Pop Is Now Good, Rappers Are The New (Indie) Rock Stars, And Other Reflections From Pitchfork 2019

Recently, I went home to Chicago for one of my favorite events of the summer: Pitchfork Music Festival.

I love going to Pitchfork because it’s a peek into the future.

For the uninitiated—and it is a bit cultish—Pitchfork is an online magazine known for its music reviews that rate albums out of 10.0. And for most of the 2000s and beyond, they had incredible market power to make or break bands. Every year, they throw a festival that’s something like the YC Demo Day of indie music. The lineup captures the year’s artistic zeitgiest, with a handful of recognizable acts, but mostly ones you haven’t heard of yet.

Anyway, I say it’s the future because in my 5ish times attending, I’ve always caught a show of an artist that went on to do great things. For instance, I saw Kendrick Lamar in 2012, when he was only known for a little mixtape called Section.80. (He went on to drop an instant-classic Good Kid Maad City only two months later.) I also got to see other names like Odd Future, Beach House, Vampire Weekend, King Krule, Mac Demarco, and Grimes quite early in their careers.

My only takeaway from Pitchfork 2019 was that hip-hop/R&B and pop music seemed more dominant than ever, in a way I’ve never seen before.

Obviously, the ascendence of hip-hop is a long time coming. Hip-hop/R&B surpassed rock as the most popular genre in America almost 2 years ago. And per the famous Kanye rant: “Rap is the new rock ‘n roll, we’re the rock stars…AND IM THE BIGGEST ROCK STAR OF THEM ALL.”

But at Pitchfork this year, there was no indie rock darling anymore. No Bon Ivers, no Fleet Foxes, no Deerhunters pushing the vanguard like there once was. Instead, the rawest talent in my opinion was in pop and hip-hop. Alt-pop stars like Charli XCX and Haim were extremely impressive live performers, as were hip-hop names like Pusha T, Freddie Gibbs, JPEGMAFIA, Valee, Earl, and Jeremih. Most of these names have been in the music industry machine for a while.

It all confirms this theory I’ve had: pop music is getting better, thanks to the internet.

Just take a look at how sonically diverse Top 40 is these days. From Lil Nas X’s trap-country fusion, to a name like Bad Bunny being able to do sold-out shows at MSG with only 3 years in the music game. Thanks to the long tail effects of the internet, ‘niche’ artists can amass huge followings.

For most of my music-snob life, ‘pop’ music had a negative connotation. But the lines of ‘pop’ versus ‘indie’ have blurred so much it’s almost meaningless now. There is no gulf in artistic quality anymore. Any small genre can quickly become ‘pop’ if it gets enough clicks. And conversely, hyper-popular musicians like Arianna Grande are actually making great music now. (Sidenote: I’m still not sure if this effect benefits incumbents or newcomers more, but I think the whole pie is growing.)

It all makes me wonder what this portends for the future of music.

Did I just witness the death knell of indie rock? Is hip-hop only going to climb to new heights of relevance? Is internet-y, experimental music like a Charli XCX or JPEGMAFIA the future of pop and hip-hop?

I think it’s yes, yes, and yes.

PS-you can watch a few of the full Pitchfork performances. I found myself in the Charli XCX broadcast(!):

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