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How Did Pop Music Get So Slow?

 

In 2014, the DJ and producer Dave Audé – a Grammy winner whose remixes of pop hits have been club staples for more than a decade – caught a festival set by the young Norwegian producer Kygo, who had just signed to Ultra/RCA two months earlier. Kygo ignored the peppy tempos typical of mainstream dance music, choosing to focus instead on slow tracks; in the past, this might have sent everyone to the beer lines, but listeners at Colorado’s Global Dance Festival took to his music in droves. “The kids were going bananas for this slow stuff,” Audé remembers. “I was blown away. It told me that they were ready for something new.”

That “something new” is now the norm in all genres of pop. The two contenders for Song of the Summer are Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” and DJ Khaled’s “I’m the One,” both remarkably leisurely singles that percolate below 90 beats per minute. Yakov Vorobyev, who invented a popular app for DJs called Mixed in Key, used the program to analyze the 25 most-streamed tracks on Spotify in 2012 and 2017: He found that during that period, the average tempo dropped by 23 bpm (to 90.5 bpm) and the percentage of songs above 120 bpm fell markedly from 56 percent to 12.5 percent.

Part of the slowing is due to the continuing dominance of hip-hop, which now permeates every branch of music, even longtime holdouts like rock and country. “Hip-hop culture is the new pop culture, and our tempo ranges aren’t too fast,” says Sevn Thomas, who helped produce Rihanna’s Number One smash “Work.” “Rappers can really swag out on slower beats.”

But maybe there are other reasons as well: Pop culture’s insatiable appetite for the new demands a backlash against fast-moving singles, or a gloomy national moment encourages a different sort of listening. “People were burnt out on uptempo, super poppy stuff like they were with hair-metal bands back in the day,” suggests Bonnie McKee, who has co-written eight crisp, kinetic Number One hits in the U.S. (many for Katy Perry). “Then as the sociopolitical climate got darker, people just weren’t in the mood to hear some upbeat bop.”

Slow tempos took command of the mainstream in deliberate, unhurried fashion. Kygo was picking up millions of streams on his remixes as early as 2013, but Audé locates a tipping point around the rise of sleepy dance hits like Robin Schulz’s 2014 remix of Mr. Probz’s “Waves.” Sean Ross, radio business veteran and author of the weekly Ross On Radio newsletter, suggests another possible lodestar: the songwriter Julia Michaels, who emerged as a pop force in 2015 as a co-writer on Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.” The Stereotypes, the production group who worked on Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic album from last December, believe the shift happened more recently. “We kicked the door down,” declares Ray “Charm” of the Stereotypes. “Like, ‘Yo, this [slow] shit is good!’”

All are in agreement that sedate tempos reign supreme. “You got a formula for a pop thing right now,” asserts Felix Snow, who produced Kiiara’s Top 15 hit “Gold” and is a member of the ascendant pop group Terror Jr. The ingredients: “Some sort of quirky bell thing going on around 100 bpm, a bouncy energetic vocal flow over that, obviously the snap on the two and four, and a pretty simple bass line that’s going around the same three or four chords the whole song.”

Like Sevn Thomas, Vorobyev attributes the big deceleration to “the Atlanta effect,” nodding to the lolling pace of rap from the epicenter of Southern hip-hop. “A lot of those songs are made at such a slow tempo that you could dance to them at that tempo or at double time,” he explains. “So it could be 150 bpm or half of it, which is 75.” His analysis indicates that the portion of Atlanta-esque songs in Spotify’s Top 25 has increased from just eight percent in 2012 to 46 percent this year. Recent examples include Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” 21 Savage’s “Bank Account” and Travis Scott’s “Butterfly Effect.”

Another one of these tracks, surprisingly, is “2U” by the arena dance producer David Guetta: Mainstream electronic music, once a reliable source of galloping beats, has moved drastically to embrace stately hip-hop rhythms. “The two most popular genres of this generation are homogenizing their sound,” declares Ross Golan, writer of recent hits for Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez. “EDM slowed down to where urban was; urban [artists] made the leap to rap on those records.” Calvin Harris’ old hits were mostly with singers, but his most recent album was considerably slower and jam-packed with rappers, as was the latest LP from electronic music kingpin Steve Aoki.

This is partly a survival mechanism on the part of big-tent dance producers – Snow believes listeners are tired of uptempo thumpers. “The collective public’s brains have been so pummeled with that shit that it’s over for a while,” he says, calling 128-bpm tracks “an over-cashed-in trend culturally and financially.” 

