Pop Music Finally Broke Us Through the Pandemic Time Loop

Time got weird in a new way as Beyoncé, Rosalía, and other artists made albums in 2022 that were about lockdown, even when they weren't.

Pop Music Finally Broke Us Through the Pandemic Time Loop
The album covers for “Un Verano Sin Ti” (left) and “Natural Brown Prom Queen.” Image:Rimas/Stones Throw

Maybe 2022 will turn out to be the year Groundhog Day finally ended. For a good while after the start of lockdown, invoking the 1993 Bill Murray movie became shorthand for the sameness of our days—that feeling that we were stuck in a kind of temporal loop. But as vaccines brought with them a sense of confidence that survivors would, in fact, survive, and as the world opened up rendering the new normal a ringer for the old one, the loop, it would seem, broke. It was replaced by what felt like jump cuts.

If time once flowed circularly, now it was flickering. This effect crashed into my consciousness in March, when I saw Low play in New York, which I’ve been doing intermittently since the late ‘90s. Standing there, watching them command a silent crowd with sometimes the faintest of sounds, I felt two ways at once: Seeing this band is just something that I do, and this is something I haven’t done in so long. (The last time was in 2018, before covid was even a concept.) It was like hitting my brain’s funny bone and experiencing that simultaneous understanding that something conventional is now technically novel. I could compare it to deja vu, but in the place of the false memory, or the memory whose veracity I couldn’t quite put my finger on, was an actual memory. Some things feel like they happened a million years ago and also yesterday. Time moves more strangely than ever now.

The past felt particularly not dead and especially not past on many of the year’s most acclaimed (per Metacritic) and most consumed (according to Billboard) albums. So much music deemed notable by critics and audiences alike in 2022 was profoundly shaped by the pandemic, the quarantine era in particular, giving it a temporal wooziness. That the lockdown era continued to play out in this medium was at least partly a product of the time it takes to turn around major-label (and some indie) releases—Björk had her mushroom moment in public with her album Fossora about two years after everyone else did in private, because the work she did in quarantine was finally ready for release. Rosalia’s beloved Motomami (No. 1 on Metacritic’s list) is in part the product of a one-room “little setup” of “basics like just the midi keyboard, the computer, just with the mic” that the Spanish singer/producer situated during quarantine. Even something as seemingly minor as the heart on the cover of the No. 1 Billboard 200 album of 2022, Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti, owes a debt to covid. “I drew the heart during the pandemic lockdown, and I sent it to [graphic designer Ugly Primo]. Out of the entire album, the heart was the first thing that I thought of,” recalled Bad Bunny.

ROSALÍA performs onstage during The 23rd Annual Latin Grammy Awards at Michelob ULTRA Arena on November 17, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image:Kevin Winter (Getty Images)

Other artists reported finding liberation in lockdown. Georgia South of the Nova Twins said of the band’s sophomore album, Supernova (No. 2 on Metacritic’s top scoring 2022 releases): “I think lockdown allowed us to have time to reflect and experiment more, and get it wrong. There was no schedule, so it was like: ‘Should we write an album? We’ve got nothing else to do!’ That’s the best way when you work without pressure: Sometimes it allows you to do more, think more out of the box.” Supernova was written and recorded in the wake of the group having to cancel the tour for their debut, just 10 days into the trek. Guitarist David Noonan and singer Katie Ball of the neo-Shoegaze Irish band Just Mustard said their sophomore album, Heart Under (No. 8 on Metacritic’s list), had also been creatively shaped by lockdown, as they initially worked on ideas in isolation. “Because of the first hardcore lockdown stuff, everyone was making scraps of ideas on their own. There was a pool of noises and chords that we could draw upon. Not all of them became songs, but there were ideas for sounds and stuff we had developed,” explained Noonan. “We just had time to experiment and build up a bank of things to use,” added Ball.

Any pandemic-related poignancy is there for the taking or rejecting.

