SOURCE PHOTOS (CLOCKWISE, L-R): Mat Hayward/Getty Images for iHeartMedia, Amy Sussman/FilmMagic, Kevin Winter/Getty Images for MRC
The Meteoric Rise Of Olivia Rodrigo: How The "Drivers License" Singer Became Gen Z's Queen of Pop
After breaking streaming and chart records with her debut single, Olivia Rodrigo only got bigger and bigger in 2021. With seven GRAMMY nominations — including Best New Artist — the singer/songwriter has officially taken a seat in pop's upper echelon.
The instant the power ballad "drivers license" was released in January 2021, Olivia Rodrigo ignited an internet craze. Perhaps it was her chilling vocals, or the nostalgia and pining so familiar to many listeners' teenage experiences. Whatever the hook, Rodrigo created a connection people were craving during the first half of the pandemic — and it was the beginning of Rodrigo's rise to bonafide star.
Just more than a year later, Olivia Rodrigo's impact is evidenced by two No. 1 hits (including "drivers license"), chart records, billions of streams, and now, seven GRAMMY nominations. Along with nods in all four General Field categories at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards — with "drivers license" up for both Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year — Rodrigo earned nominations for Best Pop Solo Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Music Video.
Her acclaimed debut album, Sour, encapsulated the emotional rollercoaster of coming of age and surviving your first real heartache, told with Rodrigo's now trademark candor. "There was this beautiful intensity in her voice that I fell in love with immediately," Sour producer and co-writer Daniel Nigro told Variety last year. (The two met after he was "blown away" by a video of Rodrigo singing her song "happier" on Instagram.)
The rest of the world quickly became just as captivated by Rodrigo. Throughout 2021, Rodrigo covered just about every magazine imaginable, also racking up an ever-growing list of accolades including Billboard's Woman of the Year and TIME's Entertainer of the Year — even earning an invite to spend time with the president. It was unavoidable: Olivia Rodrigo was everywhere.
A Well-Worn Path To Fame
The California-born singer/songwriter began her career as an actress, first appearing in an Old Navy commercial and then earning a spot in "American Girl: Grace Stirs Up Success." Despite being straight-to-video, the movie was a launching pad for Rodrigo's Disney career, where she'd star in "Bizaardvark" and "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" — the latter of which is still a current gig.
Like Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato before her, Rodrigo's singing career followed her stint in the Disney acting world (and like her predecessors, her singing talents were teased in both of her Disney series). "I always thought of myself as a singer/songwriter who fell into acting and really liked it, rather than a child actor who's like, 'Oh, I'm going to try to be a pop star now,'" Rodrigo told me in an interview for Clash last year.
Yet her interest in songwriting started much earlier. In an interview with GQ, Rodrigo said she was first inspired to become a songwriter at 11 or 12 because of Lorde's Pure Heroine: "I remember listening to the lyrics and thinking, Oh, my God — I can actually see myself in these lyrics."
Another huge inspiration for Rodrigo was Taylor Swift, whom the now 19-year-old starlet has admired since she was 5. "I truly would not be the songwriter I am today had I not grown up being so inspired by everything that she does," Rodrigo said of Swift in an interview with Ryan Seacrest last year. (Swift has publicly approved of her protégé, commenting "that's my baby and I'm really proud" on one of Rodrigo's January 2021 Instagram posts.)
Rodrigo has also said she is majorly inspired by rising indie-pop star Gracie Abrams, another peer who shares the admiration. "She wrote about such universal experiences in such extreme detail," Abrams — who is set to open for Rodrigo on the Sour Tour in April — tells GRAMMY.com. "Everyone found something in her music that brought them back immediately to a deep love or a terrible heartbreak."
She adds, "Even if [Olivia] wasn't an exceptional writer — and we all know that she is — I believe people would've still gravitated to her [because] her voice is so insane. Her tone is scary good, but also somehow still approachable."
More Than A One-Hit Wonder
With "drivers license," Rodrigo became the youngest solo artist ever to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100 and broke the Spotify record for most plays in a single week, twice. Though the next two singles couldn't have been more different than "drivers license," they kept Rodrigo climbing the charts — and proved that Rodrigo was more than just a moment.
Her second release, "deja vu" — a wistful, indie-pop ode to heartbreak — helped Rodrigo become the first artist in history to debut their first two singles within the top 10 of the Hot 100 in April 2021. A month later, the angsty pop-punk anthem "good 4 u" became the singer's second single to debut atop the Hot 100 — making Rodrigo the first artist to land two No. 1 Hot 100 debuts from their debut LP.
"good 4 u" also heralded Rodrigo as one of the leading ladies of the recent pop-punk resurgence fostered by artists like Machine Gun Kelly, WILLOW, jxdn, Maggie Lindemann and Meet Me @ The Altar. Rodrigo even paid homage to genre titans Paramore, crediting the trio as songwriters on "good 4 u" after parallels were made to their hit "Misery Business."
