After a particularly lackluster 2018 VMAs, so sleep-inducing that the big opening number was the former Vine-turned-pop star Shawn Mendes, New Yorker critic Doreen St. Felix commented that “the first true post-millennial V.M.A.s, was so bereft of shock, sex, and offense that it seemed barely to register.”
In the past MTV’s VMAs, a “music” awards show in sync with what young people actually listen to, has been a lightning rod for provocative pop performance ever since Madonna writhed around on stage singing about sex so good it made her feel like a virgin. It was at the VMAs that Nicki Minaj waxed poetic about good dick, Madonna made out with Britney and Christina, and Miley Cyrus twerked unsettlingly.
The 2018 VMAs reflected a larger change in music, fueled by that Gen Z audience St. Felix referenced. Artists today aren’t pining to be lascivious, slick and shirtless sex symbols like their music forebears. As messages of women’s empowerment have come back in vogue and listeners pine for artists who sing about the darkest, anxious parts of themselves, the writhing, moaning performances that once defined popular music are suddenly archaic.
Music of the 2000s to early 2010s pop and R&B was largely dominated by over-the-top raunch: the girlish pleas of stars like Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears, “freakum dresses” and light S&M from Beyoncé and Rihanna, the playful pin-ups of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. And men were out here grinding too, from the sultry neo-soul of D’Angelo to Justin Timberlake’s “sexy” resurrection and Usher propositioning girls in the club.
But now, the charts are filled with folksy songs by Ed Sheeran mapping out the contours of a body; or relatively PG-13 odes to love and swag from singers like Charlie Puth, Bruno Mars, or softboys like Drake—all of whom bear little resemblance (sorry boys) to their chiseled, shirtless predecessors. The hyper-masculine dominance of mainstream pop has given way to sensitive men who write songs about how “shady” their crushes are, not how much they want to ride them.
If music’s male gaze is less laser-focus and softened around men, it’s also softened on women. Where it was once common for women pop stars to surrender, selling themselves as sex symbols, stars today don’t face identical demands. Singers like Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, or Camila Cabello rarely sing explicitly about sex and don’t build their image in service of selling it as part and parcel of their product. Rising pop stars like Maggie Rogers or Jorja Smith instead craft a warm intimacy in their music that doesn’t seem like it’s catering specifically to a hetero male gaze.
It’s not as though the charts are completely devoid of sex, but some of the most compelling music about the deed right now defies stereotypes of how women in pop music are allowed to approach the subject. There’s something deeply emasculating about the rap of artists like Cardi B or CupcaKKe (who opened a song with a lyric like “I thought I came but I peed on the dick”). Cardi B isn’t trying to make men feel comfortable; lust for money, not men, dominates her music. And when King Princess sings of “praying all day” for her lover’s vagina on her sultry “Pussy Is God,” be sure to put some flowers on the grave of “I Kissed A Girl” and other coyly bicurious artists that emulate the theme.
Maybe what appears to be a decline in pop that feels traditionally, overtly sexy is just a decline in the objectification of women artists. Where once the currency for women may have been near-pornographic displays of sexuality, for the past few years it’s arguably been messages of empowerment and agency (even if they bubble up in pop music in the vapidest of ways). “I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike,” SZA sings on her song “Drew Barrymore.” “I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night.” Songs like Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” or Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” put emphasis on leaving men and finding yourself. For these artists, the only person they’re horny for is, admirably, themselves.
In a feature exploring the changing depiction of sex in pop music, Guardian editor Laura Snapes points out that millennials are having less sex than previous generations but are “worrying more, a pattern reflected by pop as it abandons bravado to offer more honest accounts of anxiety and its effects on intimacy.” And the emphasis on one’s imperfections and anxiety that’s trendy in popular music right now is only becoming darker.
When artists like Lorde and Lana del Rey began climbing the Billboard Hot 100 in 2012 they helped define a fresh mainstream in pop, one which appealed to introspective teenagers who were disaffected with the rosy perfection being peddled to them. But today’s rising class of performers are taking that ethos and driving it to pure nihilism. Younger artists are far more inclined to sing in depressing tones about the nightmares in their head (and the Xannies in their pockets) than their sexual conquests, from the melancholy and antisocial rock-rap of artists like Lil Uzi Vert and Post Malone, to the moody music of Juice WRLD, one of last year’s breakout stars. “You left me falling and landing inside my grave, I know that you want me dead,” Jarad Higgins of Juice WRLD sings on his song “Lucid Dreams.” “I take prescriptions to make me feel a-okay.” It’s an emo sentiment currently leaking out from rap into pop, like in the music of Billie Eilish, a wildly popular rising star with 12.6 million Instagram followers who specializes in quiet, gothic ballads. “I honestly thought I’d be dead by now,” she sings on her latest single “bury a friend.” She’s just 17 years old.
In her piece for The New Yorker about the rise of Juuling, Jia Tolentino asks a teenage source if her generation’s anxiety contributes to their Juul usage. “People definitely stress-Juul. But everything we do is like Tide Pods,” she says. “Everyone in this generation is semi-ironically, like, We’re ready to die.” The current wave of music that seems to connect the most with young people right now, the odes to death and drinking to forget, might as well be “Tide Pod Pop.” When you’re part of a generation that’s perpetually stressed and always a bit ready to die, it’s not hard to see why sex might not be a priority in music, or as it turns out, in life.