Living the dream: a hushed revolution is taking over pop

Minimalist sounds and hushed singing, dream pop is all about the vibes

US singer, rapper, songwriter and producer Post Malone performs on stage at the Sziget Island Festival in Hajogyar Island, Budapest on August 11, 2019. AFP 
US singer, rapper, songwriter and producer Post Malone performs on stage at the Sziget Island Festival in Hajogyar Island, Budapest on August 11, 2019. AFP 

Pop music is going through a quiet revolution. Whereas the dominant industry dictum was once “don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, a new generation of songwriters has ­wilfully turned this principle on its head to make quiet the new loud and vibes the new hooks.

This is not exactly a new movement. It is the emergence of a relatively seasoned genre that has been operating on the outer margins of pop music for the past three decades. “Dream pop” was once headed by a small and dedicated group of cult bands, but now, an increasing number of pop superstarsTaylor Swift, Post Malone, Billie Eilish and Lorde to name a few – have used its signature atmospheric sounds to ride to the top of the charts.

For a good example of its prevalence, look no further than two of the biggest hits of the past 12 months. Post Malone and Swae Lee’s blissful Sunflower is full of the ambient keyboard notes and warm vocals that define the genre, while the sheer minimalist sound and hushed singing of Eilish’s Bad Guy also stems from dream pop’s fascination with mood.

While this may seem like a relatively niche observation, dream pop’s rise is also part of a greater story of a rapidly changing music industry that is heading into new, exciting territory. Before we touch on that, perhaps it’s important to explain exactly what dream pop is. This is actually harder than it sounds, as the genre defies a neat categorisation. It is more interested in the texture and atmosphere of a song than a specific type of sound itself. It is more about the feedback than the guitar riff, or the reverberation a particular drum beat gives, rather than the rhythm. It’s about the vibes.

British singer Alex Ayuli is credited with coining the term when he used it to describe the ethereal sounds of his electronic group, the duo AR Kane, who scored a surprise hit in 1987 with Pump up the Volume. The sonic ethos of AR Kane and other early pioneers of the genre, such as rock groups My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins, is to create as much of an immersive experience as they can.

While standard pop songs aim to seize your nervous system through razor-sharp hooks, dream pop is more about drawing you in with its dense production, such as breathy vocals, and guitar and piano effects that allow the instruments to shimmer and sound almost wavelike.

Coupled with lyrics that range from the abstract to the intimate, it all comes together to induce a hazy and rapturous feeling akin to an out-of-body experience.

Dream pop slowly started making proper commercial inroads on various fronts from the early 1990s. While bands such as Beach House and M83 pioneered the genre on the indie music circuit, its ascent to the charts is arguably thanks to the masterful production work of Brian Eno, who is also known as the godfather of modern ambient music. As the producer of a string of immensely successful and influential albums by U2 (1991’s Achtung Baby) and Coldplay (2005’s X&Y), Eno transformed the type of music from avant-garde to cool, with the style becoming widely accepted by pop music lovers who wanted their songs clear and catchy, as well as rockers who valued volume over vibe.

Even hip-hop, arguably today’s most popular music genre, has been affected by dream pop.

Released in 2008, Kanye West’s album 808 and Heartbreak changed the hip-hop game in both sound and content. The album’s desolate sparseness, coupled with electronically manipulated vocals that channelled West’s feeling of loss and alienation, not only demonstrated the adventurous nature of hip-hop, but inspired a whole generation of producers to create their own intimate sonic landscapes.

Graduates from this ambient school of hip-hop production include some of the leading beat-makers in the industry today, such as Lebanese-Canadian record producer Noah Shebib, who is the architect of Drake’s sound, Post Malone and his favoured producer Louis Bell, and the brooding solo star Kid Cudi. All of them have melded minimalist instrumentation with hazy melodies, a combination that is the cornerstone of dream pop.

Technology has meant modern dream pop has taken on a life of its own, which has helped the genre gain even wider acceptance.

In the age of online streaming, the music playlist is king. And with its appeal lying in the creation of a never-ending emotional state (Spotify’s Chill Out playlist is more than seven hours long), dream pop’s hypnotic sounds are ideal in keeping that vibe going on and on. Whether the genre will grow to become the new dominant form of pop music is still unclear. But one thing is for suredream pop’s quiet appeal will continue to be grow louder for some time to come.

Published: September 30, 2019 04:38 PM

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