She further showcased her knack for dynamic guitar-driven songs on "brutal" and "jealousy, jealousy," as well as her flair for punk fashion, from platformed combat boots to plaid ensembles. Even pop-punk queen Avril Lavigne — who presented Rodrigo with Variety's Songwriter of the Year Award in December — believes that Rodrigo "is a tremendous force in music that is going to be around for a long time."
"She spoke her truth and found really creative, clever, and beautiful ways to tell her story in a way that resonated with so many people," Lavigne tells GRAMMY.com. "Her music wasn't about chasing trends, but rather saying something honest and genuine, and I think the world saw through the noise and really connected with her songs and message."
The Emotional (And Earth-Shattering) Impact Of Sour
Even after seeing a string of success with its follow-up singles, "drivers license" remained the anchor of Sour's impact, thanks in part to the song's own anchor: its dramatic belt-along bridge.
"My proudest moment with 'drivers license' is the fact that the bridge is what it is," Nigro told VICE. "Maybe wanting to add bridges into pop songs comes from being in a band, wanting to be like Queen and Radiohead or even Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson to write songs that take you on adventures." (Nigro is the former frontman of indie rock band As Tall As Lions; as a songwriter and producer, he has worked with artists including Carly Rae Jepsen and Sky Ferreira.)
It was a solid jumping-off point for how he and Rodrigo would shape Sour. For the album, Rodrigo continued to build rich, sonic worlds and tapped into the complex emotions listeners could relate to, whether they're around her age or not.
In addition to the album's messy, vulnerable lyrics and glimmering bridges, Sour came out at a unique time. With people more alone than ever, clinging to the comfort of TV, film and music, Sour leaned into the emotional peaks and valleys that everyone seemed to be experiencing — and helped them reminisce about once-was romances as well.
Released in May 2021, Sour quickly became one of the best-selling albums of the year. It also sat atop the Billboard 200 chart for five non-consecutive weeks. The longevity of Sour has been undeniable — something that has likely been driven by Rodrigo's firsthand knowledge of how the industry works. "You definitely have to be a businesswoman to be a musician," she told TIME.
Taking Creative Control
Inspired by her hero Swift, Rodrigo owns her masters in a partnership with Geffen Records. "There's a path for me to have a stake in the music and art I create, which is only fair," Rodrigo said to TIME.
Along with musical control, Rodrigo has created an impressive, immersive universe alongside Sour, too. Roughly a month after the release of her debut LP, Rodrigo shared her Sour Prom concert film — a prom-like spectacle that offered a taste of what a tour could look like when touring wasn't possible.
Sour Prom also gave young fans an at-home high school ending that they may have missed out on due to the pandemic, another way for Rodrigo to connect with her audience. "Since Olivia never got to go to prom, she knew she wanted to throw an event for everyone to celebrate together," Sour Prom director Kimberly Stuckwisch told Billboard.
But Rodrigo wasn't even close to done. On March 25, she shared driving home 2 u, a documentary detailing Sour's creative journey. In the Disney+ film, Rodrigo road trips from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, recalling memories of writing her first album.
driving home 2 u featured new live performances and gave viewers a closer look at the process of making her striking debut; the result was an intimate look at what made Rodrigo so impressionable. It's also the perfect segue into Rodrigo's forthcoming tour throughout North America and Europe — which is, of course, completely sold out.
The consistency in which Rodrigo has breathed new life into the songs fans have been scream-singing (and likely crying to) for months is what has helped her become the breakout artist she is — and will hopefully remain a foundation of her future work to come. And it might be coming sooner than you think: Rodrigo recently told Billboard that she's already working on new music.
"I have a title for my next album and a few songs," she said. "It's really exciting to think about the next world that's coming up for me. I just love writing songs. I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself. [I want to] just sort of explore and have fun right now."
After such a whirlwind breakout year, that "next world" is nothing but promising. So if she simply wants to have fun, we can’t help but say it: good for her.
Photo: Brian Ziff
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: How Illenium Went From An "Obsessed" Dance Music Fan To An Arena-Filling DJ & Producer
With his fourth LP, 'Fallen Embers,' Illenium kicked off a new era that blends his love for electronic music and pop-punk. As he celebrates a GRAMMY nod, the producer looks back on his journey to stardom and shares how the dance genre changed his life.
Growing up, Nick Miller never really listened to dance music. Now, he's one of the genre's most prolific stars, better known as Illenium — and is celebrating a GRAMMY nomination as a result.
Illenium's fourth album, 2021's Fallen Embers, is up for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. It's a pinnacle moment for Miller, who became "obsessed" with the electronic music world in 2009, launched his career with a self-released EP in 2013, then made his major-label debut in 2016.
