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.”