she’s the one who will never get over the love (“You want a brand new start, alright/ I caught your fever, I’ll be feeling it forever”).
While Carly’s record sales are not as high as Taylor’s or Katy’s, she has developed a cult following of sorts, even inspiring filmmaker Max Landis to dissect her music song by song, line by line in a crazypants (and totally credible) seven-part essay called ‘A Scar No One Else Can See’.
The boys of this decade’s pop music have also found their way into my heart. I wish I had paid more attention to One Direction during their peak years, but 25-year-old Raydon found the boy band too gimmicky and overhyped at the time (I actually want to shake 2012 Raydon senseless). Now I’ve found a sort of comfort in their songs. Boy bands are famous for coming up with courtship and hyperbolic love tunes, and One Direction is (was? Are they broken up for good?) no different. Listening to “Kiss You,” “Best Song Ever,” and “Live While We’re Young” while driving to work infuses my day with adrenaline and good vibes. And when it’s time to go home, “Night Changes,” a classic love ballad if ever I heard one, goes well with that moment wherein you curl up in your bed and wrap the duvet around yourself like a cocoon.
Charlie Puth’s Voicenotes album emits sensuality even as he mostly explores heartache and relationship dysfunction. Justin Bieber’s Purpose definitely makes my list. I also like Lauv, especially his song “Easy Love” (a song that I relate to my most recent relationship), though I’m uncertain if he has staying power.
There’s a sheer joy in pop music. It’s virtually effortless for the listener and yet it is still able to provide moments of depth; of epiphany. I imagine that’s why it continues to endure even after countless criticisms of “shallowness” and its alleged factory-made quality.
It is inclusive. Anyone can listen to it. You don’t have to be an “insider,” part of an obscure subculture, or know fancy terms to appreciate it.
And for this particular writer and music fan, currently ensconced in relative middle-class comfort and the occasional ennui of adulthood, it is the thing that gets me moving again.
If you’re into heartbreak-y pop, listen to Betty Who. She deserves more love.
I’d love to hear your pop music recommendations as well. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.