Since then, Illenium has put out three more LPs and countless singles, teaming up with fellow dance titans like Gryffin and the Chainsmokers, as well as a variety of singers, from Georgia Ku to Jon Bellion. His versatility is perhaps most apparent on Fallen Embers, which features Tori Kelly, iann dior and Thirty Seconds to Mars, among others.
Though he's already teasing new music — which will debut during Illenium's set at Miami's Ultra Music Festival on March 26 — the producer/DJ feels the next chapter of his career truly began with Fallen Embers. With a GRAMMY nomination to validate his new direction, it may really just be the beginning.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Illenium to discuss the importance of Fallen Embers, how he transitioned from the crowd to the stage, and the role music played in changing — and saving — his life.
What initially made you realize that you were interested in producing — and that you were actually pretty good at it?
I started messing around in GarageBand in high school, and it introduced me to the idea of spending time creating something — even though that stuff back then was really bad. I moved to Colorado, and had some life-changing moments, and I started putting a lot of my time into it. A lot of the encouragement I got from friends, even though it was just mediocre music, was really exciting.
I was writing for music blogs, and I just loved the whole electronic music scene at that time. I would try to create what my idols were doing, and try to learn how they were doing it. I became obsessed, passionate and excited. I got addicted to trying to make songs. The feeling of doing it yourself, and being able to control every aspect of that, was really addicting.
I went to a Red Rocks show in 2012, and seeing that community, especially in Colorado — the Denver-based music scene is really tight-knit and communal, and it's really genuine. It was just really special. It was an experience that really drove me to want to succeed in it.
Was dance music your No. 1 genre growing up?
No, not at all. I didn't listen to much dance music until, like, 2009. I first got into it when I was living in San Francisco. I really liked a lot of the house stuff and trance, and then once I moved to Colorado, it turned into the bass music scene.
I grew up listening to a lot of pop-punk and rock, and my family listens to country a lot. A lot of hip-hop [too]. So I was all over the place in middle school and high school.
That's kind of all I listen to now. I listen to some pop, and a little bit of hip-hop, but it's almost all rock music and pop-punk.
Considering you were a teenager during the pop-punk explosion of the mid-2000s, that makes sense.
Totally. I feel like there's so much emotion and — it's not even aggression, but it's like, intensity, in that kind of music, where it can be really pretty melodically or lyrically, but the instrumental stuff behind it just like, hits. It hits me more than a lot of electronic music does nowadays. So I think that's why I'm transferring it into my type of thing.
Fallen Embers is the first album that doesn't start with "A," but its title still fits into the overall theme that Ashes, Awake and Ascend present. What's the story behind that?
My logo is a phoenix, [because] the imagery behind the phoenix really relates to me and the music that I make, and why I make music in the first place. So my first three albums were kind of this whole birth cycle of a phoenix. They all started with "A," it was a trilogy of that cycle. So Fallen Embers was kind of my take on what pieces were left — the embers fallen from the phoenix throughout that whole journey.
I made that album when I wasn't touring, and that's the first album I made in a long time [that] I wasn't touring, because I've been touring like crazy. It turned out much more calm and much more like a recharge album for me. Lyrically, it [details] the ebbs and flows of a relationship — it doesn't have to be a relationship, but just through finding yourself, and forgiving yourself for making mistakes and moving on.
Sonically, Fallen Embers has more rock elements. It's definitely calmer than Ascend. I love emotional music, so my music is always going to have an emotional aspect to it. That is not going to change. But I don't want to just keep repeating and chasing [the same sound], so now I'm moving very — like, totally — different, post-Fallen Embers. Fallen Embers, for me, was like a farewell, almost. I just wanted to be very clear that that was a trilogy, and now we're departed.
When you announced Fallen Embers, you said this is "the start of a new chapter." So is that kind of what you were talking about?
Yeah. I've been in LA five out of the past six months to start from scratch and write rock songs, and heavy aggressive s<em></em>*, because I feel like I took a break and made music that's kind of calm. Now I'm [going] a little more aggressive and adding some metal aspects.
There's this middle ground of electronic, rock and metal that can be really cool. And I feel like there's a lot of people doing similar stuff, but the songs can be really authentic and healing to people — right now, especially.
You also said this album was "an incredibly personal journey for me." Since it was so personal for you, did you see an even more meaningful impact from these songs?
Yeah. I mean, these past two years have been really challenging for a lot of people, myself included. Especially since shows have come back, you can definitely see in people the excitement to get a release of some sort. And to [just] enjoy — it's hard after a long time of people just going through the motions.
Especially in the electronic music scene, a lot of these people use these shows and the music for their healing and their escape. And that's really important for 'em. So to be able to give them a show and also give them new music, and see how that music has been their kind of crutch this past year, has been really beautiful for me.
You had everyone from Tori Kelly to Angels and Airwaves on Fallen Embers. What goes into finding the right vocalist for a track?
