Laying out by the pool with Pandora on, most of the time songs just float over you like a warm Arizona breeze. But over the last couple of months I started to notice something: the songs from the “Today’s Hits” list I was listening to were no longer “baby, baby” “let’s get it on,” or “expletive, expletive, expletive.” There were some pretty introspective lyrics going on, including more than a little concern with aging and reflection on younger years. Of course we heard a fantastic example from Brian Wilson in his 2012 song “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” meant for a generation that made out to the ubiquitous music coming from car radios. But what makes the current crop of relationship songs different is that all of these artists singing about younger years and looking back are under 40, and many under 30.
Oh, don’t get me wrong—there’s plenty of sex, and some pretty funny dance-y songs as well. How can you not like Meghan Trainor’s “If I was you, I would want to be me, too”? And there’s still way too much filthy rap that worms its way into the top 100. But increasingly the artists seem to realize not only their own mortality, but the importance of things other than casual sex and hookups. Lukas Graham’s “Seven Years Old” reveals a young man seeing his life pass before his eyes, from seven to sixty, who hopes “my children come and visit, once or twice a month.” One of the hottest singers out, Ed Shereran, has a mesmerizing song in “Castle on the Hill” about growing up, remembering his youth, watching the sunset from the castle over the hill.
“I can’t wait to go home,” he sings, after relating the histories of all his friends, some successful some not.
Wiz Khalifa has a similar lament in his haunting “See You Again,” saying “It’s been a long day without you, my friend. And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again.” He insists “hard work forever pays” (wait, what??) and “how can we not talk about family when family’s all that we got?”
The Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This,” a romantic song, is nevertheless a quest for a relationship that’s on a mythological level, even though the singer is not “the kind of person that it fits.” Instead, he wants a real-world connection, not “some fairytale bliss.” Harry Styles tells people to “just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times.” Instead, “have the time of your life.”
Then there’s Adele’s tearjerking “When We Were Young,” recounts catching up with an old flame who moved overseas in a moment that reminds her “of when we were young.” She wants a photograph, “in case it’s the last time . . . before we realized we were sad of getting old.”
And even when the relationship is good, as James Arthur sings, “For a minute I forget that I’m older.” He promises “I’ll bring you coffee with a kiss on your head and I’ll take the kids to school.” Wait . . . kids? School? What’s next, singing about the mortgage payment and the gym?
Indeed, the deeper reflection has been going on for a while (Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” with its admission of failure from someone who “used to rule the world,” now sweeping “the streets I used to own”). Even before that Bruce Springsteen all but pined for his “Glory Days.” The new crop of artists, however, has both a different feel and weight, as though the current generation not only is growing up, but growing up fast. Reading too much into a few songs? Perhaps. Sia still reminds us that she loves cheap thrills, Lorde is waiting for her green light, and Julia Michaels has issues. But even these seem to speak of people with a more sophisticated appreciation for life, love, and the changes they are inevitably about to experience.