Chill Pop & Feminine Excess–A “Sign Of The Times”
In the early 2010s, neoliberalism’s demand to intensify risk and maximize reward had pop culture riding a maximalist high. People wore tshirts and baseball hats emblazoned with neon “YOLO”s (You Only Live Once) and listened to a seemingly endless number of tension/release-heavy pop songs about “molly” (the postmillennial term for MDMA). But by 2016, YOLO was out and chill was in. For example, an August 2016 headline in Dose celebrates the fact that “Chill Pop Is The New Music Trend That Isn’t Going Anywhere.” The Chainsmokers, the most successful EDM artists on the pop charts in 2016, are commonly described as “chilled-out” and “lukewarm.” As Slate music critic Chris Molanphy explains, the fact that their megahit “Closer” turns its first “drop–the thunderous climax of club-rattling electronic dance music–” into a “downshift” instead signals a “comedown” from all that YOLO maximalism, “the end of an era.”
The pop charts’ pendulum swing from early-decade maximalism to late-decade chill is symptomatic of the US and UK electorate’s broader dissatisfaction with seemingly ever-intensifying risk. For example, British social theorist Will Davies argues that “the entire practice of modelling the future in terms of ‘risk’ has lost credibility” because, as he puts it in his analysis of pro-Brexit and Trump voters, “people…have utterly given up on the future.” According to Davies, these voters are groups of whites whose experiences have disconnected them from cost:benefit rationality. On the one hand, there are those for whom the ever-more-neoliberalizing economy isn’t keeping its end of the deal and rewarding their risk with adequate returns. On the other hand, there are those so insulated by white privilege that, regardless of their dissatisfaction with the present, they cannot imagine any shock that would put their future at risk. Both cases share an underlying capitalist realism that cannot imagine the future as possibly presenting an alternative to the present. However, after Leave and Trump won, lots of people on both sides of the Atlantic felt the future would more than likely be a whole lot worse. In the US, for example, PBS’s Newshour reported about “post-election distress disorder,” ProPublica and the Southern Poverty Law Center report a significant uptick in hate crimes after the election, and escalating tensions between the US and North Korea have people fearing nuclear war for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell. Popular attitudes about risk have changed. It’s no longer a source of reward and pleasure, but of anxiety. “You only live once” feels less like a rallying cry and more like a threat.
Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards argues that in “today’s freaked-out America” pop stars, like the rest of us, turn to drugs like Xanax “to numb the agony of existence.” According to Richards, pop audiences like to hear a similarly numbing effect in music: “comfort zones are hard to find in Donald Trump’s America…We used to want to have our minds blown. Now, we’d prefer to have our minds massaged.” He points to trends in songwriting and listening habits as evidence. First, songwriting now aims to “mitigate intensity” rather than build it, and stays well within “comfort zones…instead of forging new sounds or fresh styles.” As Steven Shaviro has argued, neoliberalism turns aesthetic transgression from a revolutionary strategy into a new norm and mode of surplus-value extraction; now that we’re all expected to transgress, it isn’t fun, but a chore. This leads artists like Lana Del Rey, Kygo, and The Weeknd to write songs that emphasize “a smoothness, a softness, a steadiness” that creates a “cushiony” and “soft” feel (Richards). Second, Richards argues that the architecture of music streaming services creates a “fluid, frictionless listening” that “is designed to feel cool and undisruptive.” Algorithms normalize the range of sonic and aesthetic variation listeners experience so that “even when you don’t know exactly what’s coming next” (Richards) you know it won’t deviate significantly from past song selections. There’s still an element of chance, but statistics have made chance something quantifiable and controllable. Moderation, specifically, moderating risk, is the thread that runs through streaming’s use of statistical normalization, pop’s toned-down soars and drops, and the popularity of anti-anxiety medicine.
Those anti-anxiety medicines help people maintain a level of chill self-control in an otherwise outrageous environment. Outrage is for people with low social and cultural capital, like President Trump, leader of the so-called “deplorables.” As Elizabeth Keenan noted, “plenty of people were comparing Trump to a capricious, mean 13-year-old girl” because both are perceived to be irrationally outrageous. Chill, however, is a desirable quality because it demonstrates reasonableness and self-control. For example, UrbanDictionary.com defines “no chill” as the “ability to act in a rational manner” such that one refrains from excess; examples of “no chill” excess include “reckless” behavior, being overly invested in a romantic partner (“When a girl bases her every choice on a single guy she likes”), typing in all caps, and overeating. As Alana Massey argues, “Chill is a sinister refashioning of “Calm down!” from an enraging and highly gendered command into an admirable attitude.” Chill is admirable because it signals masculinity, mastery, and self-mastery. “Being a chill woman is the opposite of being a hysterical one.” Chill is the ability to reign in feminine and feminized excess.
The (re)feminization of emotional, affective, and aesthetic excess is evident in both the songwriting choices in and critical reactions to former One Direction member Harry Styles’s 2017 single “Sign of the Times.” This is the lead single off Styles’s first solo album, which critics regard as a step toward a maturing style that appeals to both his original fanbase (teen girls) and broader pop audiences. In a profile for Rolling Stone, Cameron Crowe writes,
Asked if he spends pressure-filled evenings worried about proving credibility to an older crowd, Styles grows animated. “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?…Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”
Styles counters (white, middle-aged, men) rock critics’ assumption that what Crowe elsewhere describes as “the white noise of adulation” and “mania” of teen girl fandom is something to be outgrown and left behind in the pursuit of authentic art with the view that girls’ un-chill, unrestrained adulation is preferable to the affective restraint and emotional distance of “30-year-old hipster guy[s]”. Styles values fans’ feminine and feminized excess. He also incorporated such excess in “Sign” itself.