It's a mix. A lot of it is availability-based. When I first am working on a song, especially if it's a demo, it'd be like, "Who would sound good on this?" The "Blame Myself" demo had Emily Warren, who has a really amazing voice, and a very unique tone. So it's hard to fill that.
You get this thing called "demoitis," where you're used to the demo so much, it's hard to separate. But you've got to just find the right vocalist that is gonna bring her own or his own whole attitude to it. And you just kind of have to sit with it for a second because you're so obsessed with the first version.
It's not about, necessarily, the skill of singing. It's a lot of tone. Sonically, how you make a whole song, and you have a vocal in there, you need someone that fits that exact same spot. And that can be really challenging.
For "Paper Thin" with Tom and Angels and Airwaves, that was just a bucket list [thing] for me, I've always wanted to work with him. When we sent it to him, we were like, "They're probably not going to do this." Same with Jared [Leto, Thirty Seconds to Mars' frontman]. I'm the biggest fan of all of the people I collaborated with, so it's really been special.
I feel like a lot of people who aren't as familiar with the dance music scene may assume that producers like you, who aren't on their tracks vocally, might not write them. But you, and people like Kygo and Zedd — all of these huge names in the producer world — have proven that wrong. Do you feel like that's a common misconception?
I think there's always gonna be a misconception of a DJ/producer type thing. I don't think there's any way to get around it, unfortunately. But at the end of the day, it's okay. People [who like] different music have a whole different perspective.
When people see "DJ," they're like, "Oh, like, Vegas DJ. Throw a party!" They have no idea the complexities that go behind that. There are some producers out there that can do insane stuff. It's hard to even start describing that. There's some songs where we start with a guitar, and we write from scratch. It's just about having an ear for what is going to be successful, and also just having an ear of what you enjoy.
In 2018, you shared a really personal story about how music changed your life. Was it a certain song, album or artist that did that for you? Or was it being able to use the music that you were creating as your outlet? Or a combination of both?
It's definitely a mixture of both. When I turned my life around from that time period, it was a mixture of getting so curious about music production, but I was also obsessed with music — I was like, "How do these producers create these things?"
That little thought sparked so much curiosity in me, and [I] wanted to figure out how to implement my love for music and love for different genres. For it to change my life, it had to have all of those aspects — being obsessed with music, loving other people's music, and wanting to create my own.
Doing an action in one of those phases every day is what got me going and got me into the scene, and into my career. But also [made me] confident with myself and feeling like I had some sort of purpose. It was a really healing process for me, because I was kind of a s<em></em>*show before that. I needed something to put all of my energy into, and something that my family supported, and I had friends that supported me. So that was just really cool.
When I was so low, I had no faith in myself at all. You just have no confidence, and you're pretty broken. For you to even have an idea of "I might be good at something" or "I might get good at something if I work hard enough at it and I love it," then it's just full speed ahead.
What does 2012 Nick at Red Rocks think of 2022 Nick being a GRAMMY-nominated producer?
It's just mind-blowing. You know, I told myself when I saw the Red Rocks show in 2012, I was like, "Maybe in 10 years, I'll get to play at Red Rocks." I wasn't even saying headline or anything, just play at Red Rocks. I apparently set a very low goal for myself. [Laughs.]
Constantly having goals set and then reaching them throughout my whole career has been amazing, but it's crazy to think about being a GRAMMY-nominated artist. That is a whole different world that I never even thought — I just got into bass music and EDM, you know? To think of that transition, that's crazy.
Megan Thee Stallion
Photo: Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for BET
Poll: From Megan Thee Stallion To Olivia Rodrigo, What Will The 2021 Song Of The Summer Be?
For the latest GRAMMY.com poll, we want to know which 2021 bop you think should be crowned the song of the summer
Happy July! Now that we're officially in the midst of summer and a holiday weekend is approaching, it's the perfect time to get outside and blast your favorite new tunes.
While there is still some time for the 2021 song of the summer to be crowned—or released—the topic has been on our minds.
So, for our latest GRAMMY.com poll, we want to know what 2021 bop you think will hit hardest across the country this summer.
The songs below from Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Saweetie, Doja Cat, BTS, Olivia Rodrigo, Silk Sonic, Lil Nas X, Lorde, WILLOW, City Girls and Justin Bieber have already been making waves—not to mention getting us ready to splash in the waves!
Vote above to let us know which one you think will be the top summer jam, and have a safe and happy holiday weekend filled with great music!
Photo: Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
2021 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Pop
Pop's reach became even wider this year, with newcomers, superstars and global acts all delivering some of the year's biggest hits and memorable moments
It seems there's never a dull moment in pop music. But in 2021, the genre's rising stars and longtime greats all came out swinging, always giving fans something to be excited about.
