Music on the Upbeat: How Positivity Rules the Radio

Around 3 weeks ago, Kendrick Lamar released “i”, the first single off of the rapper’s long-awaited third EP. After Kendrick’s sophomore effort, the dystopic and tormented good kid m.A.A.d city, rumours spread that his next effort would be the Compton native’s darkest work yet. Instead, “i” turned out to be an upbeat, late Outkast-inspired jam that relied on an Isley Brother’s sample and carried lyrics about self value, withstanding criticism, and generally being happy. Where were the narratives about prostitutes and drug dealers, the self-hatred, the gritty production, and the Kendrick that the world had met in 2012?

But Kendrick’s sudden change of attitude isn’t a solitary case. Whether you look at Drake’s sudden change of attitude or the unbearable popularity of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, positivity is in the musical limelight. Only 2 years ago, Adele was mainstream pop’s queen, serenading the world into tearful sleep. Now, that title is more likely to go to the likes of Ariana Grande, or even Taylor Swift, whose latest single– wait for it– isn’t a breakup song, signalling the potential end of days, but also a general change in the direction of music. There are exceptions to this rule, namely Sam Smith, but even Vancouver’s local scene seems to be affected by this paradigm shift. The Gay Nineties are riding on the strength of their go-lucky single “Letterman”, and while Said the Whale’s hawaiii was a somber affair, bright instrumentation was what defined the album. No matter how you look at it, positivity rules the radio. But why?

Music, and really all art, is the product of the society it comes from, and as it turns out, people are generally just a little bit happier. According to the folks over at the Legatum Institute, which measures the general prosperity of a nation based on a huge array of factors, the United States and Canada are emerging from the world recession with strong rankings (11th and 3rd, respectively) and new outlooks on life. And as our attitudes change, so does our taste in music: if you’re feeling good, it’s unlikely you’ll put Bon Iver on. This also might partially explain why records like Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris failed to sell well while the more-chipper Chance the Rapper shot to instant success and a spot at Pemberton Music Festival with only a mixtape behind him.

What does this mean in the long run? If this trend continues– and barring a disaster, it should– we can be expecting upbeat tunes to be the norm for a good, long while. Even when we’re not aware of it, music does have the power to shape our world, and we have a way to shape music.

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