Why Are We All Listening to the Same Music Again?

Last April, when Beyoncé surprise-dropped Lemonade on a random Saturday night, something weird happened: I listened to it. All weekend long. Front to back. I even watched the accompanying one-hour HBO movie; dove into the tsunami of thinkpieces on it; trawled Instagram for its dankest memes; scoured forums to find out who “Becky with the good hair” was.

I wasn’t always like this. Never before did I find Queen Bey interesting enough (well, besides optically) to sit through an entire record of hers. (Sorry Beyhive.) My musical inclinations usually tend towards the loud and the weird, not the major label and the twerk-ready. But this was different. Not only was I ready for that jelly, I was consumed whole by it. And the reason —aside from it being an undeniably powerful piece of art — was obvious: I didn’t want to be Monday’s water cooler outcast.

The monoculture — the force that once united mass audiences around a generation-defining record (see: Thriller, Nevermind) — has supposedly been dead for over a decade. The Internet was said to destroy that radio-MTV-record store consortium, balkanizing the mainstream into a panoply of niche tastes, while giving smaller artists a voice. And yet, 2016 has been the year of the Big Album. A handful of impossible-to-ignore releases have dominated the pop cultural discourse, requiring us all to have Big Thoughts about them. It’s the opposite of the democratized musical landscape the digital revolution promised. Welcome to The Monoculture 2.0.

Ironically, the Internet may be to blame for this. It gave us more choices than we could handle — when everything’s available, we feel overwhelmed and fall back on what’s familiar (or being relentlessly hawked at us). Social media takes the guesswork out of things; it tells you what’s driving the dialogue, and compels you to keep it going. Screw discovering new Nordic drone folk bands. Kanye said what about Taylor? For better or worse, everyone’s having the same conversation again. So you may as well keep up with it — as if you have a choice.

The Pop One Per Cent

How to talk shop about the albums that reigned over your newsfeed this year.

Kanye West, The Life of Pablo

Cliff Notes: A disjointed, surreal, ever-changing opus that sounds about as confused as its author.
Talking point: “Well, he’s still working on the album, so I’ll reserve my judgment until it’s done.”

Drake, VIEWS

Cliff Notes: Twenty tracks of downbeat introspection that failed to live up to the hype, but nevertheless destroyed just about every chart record.
Talking point: “It’s the kind of record that makes you miss the girl you didn’t wave back to in the third grade.”

Beyoncé, Lemonade

Cliff Notes: A staggering array of edgy collaborations (Jack White, James Blake, Kendrick Lamar) showcasing the furious glory of a woman done wrong.
Talking point: “Can’t wait for Jay-Z’s follow-up banger about sleeping on a couch that costs more than a Bugatti.”

Frank Ocean, Blonde

Cliff Notes: The R&B crooner comes out of hiding with a disarmingly minimalist, intensely emotional paradox of a record.
Talking point: “It’s basically a crying Jordan face in aural form.”

Rihanna, ANTI

Cliff Notes: The singer’s most intentionally non-commercial album yet, full of weedy vibes, muted beats, and garbled gibberish.
Talking point: “Once Rihanna finishes the lyrics to ‘Work,’ she’ll have a real hit on her hands, which we’ll promptly forget because Beyoncé”