Taylor Swift and her unofficial protege, Olivia Rodrigo, made for two of the biggest stories of the year: Swift began releasing her rerecorded albums, and Rodrigo had the world listening after she dropped her global phenomenon "driver's license."
Pop expanded its palette this year, too, with K-pop experiencing its biggest year yet and Nigeria proving that its Afropop stars have some serious promise.
On top of all of that, fans finally received some of pop's most-anticipated albums in 2021, making for a year that was truly monumental and memorable. Take a look at eight of the genre's most prominent trends below.
Teenage Angst Took Over
From the moment 2021 began, there was no denying it was going to be the year of Olivia Rodrigo. With the runaway chart and streaming successes of her two biggest hits so far — the teenage heartbreak ballad "driver's license" and the angsty, Paramore-sampling "good 4 u," which both debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100 — the 18-year-old was at the helm of young stars who weren't afraid to get raw and real in 2021.
A sense of vulnerability was the through-line of pop's new wave this year, and it clearly resonated. In addition to Rodrigo's triumphs, Australian breakout The Kid LAROI landed a Top 10 hit with the gut-wrenching acoustic track "Without You" as well as a Hot 100 and pop radio No. 1 with the Justin Bieber-assisted bop "Stay." And if the honest lyrics of his hit singles aren't enough indication, just look at the title of its parent album: F--- Love.
Tate McRae, another 18-year-old, also hit a sweet spot with her peers with her anti-sympathetic breakup song, "you broke me first." The song has amassed more than one billion streams worldwide, also reaching No. 1 on pop radio.
Of course, Gen Z first got in their feelings thanks to Billie Eilish, and she continued to carry her torch in 2021 with the release of her second album, Happier Than Ever. Though the album's jazz-influenced, downtempo nature was a departure from the trap-led sound of her debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, it lyrically stayed right in line with the trenchant honesty that made her a star — and, seemingly, opened the floodgates for her teen successors.
"Taylor's Versions" Caused a Frenzy
Nearly two years after Taylor Swift announced that she'd be re-recording her first six albums in order to regain artistic and financial control, the first two albums arrived in 2021. And boy, did Swifties have a field day.
The country starlet turned pop superstar knew exactly what her loyal legion of followers would want, releasing remakes of fan favorites Fearless and Red this year. Upon the April release of Fearless (Taylor's Version), the album had the biggest opening day for an album on Spotify in 2021, garnering 50 million global streams on its first day and subsequently debuting atop the Billboard 200.
Yet, it was Red (Taylor's Version) that became a phenomenon, becoming the most-streamed album in a day from a female artist on Spotify with nearly 91 million global first-day streams (breaking the record she previously set with 2020's Folklore). The album's immediate draw owed partial thanks to a 10-minute version of her beloved power ballad "All Too Well," which took on a life of its own. Along with becoming a short film that Swift debuted in New York City and earning the singer her eighth No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, it also blew up the Twittersphere with scathing (yet amusing) tweets about the song's supposed subject, actor Jake Gyllenhaal.
Among Red (Taylor's Version)'s many other feats, the 10-minute, 13-second version of "All Too Well" also became the longest song to top the Hot 100. With four re-records still left to release, who knows what kind of records Swift will break next?
Black Women Took The Genre By Storm
While 2021 wasn't necessarily a breakout year for Doja Cat or Normani, it was the year that both stars came into their own — and, ultimately, reinvented the pop star ideal.
After teasing her pop sensibility with her 2020 smash "Say So," Doja Cat struck pop gold again with the SZA-featuring "Kiss Me More." The disco-tinged hit was just one of the many A-list collaborations on Doja's hailed album Planet Her, which has accumulated more than 3 billion streams since its June release and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200.
On the opposite end, Normani — who got her start in pop girl group Fifth Harmony and saw her first two solo hits (2018's "Love Lies" and 2019's "Dancing With a Stranger") take over pop radio — reminded listeners of her versatility in 2021. Following an empowered team-up with Megan Thee Stallion for the Birds of Prey soundtrack, Normani recruited Cardi B to help bring out her R&B side on the sexy slow jam "Wild Side," which earned the 25-year-old singer her first hit on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart (in the top 5, no less).
Two artists who did have breakout years were Beyoncé protegee Chloë and German singer/songwriter Zoe Wees. Chloë, one half of R&B duo Chloe x Halle, released her debut solo single "Have Mercy" to critical acclaim, putting on showstopping performances of the song at the MTV Video Music Awards and the American Music Awards. Wees closed out the AMAs with a powerful rendition of her poignant song, "Girls Like Us," the follow-up to her viral hit "Control."
Artists Loudly Proclaimed Their Sexuality
As acceptance becomes more prominent within mainstream music, stars are latching on to the new era of being open about however they identify.
