Pop Music’s Version of Life Doesn’t Exist Anymore

What good are songs about touch and sweat during a pandemic?

Revelers at the 2018 Coachella music festival
Will it ever be possible to think of Coachella as anything other than a massive un-Lysoled doorknob? (Reuters / Mario Anzuoni)

Throughout the first months of the year, when coronavirus was just a keyword in headlines of articles I mostly didn’t read, the music in my headphones celebrated the pleasure of human contact. At the top of my personal pop playlist for 2020 is a mind-blowing dance song, “Sweat (Sophie Remix),” by the producer Sonikku and the vocalist Liz, which tells of a party so hot that sweat drips off the walls. It was only a little more than a week ago that I’d weave through crowded sidewalks to Dua Lipa’s battle cry of “Let’s get physical!” Or I’d spend packed subway rides vibing to Grimes’s “4ÆM,” a thunderous Bollywood rave about partying all night in which the singer bleats, over and over, “You’re gonna get sick / You don’t know when.”

These songs are new, but they voice some of music’s—and humankind’s?—oldest urges: to close-talk, to touch, to move, to merge. The precedents are numerous and far-flung. In 2003, Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz shouted the joys of sweat on “Get Low”; Olivia Newton-John had her own “Physical” in 1981; you can go back to Little Willie John, in 1956, for fun, sexy fevers. Whatever the era, songs of bodily contact tend to rely on exciting rhythms, obsessive mantras, sharp dynamic peaks, and a sense of gathering frenzy. They care less for romance than for flirtation, lust, body brushes, and onetime make-outs. But their real purpose can be as an everyday utility. They convert the listener’s on-the-couch inertia into out-the-door vim. They conjure the motivating thought of weekend messes and mingles, and then they soundtrack them.

It all seems a bit disgusting right now, doesn’t it? A few days into social distancing, cooped up in a one-bedroom apartment, much of pop music began to sound like violence to me. Calls to reach out and touch someone are tinged by thoughts of viral shedding, incubation, and droplets. They taunt about the parties, plays, concerts, and trips that have been inexorably deleted from the calendar. Mostly, they wind me up with nowhere to go. Other people might feel differently; other people are clubbing on their beds. Over the weekend, Diplo tweeted out someone twerking on live cam to a DJ set he’d been broadcasting. I salute the effort but can’t help feel it brings a sad clarity to what’s happening—a shutdown of much of what makes it great to be alive.

Part of what’s wrenching about the coronavirus pandemic is the sense that the damage will be permanent. People are dying and suffering long-term injuries. The financial hit of social isolation and government-mandated closures will wreck careers, industries, mom-and-pop shops, fledgling passion projects, long-running traditions, and so much more. Then there’s the subtle, lasting impact on psyches, cultural mores, desires. If this crisis gets nasty enough, vivid enough, I can imagine a moment in which it becomes forever impossible to envision, say, Coachella, as anything other than a massive un-Lysoled doorknob. Touch-me-kiss-me pop might scan as festering and contagious for a long while.

Yet to an eerie extent, before this crisis, popular culture had already begun quarantine. One reason I made the aforementioned playlist is that if I left my commute to the streaming algorithms, I’d be smothered with whispery choruses, pillow-padded beats, pastel melodies, and medicinal lyrics. Selena Gomez coos about self-care over music that inspires only slight sashays. Justin Bieber’s tranquil new sound evokes the oxygen chamber he regularly locks himself in. Billie Eilish and Ed Sheeran and Drake sigh about skipping parties and staying in. Such themes clearly reflect internet- and politics-driven exhaustion, as well as a new openness to discussing mental health. The safety-blanket aesthetic also, however, implicitly celebrates the new wonders of staying at home: unlimited movie bingeing, easy order-in meals, with social media’s promise that you can stay connected from under the comforter.

