The Defining Pop Trends Of The 2010s, From Dubstep To ‘Despacito’
From Taylor Swift flirting with dubstep, to Avicii horrifying Ultra Music Festival with country music - this decade in pop music never stopped giving us whiplash.
Pop music has always churned through musical trends at a rapid rate, but in the last decade it was working overtime.
From EDM to emo to country, pop spent the 2010s as a chameleon, refusing to slow down as it pulled inspiration from across the globe, dipping into the clubs and peering into bedroom producers’ hard drives.
While Rihanna will go down as one of pops leading trendsetters, leaping from dubstep to dancehall with ease, others will be remembered for moving into any genre for a quick hit. It was both exciting and painful to watch as pop raced into relationships that were never going to last — only realising when it was simply too late to be erased.
We took a walk through the most persistent trends that came to define the 2010s, even if just for moment. Call it a way of honouring a decade of pop that gave observers whiplash.
EDM continuously reinvented itself throughout the decade, but it was the 130bpm kind that gripped the charts in the early 2010s. David Guetta kicked-off the pop/EDM crossover in 2009 when he recruited Kelly Rowland for ‘When Love Takes Over’ — it took over clubs and radios in Europe and Australia, but the US reaction was only lukewarm.
But slowly and surely, Guetta charmed US audiences, and his global popularity exploded. He clocked eight top 10 hits in Australia in the space of two years and taught US audiences to fist-pump with both the Sia-featuring ‘Titanium’, and Nicki Minaj’s ‘Turn Me On’.
Calvin Harris, who had previously only been mainstream in the UK, also found success across the pond by pulling Ne-Yo, Florence Welch, and Ellie Goulding into the dance world. At its worst, EDM was LMFAO and one hell of a dress up cupboard. At its best, Rihanna crafted one of the biggest hits of her career in ‘We Found Love’ with Harris.
The EDM/pop breaking point came around the time Coldplay started experimenting with Avicii on 2014’s ‘Sky Full Of Stars’, but Russian-German producer Zedd has done a good job of dragging it out. His 2015 collaboration with Selena Gomez ‘I Want You To Know’ looks to be one of the last big EDM hits before the genre slowed the tempo to experiment with trap and trop-house.
Pitbull & Flo Rida (2010-13)
In the early ‘00s, Pitbull and Flo Rida were everywhere. Pitbull’s ‘Hotel Room Service’ and Flo Rida’s ‘Low’ had them earmarked for one-hit-wonder status, but they persevered and came out very much on the winning side.
In the space of three years, Flo Rida racked up 11 Top 10 hits in Australia, notably going EDM on ‘Good Feeling’ and then employing Kid Rock-like guitar on ‘Whistle’. Pitbull changed-up genres at a rapid pace too, also scoring him 11 Top 10 hits in Australia during his glory run. He moved from barn-stomping country on ‘Timber’ to power pop on ‘Feel This Moment’. At the same time, he became the go-to features rapper, accompanying Jennifer Lopez, Usher and Enrique Iglesias to the top of the charts.
Both Flo and Mr. Worldwide had no particularly distinct style, but they kept pace with trends and that was enough to keep them around for an extended period. Unfortunately, said period ended around the same time that they finally collaborated on club-ready banger ‘Can’t Believe It’.
Empowerment Pop (2011-2014 & 2019)
Thanks to Lizzo’s chart-topping declarations of self-love, we’re ending the decade with empowerment well and truly back in vogue. But it was the start of the decade when it really thrived — if you were one of the biggest pop stars on earth you simply had to have an empowering anthem in your back catalogue.
In 2010, Kesha debuted atop the US charts with ‘We R Who We R’. “You know we’re superstars”, she howled, bringing self-love to glitter-covered club kids everywhere. Meanwhile, Katy Perry scored her third number one off her Teenage Dream record with ‘Firework’ — a soaring dance track that asked the immortal question “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”. Gaga then followed in early 2011 with the lead-single off her second album ‘Born This Way’, singing “Just love yourself and you’re set” over a grinding, inescapable electronic beat.
By 2014, Beyoncé had turned empowerment pop into feminist slogans, opening her surprise, self-titled record by telling the Beyhive that “perfection is a disease” on ‘Pretty Hurts’. She then doubled down, twisting it into a braggadocious catch phrase “I woke up like this” on ‘#Flawless’.