Though Lil Nas X came out as gay in 2019, his sonic proclamation came in controversial form with "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)." The video for the flamenco-dripped track — whose title references the 2017 gay romance film Call Me By Your Name — depicted biblical and Satanic scenes in racy fashion. Despite resulting in backlash from religious groups, the song and video's bold statement served as an impactful one for the LGBTQ+ community — as Lil Nas put it himself, pushing for "more acceptance, more open-mindedness amongst humanity as a whole."
Demi Lovato (who announced they are non-binary in May) featured a song about their sexual fluidity on their seventh album, Dancing With the Devil, released in April. The wavy "The Kind of Lover I Am" declares "Doesn't matter, you're a woman or a man/ That's the kind of lover I am" on its rolling chorus.
Bringing back one of pop's first sexual fluidity anthems, Fletcher interpolated Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" for her own single "Girls Girls Girls," which marked "the freedom and the celebration I've been craving my whole life," she said in a press release. One month later, she teamed up with Hayley Kiyoko (who has been dubbed "Lesbian Jesus" by her fans) for "Cherry," a flirty sapphic jam.
K-Pop's English Infusion Blew Up
Thanks to the likes of BTS and BLACKPINK — and now countless other groups — K-pop has made its way into the U.S. pop market in a major way in recent years. As it has continued to boom, more and more artists are releasing songs that are completely in English — and the genre is arguably bigger than ever.
Less than a year after BTS first dabbled in English-language singles with 2020's smash "Dynamite," they delivered the biggest hit of their career with the smooth sensation "Butter." The song debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for 10 non-consecutive weeks — a streak initially broken up by their third English-language hit, "Permission to Dance."
BLACKPINK saw two of its members go solo in 2021, Lisa and Rosé, who each issued English-language singles of their own. Lisa's "Money" and Rosé's "On The Ground" both landed on the Hot 100, respectively garnering more than 375 million and 255 million YouTube views alone.
Several other acts released notable English-language tracks, with SEVENTEEN and TWICE each putting out their first: "2 MINUS 1" features SEVENTEEN members Joshua and Vernon, and "The Feels" became TWICE's first top 20 hit on the Billboard Global 200, where it reached No. 12.
Pop Became More Global Than Ever Before
South Korea isn't the only far-flung country having a moment. In fact, Nigeria is arguably one of the most fruitful geographical founts of music — particularly thanks to the recent Afropop explosion.
Wizkid — who first saw global success with his Drake collaboration, "One Dance," in 2016 — earned his first Billboard Hot 100 hit as a lead artist with the R&B-tinged single "Essence." The song features fellow Nigerian singer Tems, making history as the first Nigerian song to break the Hot 100 top 10. The sultry track caught the attention of Justin Bieber, who hopped on a remix and declared it the "song of the summer."
Two other rising Nigerian acts, Joeboy and Fireboy DML, saw their Afropop takes resonate this year, too. Joeboy's "Alcohol" inspired a viral TikTok craze, and the success of Fireboy's "Peru" landed a remix with Ed Sheeran in December.
Elsewhere, Latin still proves to have a profound impact in the pop world. Puerto Rican newcomer Rauw Alejandro's irresistibly catchy "Todo De Ti" made its way to mainstream radio, as did Maluma's global hit "Hawái," the latter thanks to a remix with The Weeknd. And Pop queens Christina Aguilera and Selena Gomez also honored their Latin roots: Aguilera dropped two singles, "Pas Mis Muchachas" and "Somos Nada"; Gomez released her first Spanish-language project, Revelación.
In the streaming world, Bad Bunny — Spotify's most-streamed artist for the second year in a row — and BTS (No. 3 on Spotify's year-end tally) proved that Latin and K-pop are equal contenders to pop powerhouses like Taylor Swift and Bieber, who were No. 2 and 5, respectively.
Superstars Joined Forces
Sure, every year sees star-studded collaborations. But with artists having unprecedented downtime in 2020 and into 2021, some iconic pairings were born.
Ariana Grande and The Weeknd — no strangers to working together — scored their first Hot 100 No. 1 with a remix of The Weeknd's "Save Your Tears." Another Grande collaborator, Lizzo, teamed up with Cardi B for her latest single, "Rumors."
One of the most unexpected (and brilliant) partnerships came from Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, who joined forces for the '70s funk-inspired duo Silk Sonic. The pair dropped their silky debut single, "Leave the Door Open," just one week after announcing their joint project in February, and unveiled An Evening With Silk Sonic in November.
Veterans recruited some of pop's newer voices, too. Australian icon Kylie Minogue dueted with British electropop star Years & Years on "A Second to Midnight," a track from her reissue album, Disco: Guest List Edition. She also featured Dua Lipa on the album on a song titled "Real Groove."
Lipa co-starred with another legend, Elton John, on the chart-topping (and "Rocket Man"-sampling) hit "Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)." The single was part of John's jam-packed collaborative album, The Lockdown Sessions, which also featured Charlie Puth, Stevie Nicks and Stevie Wonder, among many others.
