Presented by Colgate Optik White Renewal
In the year of 2020—when the nature of our social order feels appropriately conditional and fluctuating— it’s a peculiar time to reflect on the past, especially while examining its influence on the present. Looking over your shoulder and back into the decade reveals how not only our perceptions of popular music evolved over the last ten years, but how our expectations for which stories needed to be told shifted alongside it.
Now, over a decade after Kesha dropped “Tik Tok,” an audience accustomed to unrestricted listening (thanks to streaming) can embrace artists on the fringe, naming them as their icons, and rendering malleable the space between fame and fandom—all under the assumption that everyone has the power to influence, and no one is immune to the charm of writing a song designed to go viral. By shuffling through the tracks that sonified the spirit of the 2010s, we’re presented a collection of individual bulletins; where music designed to energize and delight can also distill collectively felt sentiments into a single lyric.
This playlist spotlights a decade of transition: the merging of melodic expectations that changed our minds about what constituted a euphoric turn-up anthem or heart-melting ballad; a rewriting of the mainstream, where underground artists who had started the decade as indie blog darlings were elevated to the status of festival headliners by the end; and an invitation for megastars to utilize new digital platforms to craft their own narratives, on their own terms.
The neon-hued bubblegum pop of Nikki Minaj’s “Super Bass” and Icona Pop’s “I Love It” helped usher in a standard of irreverent and near-perfect pop with enough bite to cut like a sour Warhead and make it clear that tracks this big are built for their makers first. Janelle Monae’s explosive “Tightrope,” and three years later, the decadently warbled indie-pop electronica on Solange’s single “Losing You,” produced by Dev Hynes, sliced open the rigid boxes placed around Black artists to make space for genre-bending vocalists like Frank Ocean, H.E.R., and Moses Sumney to receive more accurate categorizations of their music. And Lorde’s keen deadpan and ode to the ordinary on “Royals” paved the way for Billie Eilish’s perpetual eye-roll at artifice in every form.
But perhaps the most illuminating characteristic of reliving these songs is recognizing that though our recollections of them might be frozen in time, our relationships are more fluid than we realize. You can think of those songs that squirm under your skin in exactly the right way, and make your heart speed up, beating loudly behind your ears, as bookmarks. They offer the opportunity to flip back to different vignettes in your life with a fresh set of eyes, and potentially write a different ending.
Maybe now, when you remember that “Teen Dream” by Katy Perry was playing when you spilled an iced Americano over white jeans, you can also recognize that it wasn’t the worst moment of your life. Or, the fact that “The Weekend” by SZA came out during the summer your experienced immeasurable heartache is now overshadowed by the many times its Funk Wav remix thrust you onto the dance floor.
It’s under these circumstances that activating nostalgia’s stomach twist through music can be served up with a new function for this current moment. Spending time with throwbacks is a good excuse to play with the machinery of retrospect, to give your memories a healthy audit. It’s a luxurious opportunity to reevaluate who you were before, better understand who you are now, and meditate on where you might be going.
The first time I heard Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” was through a tangled set of iPod earbuds a few days before the end of Grade 9. I remember the blue glare of the screen in my bedroom, and how the emotions and the bassline in the song felt too big for my bedroom; the pleading, grasping emotions that powered its chorus untethered to anything I could detect in my life. I was stupefied, and felt itchy, babyish—and secondhand courage.
Nearly ten years later, I have vivid memories of hearing it again under different circumstances. Last June, my three best friends and I finally planned a long-dreamed of trip to Barcelona for Primavera Music Festival. At the time, we lived in different cities and every purchase of box wine, or afternoon spent combing through the beach felt like a cherished, fleeting moment. Around 3 a.m., sandwiched between a hot mass of skin, and sweat, and grass, Robyn ended her set with “Dancing On My Own” because how could she not.
The muscle memory kicked in, the same we had practiced for years in every sweaty bar in the city. Arms extended, knees dipped earthward, a scramble to use anything as a microphone, and the specific deepthroat belt reserved for a select few songs. Watching my friends love this song under a canopy of lights and amidst a sea of people responding to it wholly unrestrained, felt redemptive. I wish I could have told my younger self that this moment was in store for me.