One of the first songs I put on my running playlist of notable 2019 songs was a slick synthpop-hip-hop track with gleaming keyboards, a self-affirming cardio workout led by a Minneapolis singer-rapper who I'd interviewed a few times over the past few years. Little did I know that placement would prove to be a harbinger for pop in 2019: The singer was none other than Lizzo, whose endlessly quotable lyrics and overwhelming charisma propelled her to the top of the charts after years of her being touted as the next big thing.
The song I got hooked on, the uptempo “Juice,” wasn’t the track that led her to chart domination over the course of 2019; that wound up being “Truth Hurts,” a 2017 lament that got a new lease on life when its opening line — a self-shout-out involving DNA tests — spread like wildfire on the video-sharing app TikTok. A descendant of the lip-sync-clip service Musical.ly, TikTok asserted itself as a streaming-era force in 2019, not just with Lizzo’s song but with Lil Nas X’s genre- and record-defying “Old Town Road” and a slew of other tracks, new and old, that were fun for users to mime.
TikTok is pretty gripping; it’s possible, thanks to the opacity and algorithmic sorting of the “For You” page that greets users upon opening the app, to lose big chunks of time scrolling through users chatting, lip-syncing, and engaging in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it humor. It also rewards songs that invite a performative aspect, whether it’s Georgia-born Blanco Brown’s funk-tinged hoedown “The Git Up,” Brooklyn MC Jufu’s identity-crisis-ready “Who R U?,” Arizona Zervas’s bouncily bitter “Roxanne,” or any number of selections from recent musicals like the royalty-as-pop-doyennes showcase “Six” and the adaptation of “Beetlejuice.” (Older songs, like Mariah Carey’s withering “Obsessed” or Marina’s demanding “Oh No!,” also benefited.)
Its viral-video capabilities, combined with the way it celebrates compressed capital-d drama, helped break the shell of “chill” that had come to dominate so much of popular music over the last few years — think the half-awake head-bopping that defined the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” and Maroon 5′s recent output. While there were stars who sliced through the ice with gusto, like Cardi B and Dua Lipa, the prevailing aesthetic was such that artists like Demi Lovato, whose skyscraping voice had made earlier-in-the-decade hits singularly her own, were shrunken into semi-anonymous vocal presences for the purposes of staying appropriately cool.
This was the crack that Lizzo shimmied through, and Lil Nas X as well. And it couldn’t have come too soon — both for their personalities, which through the prism of social media seemed simultaneously relatable and larger-than-life, and the hits that followed. Lizzo followed up the belated success of “Truth Hurts” with a re-release of “Good as Hell,” a gusto-filled 2016 track tailor-made for defiant post-breakup singalongs. Lil Nas X’s debut EP, "7,″ had “Panini,” which paired its mashed-with-fists keyboards with neurotic lyrics and an apparently unintentional callback to Nirvana’s similarly wary “Nevermind” track “In Bloom.”
The boost TikTok gives to artists didn’t completely sweep aside the old ways of “label priorities” and grand promotional plans. If anything, they’re just a bit more refined. Post Malone was Spotify’s top artist of the year, and he bookended 2019 with Hot 100-topping hits in January (the spaced-out Swae Lee collab “Sunflower”) and November (the alt-rock-leaning “Circles”). The tattooed, blissed-yet-bummed-out Post’s ascent in the music world felt all but assured when I saw him back in 2016, where he opened for the arena-headlining Justin Bieber while having a discography that could best be described as “scant,” but his downtempo, increasingly guitar-centric laments strike a chord with younger audiences. Billie Eilish, whose boisterous show at Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion this summer was the season’s hottest ticket by a mile, and who delighted tweens and their parents with her twisted spin on pop, has felt like a next big thing on streaming services for a few years now. Her sonically detailed, deeply weird debut, “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?,” probes the underbelly of “chill” with the sort of curiosity inspired by slime molds and other sorta-gross artifacts, Eilish evoking the monsters lurking underneath her bed through dental-drill samples and lyrics made for elaborate, if disturbing, notebook-doodling.
Pop has always been at its most exciting when there’s been an aura of unpredictability about it; think back to mid-'80s MTV, when “Rum Tum Tugger” from the then-Broadway-ruling “Cats” and Suicidal Tendencies’ teenage-angst barnburner “Institutionalized” shared playlist space with clips by superstars like Prince and Madonna, or the height of the alt-rock golden age, when the loopy basslines of “Cannonball” could exist on playlists with Janet Jackson and Carey. Here’s hoping the thaw that’s been happening over the past few months continues into 2020, allowing “chill” to melt and new pop delights to bloom.
Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.