Dubstep was no new concept by the 2010s. It had risen to prominence in South London back in the 1990s but increasing success within the electronic circuit began to see it trickle into pop music.
Skrillex’s breakthrough track ‘Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites’ featured virtually no vocals over a spine-shaking instrumental, and yet it charted both here and in the US. At the same time, British group Nero scored huge success by colliding dubstep and pop, taking ‘Promises’ all the way to the top in the UK.
In late 2011, Rihanna delivered her fourth album Rated R, pinching dubstep for darker moments like ‘Wait Your Turn’ and ‘Mad House’. Britney Spears, who had also dabbled with it on her Blackout record, had one of her last massive chart successes with the Max Martin-produced ‘Hold It Against Me’.
Once Martin got on board, it was only a matter of time until it completely took over the airwaves. Justin Bieber borrowed from the genre for ‘As Long As You Love Me’ and then Taylor Swift took a hard turn towards ‘dubpop’ on the Martin-produced ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’. It was a short but glorious period; dubstep fell from the charts almost as soon as 2013 rolled around.
Alternative Rock (2012-2013)
For most of the 21st century, alternative rock in Australia had generally been reserved for triple j audiences — but after Arcade Fire took home the Grammy for Album Of The Year with The Suburbs in 2011, it began to find its feet in the mainstream.
Amongst all the EDM fodder, guitars crept back onto the radio, kicked off by Foster The People’s sleeper hit ‘Pumped Up Kicks’, which went to number one almost a year after its release.
In 2012, The Lumineers had everyone wanting to don a fedora with the folk-tinged ‘Ho Hey’, sharing the radio with fellow fedora fans Of Monsters & Men who had found unlikely success with the brass-heavy ‘Little Talks’. Both of those songs featured in the triple j Hottest 100 of 2012, while also spinning regularly on commercial radio. Additionally, Birds Of Tokyo, Vance Joy and Mumford & Sons nabbed success on both formats. It was short-lived though, as Ed Sheeran waltzed in the year after and decided he’d handle majority of the guitar work on the charts.
Country (2013 & 2017-2019)
Country was so foreign to pop music outside of the US that when Avicii debuted his rootin’ tootin’ new song ‘Wake Me Up’ at Ultra Music Festival in 2013, people online thought he was trolling.
He wasn’t — and by the time the song got an official release, the public had come around to the idea. It went to number one globally and he kept the momentum going, following it up with another country banger ‘Hey Brother’.
While we weren’t all rushing to purchase cowboy hats by the end of the year, Avicii stuck with it, and others eventually caught on. Kygo took Selena Gomez country on 2017’s ‘It Ain’t Me’, Zedd teamed with country star Maren Morris on 2018’s ‘The Middle’, and now even Diplo has rebranded as country producer Thomas Wesley.
This year, Lil Nas X claimed the longest running US number one of all time with his hip-hop and country crossover ‘Old Town Road’, while Dolly Parton is on a song with Swedish EDM duo Galantis. Who’s trolling now?
Trap (2013 & 2017 – Now)
In 2013, the trap sound found a new home in pop. The genre, popularised by Southern rappers including Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy, was re-invented in EDM by RL Grime and TNGHT, and its influence kept spreading.
In 2013, Katy Perry tallied one of the biggest hits of her career with the Juicy J-featuring ‘Dark Horse’. That same year Beyoncé released ‘Drunk In Love’, Miley Cyrus dropped a Mike Will Made-It-produced record ‘Bangerz’ and even Lady Gaga gave it a go on Artpop misstep ‘Jewels and Drugs’.
While the hip-hop world continued to clock hits with the sound, pop largely abandoned it until Max Martin got wind of it in 2017. Taylor Swift’s dark Reputation record incorporated elements of trap for singles ‘…Ready For It’ and ‘End Game’, while her buddy Selena Gomez perfected trap-pop with the Mane-featuring ‘Fetish’. It’s only gotten bigger this year, with both Ariana Grande and Halsey scoring US chart-toppers with ‘7 Rings’ and ‘Without You’, respectively.
The Drop (2015-2017)
Here’s a trend that we may actually owe to Australian producers. In 2012, Flume shot to fame with his chopped-and-screwed vocal samples and distorted, glitchy drops stemming from trap music.