For British band Black Country, New Road, music was a refuge from the bleakness of the rest of the world. Drummer Charlie Wayne said that the band wrote its sophomore album Ants From Up There (No. 3 on Metacritic’s list) in “the really bleak lockdown during the winter of last year,” when “playing music with one another was respite and a comfort to all of us.” The result was gentler than what the band had previously achieved: “That’s where the difference is from the first album, which was meant to be performed to the public. It’s meant to be a sort of established distance between the band and the audience. That wasn’t really where we were when we were writing this last album,” said Wayne.

Beyoncé performs during the ABC telecast of the 94th Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo:Mason Poole/A.M.P.A.S. (Getty Images)

And then there were those whose art explicitly referenced the pandemic, as the long arm of covid stretched into its third year. The final track on Natural Brown Prom Queen, the lo-fi yet kaleidoscopic second album from Sudan Archives (No. 9 on Metacritic), features the line, “My best friend’s fallin’ off, probably ‘cause Corona.” The song’s title, “#513,” is a reference to Cincinnati’s area code since, as NPR noted, “Sudan Archives was feeling homesick during the pandemic. So, she made an album about it.” (The album’s original title was Homesick.) Brittney Parks, who performs as Sudan Archives, explained in an interview with Pitchfork that she was “low-key happy when this covid shit happened,” explaining, “Can’t go nowhere. Can’t see nobody. Nobody got to bother me. This is my little studio, my world.” Nostalgia for early pandemic life is taboo for even the most ardent sourdough enthusiast, and suggesting joy could be derived from a situation that was deadly and miserable for others is just as difficult to accomplish unscathed. But there are few better outlets for the upside of quarantine than art, and Natural Brown Prom Queen’s furious creativity is an apotheosis in that regard. Parks made lemons out of lemonade, and so what if the sugar was free?

Speaking of lemonade, surveying the pandemic doesn’t get much headier than through the lens of Beyoncé’s Renaissance (No. 4 on Metacritic’s list and No. 21 on Billboard’s). Per a lengthy artist’s statement Beyoncé put out ahead of the club culture-inspired album’s July release:

This three-act project was recorded over three years during the pandemic. A time to be still, but also a time I found to be the most creative. Creating this album allowed me a place to dream and to find escape during a scary time for the world.
It allowed me to feel free and adventurous in a time when little else was moving. My intention was to create a safe place, a place without judgment. A place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking. A place to scream, release, feel freedom. It was a beautiful journey of exploration.

When you listen to this album, you can effectively look back on quarantine Beyoncé looking forward to a time when people would be able to get out and dance. Renaissance hit at the perfect time—for weeks after its release, I heard reports of people going out dancing only so they could hear the album played in its entirety in a public venue.

Georgia South and Amy Love of Nova Twins perform on stage during their Supernova tour at Electric Brixton on November 12, 2022 in London, England. Photo:Jim Dyson (Getty Images)

The Weeknd specifically avoided covid with Dawn FM (No. 14 on Metacritic’s list and No. 18 on Billboard’s). The album originated as a meditation on his “limbo state” in quarantine, but he said the resulting material was “emotionally detrimental” and so was scrapped. The resulting record contained material intended to “guide you into the light… until you’re fully engulfed.” To move on, he used the past as fuel.

Music can be used for passive time travel, given its ability to encapsulate hallmarks of its day—a meaningful song pulls a person right back to the time in their life that it first hit. The sonic jump cuts that these albums make provide richness to their texts, but often at a whisper so that one can only hear them if they’re really listening. Any pandemic-related poignancy is there for the taking or rejecting.

If Beyoncé’s beloved Renaissance was the prescription to collectively dance our weariness away, and Dawn FM showed us how to move forward while holding onto flickers of the past, Taylor Swift’s blockbuster Midnights (No. 4 on Billboard’s list) gave little indication of pandemic-era cares at all. Swift hit big with her one-two punch of scaled-down, lockdown records Folklore, released in July 2020, and then Evermore, released less than five months later. Perhaps having spent enough time in quiet solitude, Midnights picked back up the synth pop style Swift had cultivated for years, most recently with 2019’s Lover. Midnights is the sonic equivalent of “when this is all over”—a fantasy, yes, but such things are possible through art.

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