The slowing-through-merging process also fits what Thomas believes is a “more personal” time for pop. “I feel like music is in a much more intimate space at this point,” he says. “It could be a Drake thing – people say how they feel instead of worrying about how it may be perceived. [Thomas also helped produce Drake’s “Pop Style.”] Jay-Z made his most personal album ever with 4:44. Lower tempos accompany that.”

McKee has noticed the extent to which Drake-isms now prevail in writing sessions. “Everyone’s leaning into the Drake, Weeknd, this-is-kind-of-sexy, this-is-kind-of-slow vibe,” she says. “Now people in every room are singing triplets and trying to sound like Drake. It’s like, ‘OK – what’s next for Drake?’”

The mainstream’s current interest in reduced speeds is at odds with the notion of the Top 40 as a place for zippy tracks that offer escape from gruesome headlines. “When you think about the financial crisis of 2008, there was a lot more uptempo stuff,” McKee says. “In a crisis like that, people want to forget their problems. In a crisis like we’re in right now, where people’s rights are being taken away and people are being shot in the street, that’s a different kind of crisis, a moral and social one. People don’t really feel right about jumping up and down and bopping right this second.”

“[The lack of fast pop] seems to coincide with the national mood,” agrees Sean Ross. “Whoever you are, whatever you believe, there’s something to be angry and morose about in this moment.”

“People don’t really feel right about jumping up and down and bopping right this second.” –Bonnie McKee

Has mainstream pop been this slow before? Ross finds precedent for the current radio climate in the early 1980s, during the height of the disco backlash and before the advent of MTV, when rock power ballads were immensely popular. “To some extent, these [slow songs] are this generation’s power ballads,” he says. “They come from EDM DJs; they’re produced in a different way; but essentially the Chainsmokers’ ‘Closer’ is [REO Speedwagon’s] ‘Keep on Loving You’ in this generation.”

Ross worries about the dearth of uptempo singles – if there’s nothing modern to balance out playlists, in his view, programmers turn to older tracks for a jolt of speed, further reducing the already limited variety on the airwaves. “Top 40 has become tighter than any time in the last 35 years in terms of the actual number of titles,” he notes. “If you combine that with the time records spend on the charts now, there aren’t a lot of chances for songs to come along and break the logjam. … I’ve had conversations with programmers in every format, and usually the solution is to play even less new music, which ends up reducing the chance the next uptempo record is going to get through.”

Songwriters and producers are more divided about the slow boom, depending on where their sweet spots are. “My bread and butter is uptempo pop,” McKee notes. “That’s my calling card.” But she has a new single of her own due out Friday, and she’s tailored the track towards the new hegemony. Same goes for Audé, who dropped the speed significantly on his latest release, “All the Rules” with Ben Thornewill. “A guy who makes a living from records for the dance floor is making a midtempo pop record,” Audé states.

Other writers have already gained from the leisurely fad. “It’s exciting for me: I don’t really write uptempo songs that well,” Golan notes. “My most hype records are still pretty slow.”

“We’ve been waiting for everyone to fucking slow down,” the Stereotypes’ Charm says. He believes that downtempo records have additional room for melodic inventiveness – “there’s literally more space in between the beats, more time for you to be creative” – and that extra time can engender a wider variety of audience responses relative to the vice-like grip of 128 bpm: “It’s a more versatile tempo,” the Stereotypes’ Jon Street adds.

History indicates that slow-chic won’t last forever. “The songs that signaled Top 40 was on the upswing again in the Eighties were [Human League’s] ‘Don’t You Want Me’ and [Soft Cell’s] ‘Tainted Love,’” Ross suggests. (Soon after came Prince’s blisteringly fast “Let’s Go Crazy.”) He points to Shawn Mendes’ brisk Top 10 hit “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back” as a possible precursor to more swift pop. Still, “there hasn’t been any uptempo record so compelling that a) it’s a smash hit and b) people need to copy it.”

But eventually, a hit is likely to come along that will signal another shift. “When everybody’s writing at 90 bpm,” Golan says, “that’s when you go write at 130. A lot of people will hear it and be like, ‘That doesn’t sound like a hit right now.’ Then the one person says, ‘Wow, this is an outlier, because I just got sent 100 songs that are 90 bpm.’”

“It’s nothing to be afraid of,” Thomas adds of pop’s deceleration. “I don’t believe in following trends.” 

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