His song ‘Holding On’ was an unlikely hit but it reached the Top 20 of the Australian charts and set a new sound for up-and-coming triple j artists like LDRU and Peking Duk. As Flume was taking on the US EDM circuit, ‘the drop’ had made its way into modern pop, replacing the all-important chorus with experiment-heavy instrumentals.
Major Lazer perfected it with 2014’s MØ-featuring ‘Lean On’ which has gone onto become one of the most-streamed songs of all time. Following that, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, and Sia all dropped the chorus for ‘the drop’, so much so that when Flume released ‘Never Be Like You’ off his second album Skin it sounded totally fit for the mainstream.
It’s since become one of the most distinctive and over-used techniques in electronic pop, with The Chainsmokers and DJ Snake, in particular, ensuring that it will survive right through to the end of the decade.
If we were to jail one genre for crimes against music, trop-house would be very close to doing time. The pulsating beats of EDM were traded for breezy synths in 2014 as Norwegian producer Kygo converted his SoundCloud success to chart glory with the Conrad Sewell-featuring ‘Firestone’.
It didn’t take long before listening to the radio sounded like an island holiday as more European producers followed suit. German whiz Felix Jaehn gave Jamaican singer OMI’s cut ‘Cheerleader’ a new lease on life, somehow creating something sunnier than the original, and then Norwegian duo Seeb brought Mike Posner back into public sight with a remix of ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’.
Justin Bieber’s ‘What Do You Mean’ and Lady Gaga’s ‘The Cure’ gave the genre some fuel, but it ultimately reached breaking point in 2016 when not one but two trop-house remixes of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ shared the charts.
For a brief period this decade we all did as Drake did. He claimed his first US solo number one in 2016 with ‘One Dance’ — a warm, breezy tune that borrowed from both Jamaican dancehall and Nigerian afrobeat.
It was the second dancehall song to reach pole position in the US that year, following on from Rihanna’s ‘Work’, which he also featured on. While Rihanna has always incorporated elements of dancehall into her music, it seemed this string of hits inspired a wave of pop songs tapping into the genre.
Sia rose to the top in the US for the first and only time in the same year with ‘Cheap Thrills’, which she’d originally penned for Rihanna. It then made its way to Britain, when Clean Bandit teamed with Anne-Marie and Sean Paul for ‘Rockabye’ — a song that has since claimed more than a billion streams. Paul actually enjoyed a further career revival with songs like ‘No Lie’ and ‘Mad Love’ while Dua Lipa, Justin Bieber, and MØ pinched elements of it for hits.
It makes sense that genres come back around when the people who grew up listening to them start making music for themselves.
Emo was once a subcategory of pop-punk reserved for the likes of Simple Plan, My Chemical Romance, and even Avril Lavigne. It reared its head again, however, as hip-hop artists like Yung Lean, Lil Peep, Lil Uzi Vert, and Juice WRLD began to re-design it. Now it’s spread across both hip-hop and pop with everyone from Halsey to Billie Eilish crediting the genre as inspiration for their own work.
Post Malone’s darkest cuts like ‘Better Now’ and ‘Circles’ read like My Chemical Romance updated for these times while Juice WRLD looks to Panic! At The Disco’s pop sensibilities for chart-toppers like ‘Lucid Dreams’.
Meanwhile, Eilish — a self-proclaimed fan of Lavigne — has garnered more than 42 million monthly listeners on Spotify with her dark, twisted tunes that borrow from both rap and emo. With all these artists dominating the charts this year, it’s fair to say that emo closed out the last year of the decade as one of pop’s biggest influences.
Latin music is no new concept for the Spanish-speaking world, but it’s never crossed into the global mainstream quite as much as it did following ‘Despacito’.
As the Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee track picked up steam in South America in early 2017, someone made the decision to remix it with an English verse courtesy of Justin Bieber. That person no doubt sits on a throne of cash now because ‘Despacito’ spent 16 weeks at number one and by the time it finished its run, everyone wanted a slice of the reggaeton sound.
Not quite matching the success of ‘Despacito’, Beyoncé jumped on J Balvin’s ‘Mi Gente’ in the same year, boosting it into the Top five in both the US and the UK. She then gave the song an airing at her iconic Coachella set just as the genre was becoming a go-to for big popstars.
Since then, Demi Lovato has teamed up with Luis Fonsi, Katy Perry remixed a Daddy Yankee song, and Little Mix collided with Latin American boyband CNCO.
Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter.
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