A quiet-loud-quiet rock ballad with lots of overt and unrestrained climaxes, the single stands out from the competition as distinctly unchill. From the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (the track “Sign” displaced from a 13-week run at the top of the UK chart), recent hits have featured severely toned-down soars. Soars usually combine rhythmic intensification (in percussion and sometimes in the repetition of phrases in the lyrics) and timbral intensification and a drop (a pause filled with a bass wobble, a vocal melisma, or some other vocal); the buildup and the pause make the return of the next downbeat hit harder. “Closer”’s main soar softens the rhythmic buildup by keeping the percussion at a steady tick (a bass drum hit on every eighth note) under increasingly frequent repetitions of a phrase in the lyrics. “Shape of You” eliminates rhythmic intensification altogether; it does not soar up to its drop. “Sign,” on the other hand, climaxes hard and it climaxes a lot. About a minute and eighteen seconds into the song and again just before the three minute mark, the last two beats leading into the downbeat of the first chorus feature a loud percussion fill and an ascending guitar gliss that clears the way for that downbeat and makes it (and all its string backing and belted vocals) hit harder. Though the percussion doesn’t intensify the way an EDM soar does it serves the same purpose. The bridge is a series of climaxes spaced about fifteen seconds apart. First, at around three minutes fifty-five seconds, the song prepares for the bridge’s first downbeat the same way it has prepped for the choruses. Then at around 4:15, there is a chorus of ascending “OH-oh-oh-oh-OH-oh-oh-oh”s over a rhythmically intensifying drum fill; this repeats again at around 4:30, but without the ascending vocals. Fifteen or so seconds later, there’s an ascending woosh up to another climax of repeated “we’ve got to get away!” that extend to the five minute mark; here, just when the truncated repetitions of “we got to, we got to” might lead one to think the song is about to resolve, it goes on for another fifteen seconds before ramping down to its coda. With four climaxes in a row, “Sign” outdoes even the most crass, maximalist EDM soars (e.g., the one in Psy’s “Gangnam Style”), which, for all their intensity, have only one huge climax. Musicologist Susan McClary has argued that song structures can mirror hegemonic constructions of sexual pleasure. Tonality’s teleology, she argues, reiterates cis-patriarchal narratives about men’s orgasms. From this perspective, it’s possible to read “Sign” as mirroring something like the idea of multiple orgasms, which are conventionally associated with femme and queer sexuality. Even if we don’t buy that interpretation, “Sign”’s frequent and intense climaxes stand out against “Closer” and “Shape of You” as distinctly unchill. And to the extent that “chill” is a gendered concept, an ideal of masculine self-control against feminine emotional and affective excess, “Sign”’s unchillness genders it feminine. So, when rock critics object to “Sign”’s “wild melodramatic balladry” (Cush in Spin) and mock it as “a bombastic slice of bombastic piano pop that builds bombastically to a bombastic ending,” they’re objecting to its feminine and feminized excess.
Even though “Sign” doubles down on the classic rock gestures and allusions, it uses them to depict an unchill excessiveness that, in a pop culture context that privileges chill as a sign of masculine self-mastery, reads as undesirably feminine.
 See my Resilience & Melancholy book for more on this.
 “Molly Is A Drug & There Are A Lot Of Songs About Molly” in Huffpost September 8, 2013 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/05/molly-drug-songs_n_3874047.html Last accessed May 3, 2017.
 Ishler, Julianne. “Chill Pop Is The New Music Trend That Isn’t Going Anywhere” in Dose 31 August 2016 https://dose.com/chill-pop-is-the-new-music-trend-that-isnt-going-anywhere-22939cceb7d3 Last accessed 2 May 2017
 Davies, Will. “Thoughts On The Sociology of Brexit” in Political Economy Research Center. June 24, 2016 http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/thoughts-on-the-sociology-of-brexit/ Last accessed 3 May 2017.
 Andy Cush writes in Spin, “it’s clear that this is Styles’s attempt to distinguish himself as an artist with real depth.” http://www.spin.com/2017/04/harry-styles-sign-of-the-times-review/
 http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/harry-styles-opens-up-about-famous-flings-honest-new-lp-w476928 For discussion of this quote, see https://badcoverversion.wordpress.com/2017/04/21/harry-styles-teen-girls-and-critical-reception/
 The Rapture’s 2006 single “WAYUH” characterizes and mocks hipsters’ stereotypical skepticism and emotional restraint: “They cross their arms and stare you down/And drink and moan and diss.”
 “Loud-quiet-loud” is a song form associated with the modern rock band the Pixies (there is a group biopic titled LoudQuietLoud) and popularized by 90s grunge artists like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins. The term comes from Kurt Cobain’s 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, where he described the Pixies’ influence on Nirvana’s songwriting: “We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.” “Sign” flips around the order of the dynamics, quiet-loud-quiet rather than loud-quiet-loud. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/kurt-cobain-the-rolling-stone-interview-19940127