Grammys 2017: Why today’s pop music is all about the old soul

As the U.S. looks backward to make it great again, top Grammy nominees reveal a cultural fascination with time’s passing

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At this time of great disruption, it’s natural to want to cling to life’s few remaining certainties: death, taxes, and Adele. And at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, the English chanteuse will provide a reassuring presence—reminding us that yes, they do still write songs like they used to, and sing them too, and that people are still buying CDs (well, hers, at any rate).

But despite how Adele dominated charts in 2016 with her Album of the Year-nominated 25, she’s still willing us to believe that her best days are behind her. 25 is awash in nostalgia, beginning with its lead track “Hello” (up for Record of the Year and Song of the Year), which finds her dreaming about “who we used to be / When we were younger and free.”

With the United States politically focused on fetishizing its past, resolving to “Make America Great Again,” Adele and a host of other Grammy nominees raise the question: Why is pop music, which celebrates living in the moment, now so obsessed with looking back?

MORE: Say ‘Hello’ to Adele, the anti-pop-star pop star

This year’s other “all-genre” big-category Grammy nominees prove Adele’s not alone in being an old soul. Twenty One Pilots’ Record of the Year-nominated track “Stressed Out” laments: “Wish we could turn back time / To the good old days.” Danish band Lukas Graham, nominated for Song of the Year for “7 Years,” finds frontman Lukas Forchhammer imagining himself as a 60-year-old, looking back on his life today. Mike Posner’s “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” casts a jaded eye on the dreams of his youth. Every single one of these singers is 28—theoretically in his or her prime. And even music’s newest talents, the ones nominated for Best New Artist, are preoccupied by aging. Kelsea Ballerini, 23, chastises an ex in her biggest song, “Peter Pan”: “You’ll never grow up. You’re never gonna be a man.” On “Same Drugs,” Chance the Rapper, also 23, resignedly compares himself to Peter Pan (“Wendy, you’ve aged / I thought you’d never grow up”) and bemoans being “a shadow of what I once was.” Even the notoriously hedonistic duo The Chainsmokers, in their hit song “Closer,” sing “We ain’t ever getting older”—which, as 31-year-old Alex Pall told the lyrics site Genius, could mean “we are stuck in time repeating a mistake of the past, not learning or growing from it.”

Pop music is no stranger to nostalgia; The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is, after all, said to be the most covered song ever. But the ubiquity of introspective songs today may indicate a musical retreat into the past at a time of political turmoil. In early 1974, during the Watergate scandal, Billboard chart-toppers included Jim Croce’s melancholy, posthumous “Time in a Bottle,” Terry Jacks’s cover of Jacques Brel and Rod McKuen’s deathbed reminiscence “Seasons in the Sun,” and Barbra Streisand’s baleful “The Way We Were.” Sometimes, in a world where the present is nearly incomprehensible, songs about coming to terms with one’s past are the only things that make sense.

One significant change since those days, says Boston-based music writer Maura Johnston, is that nearly everyone in current Top 40 radio is under 30—“even Britney Spears is kind of too old,” she notes. So it may be natural for singers who are hitting their late 20s—and rapidly approaching their pop music sell-by dates—to be looking back. “You have this impression of depth where it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to be serious songwriters, and so we’re going to talk about the past.’ It seems more outlandish because singers are coming out with this at very young ages.”

What’s more, they’re seen to be literally sifting through their own relatively scant past. Unlike, say, “Yesterday,” with its generalized longing, these songs are often presented as the singers’ own personal reflections. The video for “Stressed Out” was filmed at drummer Josh Dun’s own childhood home, with members of his and singer Tyler Joseph’s families; Posner and Forchhammer have asserted that their songs lyrics are drawn from their own lives.

Not that pop music is entirely in thrall to the past. Beyoncé (up for Record and Song of the Year for “Formation” and Album of the Year for Lemonade) and Rihanna (up for Record of the Year for “Work”) are determined to seize the day, defiantly foregrounding their blackness at a time of inflammatory rhetoric and racial unrest. To an extent, they’re bucking a trend, and not just at the Grammys: The landscape of pop music, notes Johnston, has grown conservative and whitewashed.

“Meghan Trainor getting more airplay than Beyoncé is just ridiculous, but there’s a lot of racial polarization on the radio right now,” she says. “Black women are not on current pop radio unless they’re Rihanna.” With the exception of Chance the Rapper, Drake (elements of whose youth are woven through his Album of the Year-nominated Views) and oddball country cult hero Sturgill Simpson, the Grammy nominees whose songs explicitly mine their past are pop artists, are white, and are very popular.

MORE: On Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’, the personal is political

Tourists use a selfie stick on the Trocadero Square, with the Eiffel Tower in background, in Paris, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. (Remy de la Mauviniere/AP Photo)
Tourists use a selfie stick on the Trocadero Square, with the Eiffel Tower in background, in Paris, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. (Remy de la Mauviniere/AP Photo)

Maybe there’s something about backward-looking, detailed narratives—no matter how bland—that resonates with a generation of people who have enormous digital archives, generated by constantly snapping photos and saving them to a virtually infinite cloud. As social networks demand that we share more and more of ourselves, we spend an inordinate amount of time shaping our past for public consumption.

Indeed, so much our “free time” is now so consumed by considering how to frame our experience so it will look good when we share it online—including filming concerts, instead of directly watching them—that the very idea of “living in the moment,” which used to be the raison d’être of pop music, has more or less vanished. We’re constantly thinking ahead, like Lukas Graham in “7 Years,” to when the present will be the past. And when we’re encouraged to put everything on a timeline, we’re constructing our own narratives. “When we are framing the present”—i.e., by constantly taking photos—“it’s with the idea of the anticipated audience,” says Tracy Xavia Karner, a visual sociologist at the University of Houston. “It’s no longer about what’s happening in the moment. And I do think ‘happening in the moment’ is kind of a myth, because we’re social beings—we’re never one thing, and we’re never just in one space, unless we’re really good at meditating.”

So maybe pop songs that look back on the singer’s past are really also about how we live in the present today—we’re scattered, as Karner suggests, trying to capture something of what’s happening in front of us, even as we look ahead to how we’ll look back at it. Consider the chorus of Adele’s song “When We Were Young”:

Let me photograph you in this light
In case it is the last time that we might
Be exactly like we were before we realised
We were sad of getting old, it made us restless
It was just like a movie
It was just like a song

She’s possessed by an impulse to preserve the present because it’s about to ebb away into a dreary future, during which she’ll want to be able to look back at this moment, but not because it felt real—but because it itself felt like a song. Maybe a song about getting older. Like this one.

So when Beyoncé sings in imperatives about getting in formation and making the most of the present, many of her fellow nominees are still curating their pasts. They’re taking a snapshot of a culture taking a snapshot of itself.

Watch the 59th annual Grammy Awards on CITY TV on Sunday, Feb. 12, at 8:00pm EST.