By Tara Colley
The increasingly intricate entanglement of social media celebrity and popular music demands more of artists and their private lives than ever before. But in what has been dubbed the “post-truth” era, it should perhaps come as a comfort that what 2018’s biggest artists have in common is their willingness to lay their emotions bare.
2018 was a standout year for Australian singer-songwriters, with Gold Coast native Amy Shark dominating the airwaves – and the awards.
Shark’s triumphant synth-pop album Love Monster is an exultant exhale of breath for an artist who has fought for recognition for the better part of a decade. Shark is a candid narrator and her voice, which slips in and out of Australian accent in her unique singing style, compels repeated listening.
Her ability to elevate the mundane to the noteworthy – “And I chew my gum on the left side of my mouth/wondering when I’ll spit it out” – has also become a trademark of her work, which bears a sense of familiarity that is the unique bond between Australian artists and their native audience.
Sydney’s Dean Lewis likewise matched the 2017 success of his debut single Waves with another radio favourite, Be Alright. The song narrates, with tenderness and an unmistakeably Australian character, the breakdown of a relationship over infidelity.
“You say the cigarettes on the counter weren’t your friend’s/They were my mate’s/And I feel the colour draining from my face,” he sings. Lewis also seeks solace in his friends: “And my friends say,/I know you love her, but it’s over mate/It doesn’t matter/Put the phone away.”
It was a victorious year, too, for homegrown talent Troye Sivan, who surpassed the promise of his 2015 debut Blue Neighbourhood with his second album Bloom. Where Blue Neighbourhood saw the then 20-year-old Sivan grapple with his sexuality, his burgeoning fame, and the demands of a successful music career, the aptly-titled Bloom announced a strikingly mature and emboldened artist. The sleeker, sexier, and notably less melancholy production of Bloom made it especially radio friendly. It also established Sivan as an international success.
As Sivan told the Sydney Morning Herald, “I have got enough confidence now to make an album for myself, for people like me, who are going to hear this and understand.”
Sivan’s androgynous sex appeal and experimentation with styling this album have drawn comparisons to David Bowie, Madonna, and both Michael and Janet Jackson. But his ambition to make mainstream music about gay relationships – to refuse to obscure or mystify his music or identity – is in many ways quintessentially 2018.
The international hits
One of Bloom’s standout tracks, Dance to This, features pop superstar Ariana Grande, who has taken centre stage throughout 2018 both personally and professionally. Grande lived out much of her turbulent personal life on social media for the rabid consumption of gossip sites and internet trolls. After her five-month engagement to actor Pete Davidson abruptly ended, and in the wake of the death of her previous boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, Grande released the pop hit of 2018, thank u, next.
The song, which received 100 million streams on Spotify in a record-breaking 11 days, namedrops several of Grande’s famous ex-boyfriends and lays bare the soul-searching and daddy issues that apparently underpin her tumultuous relationships. It was as though Grande was responding directly to her Twitter mentions, stripping away the remaining divide between social media engagement and pop music artistry.
2018 saw several hip-hop heavyweights release albums: Kanye West, Drake, Nas, Nicki Minaj, and Eminem. But the year in hip-hop will be remembered for a few striking moments: Travis Scott’s single SICKO MODE, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s cinematic Apeshit, and Childish Gambino’s masterful This is America video.
It was also a significant year for women in rap, as the irrepressible Cardi B took aim at the hip-hop throne with the release of her hotly anticipated debut album, Invasion of Privacy. The title captures Cardi’s overexposure since the success of her debut single Bodak Yellow in 2017.
Unpolished, unfiltered, and underestimated, Cardi B surprised critics and hip-hop fans alike with a decidedly decent album. Tracks like I Like It, as well as Cardi’s various features throughout the year on songs such as Bruno Mars’ hit Finesse, secured her position in the hip-hop limelight. Like Grande, she also invited fans – and haters – into her complicated personal life through social media.
Men bare their souls
Continuing the longstanding tradition of repackaging hip-hop trends for more mainstream audiences, singer/rapper Post Malone saturated 2018 with his curious blend of soulful crooning, grunge, and autotuned warbling on his record-breaking album, beerbongs and bentleys. The album broke Spotify streaming records in the 24 hours following its release as well as surpassing The Beatles and fellow rapper J.Cole for the most simultaneous top 20 hits on Billboard.
Tracks like Rich and Sad, and Paranoid, adhere to the popular formula of second albums in rap: an extended contemplation on the truism that fame and riches do not guarantee happiness. Malone’s ambivalence between lauding his success and viewing his new lifestyle with scepticism and paranoia is not unique.
Malone delivers lines – like “I been fuckin’ hos and poppin’ pillies/Man, I feel just like a rock star” – as though he’s barely conscious enough to muster the words. He is the latest in the tradition of so-called “mumble” rappers, including Future, 21 Savage, and Chief Keef. But beerbongs and bentleys is evidently the most pop-friendly iteration thus far of this burgeoning subgenre, and Malone’s success in 2018 may well pave the way for more of this sound.
The album has its share of run-of-the-mill rock star misogyny – for instance, “Population four million/How I see the same bitches?”. But Malone’s raw emotional indulgence, such as on the hit single Better Now, exemplifies the compelling shift in how hip-hop and its pop outgrowths are performing masculinity.
Khalid, another of 2018’s most successful pop/R&B artists, manifests a distinctly more fluid approach to masculinity than urban music has enjoyed since the advent of gangsta hypermasculinity.
In the video for his song Better, Khalid dances with a casual abandon that could be likened to Drake’s moves in “Hotline Bling.”
His collaboration with the DJ Marshmello, Silence, as well as hit singles like Better and Love Lies (featuring singer Normani) lend to 2018 a haunting, reflective, and soulful soundscape in which men are not afraid to dance – or cry.
Tara Colley is a Casual lecturer, United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney.
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