Long-Awaited Albums Arrived
Silk Sonic appeased those eagerly waiting for Bruno Mars to follow up his 2016 Album Of The Year-winning LP, 24K Magic, as the duo’s material featured plenty of signature Bruno power hooks and slinky melodies. But those still longing for a solo Bruno Mars record may have at least been satisfied by the other 2021 arrivals.
Six years in the making, Adele’s 30 finally landed in November — and, unsurprisingly, became the top-selling album of the year in just its first three days. The LP has now sold more than 1 million copies, and spawned the singer’s fifth Hot 100 No. 1 with the poignant lead single, “Easy on Me.” Beyond accolades, 30 sees Adele at her most vulnerable — as she's said herself, it centers around her divorce from entrepreneur Simon Konecki — which resulted in her most raw and powerful work yet.
Considering Ed Sheeran’s extensive touring schedule that had the singer/songwriter on the road until the end of August 2019, it was almost hard to believe it had been four years since his last album. Surely some Sheerios felt the agony, but it was worth the wait: =, Sheeran's fourth studio album, offered 14 new tracks that expand on the star's signature talents, from heartfelt falsetto to boot-stomping melodies.
In what felt like the day that may never come, Kanye West delivered his tenth album, Donda, in August. The project had seen multiple postponements since its originally scheduled release of July 2020, but perhaps that's because the final product has a whopping 27 songs. While the album leans more into West's hip-hop roots, its impressive roster of guest stars — from The Weeknd to Watch the Throne cohort JAY-Z — offered any kind of Kanye fan something to enjoy.
After such a whirlwind year, one big question stands out as we enter 2022: what's next?
Photo: Peter Ash Lee
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner On Self-Actualization, Grieving In Public And Her Nominations For 'Jubilee' At The 2022 GRAMMY Awards
Japanese Breakfast is nominated for two GRAMMYs at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. Their leader, Michelle Zauner, opened up to GRAMMY.com about how the nominations feel, and why personal and global crises just made her more motivated.
When the pandemic first descended on humanity, countless millennials moved home, donned pajama pants and brooded at their parents' kitchen islands. In this sea of dejected Instagram posts, though, a few public figures stood out — those who decided to thrive during the age of demoralization. One conspicuous example was the singer, songwriter and debut author Michelle Zauner.
Zauner hit two professional home runs during the pajama-pants era. In April 2020, she released her affecting memoir Crying in H Mart, and that June, her band Japanese Breakfast released a critically acclaimed album, Jubilee. Granted, the lion's share of both projects was completed before we started wiping down bags of Doritos — and Zauner wasn't immune to "being depressed and eating a lot." Still, the timing of her breakthroughs speaks to her character.
"I've discovered through the past few years that I'm a surprisingly optimistic person — I'm a secret hopeful person!" she quips. "Because in any narrative or story I've told, it's been important for me to find some type of hope to cling to. I certainly am not one to dwell on the negative. It doesn't help me to have that be my end goal."
As such, accentuating the positive was something of an animating force while making Jubilee — and the result was a critically-acclaimed album on top of a New York Times bestseller.
Japanese Breakfast is nominated for two GRAMMYs at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards: one for Best New Artist, another for Best Alternative Music Album for Jubilee. In the above video, watch Zauner's recollection of drearily watching the nominations roll in, expecting nothing — and her very loud reaction at the results.
That's her magic in microcosm, alchemizing the depressing into the sublime. And her mother (whose loss looms large in both Crying in H Mart and previous Japanese Breakfast music) would undoubtedly be proud.
With the 2022 GRAMMY Awards on the immediate horizon (April 3), GRAMMY.com sat down with Zauner to discuss what motivates her during hard times, the palette of influences reflected on Jubilee, and the life-changing moments it produced— like watching Jeff Tweedy cover her Wilco-influenced song.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
During the early pandemic, I felt drawn to people who rose above their circumstances and thrived, rather than sinking into a mire. Where did your motivation come from during a very demotivated time?
I will say that a majority of both Jubilee and Crying in H Mart were done prior to the pandemic, so I was kind of one of those people being depressed and eating a lot.
But I was able to work on the final, final draft of Crying in H Mart during a time I was supposed to be on tour. I do think that having the perspective of going into the final stages of this book, when I had a ton of time off for the first time, was actually kind of helpful for me to get some of the really good, final touches on this book.
Honestly, I feel like I became very motivated in general after a very dark time in my life. I became grounded by my work ethic and my ambition and sticking very close to routine after my mom passed away. So, after this dark limbo period, I recalled being a caretaker for six months and being stuck in the house in Eugene, Oregon.
In a way, I feel like I've gone through this part of life before, and I felt prepared. I know what it feels like to be out of control of my life and watch a lot of darkness descend around me. I found that sticking close to a regimen or staying grounded through work is what helped me through that time. So, I think that's something I'm unfortunately used to at this point in my life.
