How post-pandemic pop is carrying us from escapism to euphoria

·9 min read
L-R: Rina Sawayama, Sports Team, Beyonce, Lizzo and Florence and the Machine (Getty/Rex/Lauren Maccabee/The Independent)
L-R: Rina Sawayama, Sports Team, Beyonce, Lizzo and Florence and the Machine (Getty/Rex/Lauren Maccabee/The Independent)

The new album from indie-pop band Sports Team opens with a blast of pure euphoria. “Oh yeah, that’s the game,” sings frontman Alex Rice over a rush of student disco guitars. “Life’s hard but I can’t complain.”

Picked apart, the lyrics – from the group’s forthcoming second LP, Gulp! – are revealed to be rather bleak. “The Game”, the outwardly joyous first track, is a laundry of woes confronting Gen Z-ers and millennials in this age of unaffordable housing and gig economy-type zombie jobs. Yet the feeling it communicates is one of exultation and living in the moment.

It isn’t alone in that respect. As the music industry recalibrates after the pandemic, the floodgates have opened on records that revel in catharsis. Chief among them is Beyoncé’s dancefloor epic Renaissance. There is also Rina Sawayama’s Hold The Girl, out this week and featuring shiny-eyed Corrs homage “Catch Me in the Air”, and Florence + the Machine’s Dance Fever: a celebration of “clubs, dancing at festivals, being in the whirl of movement and togetherness”. Most exuberant of all, perhaps, is Lizzo’s Special – hailed by The Independent’s critic Helen Brown as “an irresistible album overflowing with love and gratitude to friends, family, lovers and fans”.

Lizzo released her latest album ‘Special’ in July 2022 (Getty Images for BET)
Lizzo released her latest album ‘Special’ in July 2022 (Getty Images for BET)

These artists are very different from one another. Yet their respective albums have one thing in common: a desire to leave lockdown in the rearview mirror and inhabit the here-and-now. That celebratory atmosphere may well go down as the defining aspect of music in 2022. “A lot of our album was written during the pandemic,” says Sports Team’s Rice. “But I think people don’t necessarily want to hear that much about the pandemic now.”

You can use pop music to trace the state of the world across the past two years. The first great lockdown album, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, was assembled pre-Covid. Released in late March 2020, it served as a bittersweet reminder of the freedoms we were about to lose. Here was a disco odyssey we could dance to, alone, in our bedrooms. Then came an entire wave of lockdown releases: hushed, intimate and vulnerable works such as Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Hayley Williams’ Flowers for Vases/Descansos. Their message was that pop stars were human, too. That, just like the rest of us, the pandemic had left them confused, restless and afraid.

These records held up a mirror to the mundanity of lockdown life yet also suggested that a bright future lurked on the other side, if only we gazed hard enough. “I’m so bored… lose myself in a TV show, staring out to oblivion,” sang Charli on “Anthems”, a track that captured a walls-closing-in kind of ennui. Even on tracks such as this, there was stardust sprinkled through. On her Folklore single “August”, Swift was carried away by reminiscence as her piano gently wept (“But I can see us lost in the memory/ August slipped away into a moment of time/ cause it was never mine”). A sense of retreating to beloved childhood memories was expressed in the lyrics – but even more so in the track’s gentle, acoustic gallop and its slowly unfurling melody, both of which have the languorous quality of a summer afternoon.

Others took a different approach. It was no coincidence that 2020 was the year of the great disco revival. As well as Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, the public responded strongly to rhapsodic collections by Kylie Minogue, Róisín Murphy and Jessie Ware. There were no dancefloors, but records such as these kept the spirit of a rollicking night out alive.

Now, the shutters are open and the sun is streaming in. Beyoncé’s Renaissance, in particular, feels like a sort of royal decree declaring Covid kaput. Here is an album designed, or so it seems, to evoke in the listener a craving for sweaty nightclubs and communal celebration. Of rejoicing in rediscovered freedoms. Or, as Beyoncé puts it on seismic house bop “Break My Soul”: “I’m lookin’ for motivation/I’m lookin’ for a new foundation, yeah/And I’m on that new vibration.”

Those vibrations mark Renaissance as the reverse image of Swift’s hushed and introverted Folklore. Beyoncé has made an album to be consumed with friends. To be danced to and /or experienced as part of the background throb at a party. “Renaissance is intended to be enjoyed not in front of a computer screen but among human bodies, in a nightclub,” as The Independent’s critic Mark Beaumont wrote in his review.

Beyoncé didn’t invent the disco revival. Nor are Sports Team the first to juxtapose dark lyrics and celebratory melodies. However, Covid has made us appreciate the positives in life all the more. And that is perhaps why the emotions unleashed on these records stand out so vividly. After years in the dark, the optimism zinging through albums such as Renaissance has been hard won. These are hopeful songs born out of real struggle.