The rise of cozy entertainment culture now feels like prep for pandemic-related isolation, which may, in turn, widen the hygge empire. Who hasn’t had the thought that now, thanks to the coronavirus, you can at least catch up on all the shows you’ve missed? The music streaming services certainly know what mood people will be in, and it’s not to party. The top playlist suggestions when I open Apple Music now: Easy Hits, Today’s Chill, Smooth and Easy, Meditation Moments, Feels, Acoustic Chill. The taglines: “Stuck at home? These light, laid-back classics will help you keep centered.” “Soothing sounds, perfect for hunkering down.” “There’s a lot going on right now—escape with this mix of mellow R&B.” “Block out the news; block out everything.” “The news can seem scary, but we’re in this together.” “Unplug, unwind, and please—don’t forget to wash your hands.”

Those playlist suggestions don’t even flirt with the thought of counter-programming. The exciting music of the moment—the bellows and wobbles of Brooklyn drill, or the political punch of recent indie—gets no push. I can’t even be mad at that; I have, for example, not found a personal use for the spiky fabulousness of Lil Uzi Vert’s latest album in the days since battening down. Previously, I’d been annoyed at the chill new norm in pop. The so-called genre of Spotify-core sounded like giving up. I’m starting to understand its appeal more. COVID-19 feels, for now and among many worse things, like a plague on music that pushes any particular button too hard.

Another disturbing element about this particular disaster is how it denies the cultural methods historically used to cope with crisis. The September 11 attacks were really the last terrifying shock that sent the entire country indoors for a bit, but vigils, rallies, and concerts provided comfort. HIV decimated many dance floors but also, survivors say, gave nightlife a new urgency. There is something akin to wartime in this huddle-and-wait moment, but during the blitz of London, hundreds of Britons lined up every day to see the pianist Myra Hess play in the basement of the National Gallery. Will live-streams of Coldplay give anything near the same succor?

Last Wednesday, just as the reality of social distancing was setting in, I spoke with Steve Waksman, a Smith College professor who is writing a book on the history of live music in America. He told me he feared the broader social effects of tours getting called off and venues shuttered. The psychological benefits of assembling in crowds is well demonstrated, and Waksman believes that gathering en masse with a shared purpose—whether to dance or sing or worship—helps build the bonds upon which a civilization rests. “Obviously there are a lot of things that make us feel like we’re part of that larger social collective, but live music is really integral to that,” he said. “If we lose it, we’re losing a really key part of the social fabric.”

He also pointed out that this catastrophe comes at a high point for the live music industry. For most of human history, performance been has the main mode of musical transmission, but it was briefly overtaken by recordings—vinyl, cassettes, CDs—in the second half of the 20th century. When the internet undermined physical sales around the turn of the millennium, the paradigm began to shift again. By the late 2010s, concerts were projecting record profits. That fact might seem a surprising turn given the rise of Netflix-and-chill culture. But live music being “revivified” in recent years can, Waksman suggested, be seen as an outgrowth of that culture: “The more that our lives get filtered through screens, the more we long for experiences that aren’t just filtered through screens.”

If that held true before the pandemic, it seems likely to intensify whenever people eventually emerge from their homes. If we also emerge with an acute sense of the ways in which moshing and jostling elbows and sweating together can breed harm, is that actually new? I’ll admit that I’ve always thought of Coachellas and Lollapaloozas as being a bit cesspool-like. But no hepatitis outbreak at a jam-band festival, or terrorist attack or stage collapse, has dented general concert attendance for long. “There’s always been an element of danger around live music,” Waksman said, adding that after tragedy, “Live music becomes a key way that people reaffirm that they’re still living their lives once a certain period of danger and mourning has passed.”

A sense of danger has also been baked into the musical lineage that exalts in sweat and body heat. Songwriters know that intimacy, ecstasy, and connection are the spoils of transcending the impulses of disgust and fear—impulses that are now at a healthy high. Eventually, for anyone to survive and thrive, they will have to abate. Already, as our abnormal present begins to feel normal, that abating may be happening, at least with regard to music listening. I’m attempting to will myself to relocate from the bed to the kitchen table, and I’m scanning my library for a song to get me there. It’ll have to be something with a pulse.