Some people view grievous loss as a moment where their life stops, and they just wander through the past after that. But it seems like you're more interested in moving forward and honoring your mom that way.
Yeah, I think I got there through working through it creatively, in a way. But it is really interesting; I think that happens really often.
My father and I navigated our grief in totally different ways. I think that happens in families a lot — where one person goes on one path and another experiences it through another path. They can be at odds with one another.
But for me, personally, I was so worried about allowing myself to fall into a deep pit of depression about something very real for the first time — that I would struggle to ever pull out of it. I know my mom would want me to navigate my grief in this way, and that's what really helped me through that.
Another destabilizing factor for people in our age range can be a sense of futurelessness. Perhaps we share a drive to work around global traumas.
Yeah, I've discovered through the past few years that I'm a surprisingly optimistic person — I'm a secret hopeful person! Because in any narrative or story I've told, it's been important for me to find some type of hope to cling to. I certainly am not one to dwell on the negative. It doesn't help me to have that be my end goal.
Is it irritating to have to dredge up your personal adversities over and over and over in interviews?
Sometimes. Sometimes, it's honestly kind of therapeutic, which is, like, gross and weird. But there's this other stage of art making that I'm less prickly to than other artists. I learn a lot about what I've made through the press process. A lot of the themes and questions I navigate in the work get solidified with different perspectives through the press process.
So, sometimes I don't mind it as much, because it can be kind of enlightening. But certainly, like everything, it can become exhausting.
What's your relationship with pop music, like making something that appeals to as many people as humanly possible? Do you feel like an odd duck on the GRAMMY nominees list?
Yes and no. I'm kind of a poptimist and I really admire great pop music. One of my favorite artists is, honestly, Ariana Grande. In some cases, there are top-tier composers, producers, arrangers, and mixing engineers working to create something with mass appeal, which is widely enjoyable.
Even in K-pop, it's like that. You have the greatest music video directors, the greatest production designers! The highest-paid costume [designers] and stylists and makeup artists! Watching a city come together to create a piece of art that can reach a lot of people is very inspiring to me.
As an indie artist, trying to reach beyond my means in a similar way, on a smaller scale, has always been something very fun for me. I don't like to make purposefully complicated music. I enjoy making what I think to be listenable, enjoyable music that a lot of people can get into.
So, I'm happy to be in this realm, and I think it's really exciting. It's an honor.
I've never thought of it quite as a buffet, but I do really like that idea. One thing about Japanese Breakfast that I enjoy is that we have a pretty broad range of influences on all our records. There's a lot of range and diversity.
There was certainly a lot of Kate Bush in this buffet. A lot of Björk and Wilco. There was some Bill Withers and Randy Newman. Certainly, Fleetwood Mac. Alex G. Those were, I think, the main buffet trays.
I'm a Randy Newman fanatic — I love the Pixar soundtracks, the dark-humored stuff, the love songs. What's your Randy era or album?
It's either called Something New Under the Sun or it's self-titled.
Yeah, the debut.
It's the one with "Living Without You" on it. That was my introduction to Randy Newman. An ex-boyfriend had shown me that song and it just haunted me for years and years. He's just the master of a sweeping love song — a ballad. That was the inspiration for the piano and string arrangement on "Tactics."
I was always trying to channel my inner Randy. I think he's timelessness incarnate.
Classic rockers are always thrown into court over "stealing," but I think that's part of the musical process. Do you ever hear a great lick and say "I'm going to place that right here"?
I've never done that purposefully. But it's funny: When [Japanese Breakfast drummer and producer] Craig [Hendrix] and I were working on "Kokomo, IN" — I almost said "Kokomo, Etc." — we were definitely very inspired by the string arrangement on [Wilco's] "Jesus, Etc." The classic nature of that Beatles math that goes into a great pop song.
It was very funny, because Jeff Tweedy actually covered that song in one of his livestreams. I was super-inspired by "Jesus, Etc." for "Kokomo, IN," and I was also inspired by "At Least That's What You Said" — the solo — in the quiet acoustic section that leads to a big solo in "Posing for Cars."
It was amazing. I got to meet Wilco this year and see Jeff Tweedy cover my song! He's such a songwriting hero of mine.
I've never purposefully plopped a direct lick from anything. But there was a moment when we were doing "Kokomo" where we were like, "Are we biting 'Jesus, Etc.' a little too hard with the pizzacato strings?" But it's Jeff Tweedy-approved, so I don't think they'll be suing us anytime soon.
How do you see the musical landscape before you? What do you want your next few years to look like?
God, I have no idea. I feel like I'm just trying to roll with the punches here [with Omicron]. But I hope we just ride the wave of this record and get to play big festivals and travel again. I'm just going to try to do my best, as I always do.