In the case of Sports Team, the strain of the pandemic was exacerbated when the six-piece found themselves spending early lockdown together. They have come out of the experience in a better place, both as friends and collaborators. Nonetheless, living in one another’s shadows in the same house in London came with its own challenges. That white heat of over-familiarity has been poured into Gulp!

In good spirits: British band Sports Team (Lauren Maccabee)
In good spirits: British band Sports Team (Lauren Maccabee)

“We had quite a strange experience of it. A lot of people were sort of forced apart. But we were forced together,” says Rice. “We were all living together. Your social world got a lot smaller. Our own relationships in the band got a lot more intense.”

Those emotions are refracted on Gulp! into driving guitars, ants-in-pants brass and a pace that rarely lets up. The choruses have a kick-down-the-doors quality; even the quieter moments – mid-tempo single “Cool It Kid”, for example – give off a feverish vigour. “Life coming at us all at full speed,” it tells us.

We were thinking about the clarity that is important when you are playing music in a crowded room full of people

Liz Stokes, The Beths

The urge to sing and shout and generally cause a feel-good ruckus was a major influence on New Zealand’s indie quartet The Beths and their new album Expert in a Dying Field. The record springs from the traps brimming with spill-your-pint indie moshpit gusto and declines to pause for breath. “From the first day we started working on the new songs together, part of the ‘mission statement’ of making this record was to make something that would be energetic and jubilant and fun to play live,” says frontwoman Liz Stokes. “We were thinking about the clarity that is important when you are playing music in a crowded room full of people.”

Though the project was conceived of and written during Covid, Stokes had little interest in making a “pandemic” record. She concedes, however, that the waking-nightmare quality of 2020 and 2021 may have seeped in. There are aspects of the album about coping, and about change, about distance, about anxiety. Even if they aren’t directly about ‘pandemic stuff’, it has to be shaping the lens that everybody looks at art through for a while.”

That sheer bizarreness of life under lockdown also influenced the effervescent new album by Chicago’s indie-rock duo, Whitney. Their pandemic was surreal with bells on. Drummer Max Kakacek lost his grandfather to Covid. Meanwhile, they had moved to Portland, Oregon to make their record, Spark. There, they found themselves in the crucible of the Black Lives Matter protests and, later, the violent pushback by the American far-right, who flocked to Portland to spread their hate on a near-nightly basis. “By the time we were about to leave, it was like every single day there’d be a march of 25 people with AK-47s,” says singer/drummer Julien Ehrlich. “They were walking down the street and we’d be like, ‘our heads are spinning…what the f***?’”

“We were robbed at gunpoint at the very beginning of the pandemic as well,” adds guitarist Kakacek. “It brought [us] to a deeper paranoia. It was a weird ass time to be there.”

On Spark, the band’s determination to push forward filters into wondrous Beach Boys-goes-sadcore retro pop. “I know this life/ Only brings bad news,” they sing on recent single “Twirl”, their entwining Simon and Garfunkel harmonies set against a slowly rising storm of piano and glockenspiel. “But I’m gonna try/ To hold on to you.” It is one of several numbers that celebrates the quiet jubilation of slogging through, of refusing to be dragged down by adversity, and of taking your good news where you find it.

The same sense of taking joy from desperate times and learning to inhabit the moment can be heard on Surrender, the new LP by Maggie Rogers that combines anthemic acoustic guitars, bittersweet electronic grooves and the US singer-songwriter’s expressive voice, perpetually poised to splinter under the sheer weight of feeling. In 2020, she moved to coastal Maine, where she lived with her parents at their holiday home and gazed out at the wild north Atlantic Ocean. After years of touring and being among friends, she struggled with solitude.

Maggie Rogers performs on Day 3 of Coachella festival (Getty Images for Coachella)
Maggie Rogers performs on Day 3 of Coachella festival (Getty Images for Coachella)

Despite this, Surrender brims with optimism. “It all works out in the end,” she sings on single “That’s Where I Am”. It’s a ballad about clinging to the belief that a difficult situation will improve, and glimmers with the same rhapsodic quality of Beyoncé’s Renaissance. As delivered in Rogers’ emphatic croon – think Stevie Nicks dueting with Alanis Morissette – it is a moment that wears its feelings like tiny bells woven into her hair. “I was making songs in an instinctive way,” she told me recently. “Intense but optimistic. That may be just my baseline.”

These records are testament to the restorative strength of music. “In a lot of ways, it was the only thing getting us through,” says Whitney’s Julien Ehrlich. “One hundred times during the pandemic, if the music wasn’t going well and if writing wasn’t going well, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I don’t know where I’d be.”

Just like Beyoncé, Maggie Rogers and countless others, Ehrlich and Kakacek have distilled their lockdown blues into a soundtrack of affirmation and defiance. And as summer turns to autumn, those albums, with their upward currents, are here to carry us higher and higher.