It might seem a problem for popular music that young people are reportedly having less sex, drinking less booze, and throwing fewer parties than previous generations. Hedonism advocates such as Axl Rose and Miley Cyrus must be mourning—what in the world is there to sing about? The charts do remain fairly raunchy and rowdy, but slurry odes to antidepressants and Instagram scrolling have joined the mix. Apparently an even more on-the-nose subgenre is emerging: the anti-party anthem.
Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s single “I Don’t Care,” the first new song in a few years from either crooner, is the sound of two of the world’s most popular bros proclaiming to be wallflowers. A scooting rhythm from the producers Max Martin, Shellback, and FRED hints that the Swedish hit-making oracles believe the white-bread “tropical pop” fad that both Sheeran and Bieber previously cashed in on still has juice. Fidgety and merry, with a darting melody and twee whimpers, the music captures a sense of awkwardness that could give way to abandon. It’d also make for a pretty catchy loading-screen soundtrack to some Nintendo Switch game that the guys would rather be playing.
“I’m at a party I don’t wanna be at,” Sheeran begins in a fast, rap-y cadence. “And I don’t ever wear a suit and tie, yeah / Wonderin’ if I could sneak out the back.” Then he switches to his pseudo-soulful rasp, which has come to rule playlists at grain-bowl lunch spots: “Don’t think I fit in at this party / Everyone’s got so much to say / I always feel like I’m nobody / Who wants to fit in anyway?” The aw-shucks routine is self-parody, intentionally or not. When Sheeran wore work-from-home-Wednesday clothes to a duet with the glamorously swathed Beyoncé last December, the ensuing ridicule drew attention to just how many Sheeran songs over the years profess pride in being a slob. His personal brand all along could have been described by the title of this new single.
For Bieber, squirming in a social situation has different implications. His struggles with maturing amid mega-fame have taken the form not only of pee-in-a-bucket stunts and sing-along apologies, but also of phoned-in concert performances and social-media confessions about his mental health. “With all these people all around I’m crippled with anxiety,” he sings on “I Don’t Care.” “But I’m told it’s where we’re supposed to be.” Scooter Braun, let him go home! Yet over the course of each verse, alienation turns to comfort as the narrators conspire with the plus-one on their arms. It’s hard not to think gladly of Bieber’s recent marriage to the model Hailey Baldwin, or the matching tattoos they share.
Perhaps it’s unwise for a song-of-the-summer wannabe to start by asking people to sing along about hating the barbecue they’re at. But “I Don’t Care” simmers with jubilation and provides a nice hero’s arc from panic-attacked to loosened-up. Besides, dissing one’s surroundings in song isn’t so strange this decade. The singer Alessia Cara launched a star career with 2015’s “Here,” whose narration of a rager was peppered with rude lines about preferring music more meaningful than whatever was on the speakers at the moment. It followed Lorde’s breakout 2013 smash “Royals,” an eye roll at all the hotel-wrecking mayhem glorified so often on the charts.
Songs such as these profess to level with the audience, reassuring listeners that it’s not weird to want to spend Friday night with Hulu rather than with shots of Hennessy. But there’s always a sour note of shade and humblebragging too. The nerds are mocking the jocks, except these nerds end up with thump-thump dance remixes and arena tours. The generally anthemic nature of the songs, too, hints that the singers doth protest too much. Deep down, they want to party. Lo and behold, “I Don’t Care” eventually works its way to Bieber making a reversal—“I think that we should stay.”
Truly antisocial celebrity-level pop is probably an oxymoron, but part of the thrill of one new arrival, Billie Eilish, is that she gets close to achieving it. Her album cut “Xanny” sounds like the desiccated memory of a lounge tune, with a performatively lazy version of jazz piano and bass rumbles reminiscent of construction equipment. Eilish mumbles about party monsters and their hangovers—“Their pretty heads are hurting / They’re awfully bad at learning”—with what sounds like a genuine sense of contempt. Sober at 17, she’s sure she’ll never understand them. Meanwhile, Sheeran and Bieber, a half-generation above her and needing to maintain their spot in the wedding-reception canon, put on the costume of disaffection only to take it off. They’re again selling pop’s great moderating message: You belong after all.