Photo: Poppy Thomas Hill/Flickr
The Evolution of Video Game Music: From 8-Bit To The Metaverse And The GRAMMYs
Recognizing the impact of video game music, the Recording Academy created a new GRAMMY Award category: Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media. Industry experts discuss what's next for the billion dollar video game music market.
From the introduction of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985, video games have proliferated global markets — from massive, online interactive worlds to free smartphone apps. Like music, video games have become an integral part of daily lives, while sound and music are an increasingly important aspect of gaming.
According to a Deloitte survey, 83 percent of Millennials and 87 percent of Gen Zers play some format of video games at least once a week. Fifty-eight percent of adult gamers and 70 percent of teen gamers stated that video games help them to stay connected with their friends, make connections, and express themselves. As such, the music within video games are a vital part of the experience and identity of a game.
"Music and games have always been intertwined in my mind," says Tayler Backman, Sound Designer and Composer at Hyper Hippo. "Whenever I hear a theme from 'Super Mario 64,' I’m immediately brought back to my childhood and some of my favorite memories playing the game with friends."
Music helps weave the tapestry that heightens a gaming experience through "emotion, immersion, and story," adds sound designer and composer David Fairfield. Games can also inspire; long-time gamer Jon Batiste told the Washington Post that he has been influenced by video game music since childhood.
Video games have given a broader platform to established artists and working musicians as well. Consider the connection between "Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater" and punk and ska music — the 1999 game introduced those genres to hundreds of thousands of new, young listeners — or the way the "Crazy Taxi" soundtrack featured Bad Religion and the Offspring. System Of A Down's Serj Tankian contributed to the soundtrack for "Metal Hellsinger" while jazz has been used in a variety of games.
The connection between video games and music has evolved into a massive market that's projected to exceed $200 billion globally this year. Recognizing its significant cultural impact, the Recording Academy has even created a new category: Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media.
Music will continue to evolve, but its fundamentals and importance will not. "In the beginning, video games reflected global culture. Over the next generation, video games began to influence culture," says Steve Schnur, Worldwide Executive & President of Music at video game company Electronic Arts. "Today, video games have become culture. And their principal cultural driver will always be music."
The Past: Getting Into The Groove
From its inception, video games have maintained a complementary relationship with music. Yet the way music is used in video games has evolved substantially over the last 40 years (and its genesis can be traced back to the 50s before the first video game even existed).
Early '80s gaming platforms like the 8-bit Commadore 64 home computer could only produce three notes; while the NES was a vast improvement, its musical output was still highly limited. Back then, a developer couldn’t make music and sound effects play simultaneously. This climate required composer-developers to exercise the full breadth of their creativity.
"When video games first started, the composer was often a developer on the same project. It was a solo endeavor," Fairfield says. Working alone has its limits. It's understandable, then, that the sound of a game would take a backseat to its functionality.
Still, the music and sounds from these older games are classics, and have had an undeniable influence on modern music, from EDM to synthwave. Today, game studios have entire departments dedicated to music and sound effects.
"We are now entering a time when technology enables greater collaboration and community. We inspire, push, challenge, and encourage each other to greater levels," Fairfield continues. "Game studios that recognize the value in creative collaboration will find better ways to enable it, and reap the rewards."
The Present: Getting Into The Game
Video game music has several formats and pushes music forward in various ways. "It can be defined as the music composed natively for specific games or artists that activate/integrate themselves into existing games," notes Mark Rasoul, founder of MARK THE FUTURE and former VP of Marketing for 100 Thieves, a brand and gaming organization. "Ultimately, it’s important to understand the benefits from three different groups — the game publisher/studio, the musician/artist, and the actual gamers themselves, each of which has different POVs, needs and opportunities."
The way composers and artists find their way into video game music is somewhat similar to the traditional music industry. Both require putting in the work to develop your talent, find your voice, and get your work out there. But the video game industry also requires a level of technical know-how, as well as knowledge about how sounds work in a digital or virtual platform. These particulars have left the music industry attempting to navigate a new landscape.
"Video games have been making waves with new revenue streams for some time," says Uziel Colón, the former Senior Project Manager, Latin & Music For Visual Media at the Recording Academy, who played a role in the development of the new GRAMMY category. "There are lots of platforms through which people are monetizing video games, and the Metaverse brings even more new revenue streams. In the future, video games and music will merge — it’s already happening."
As the music world catches up to gaming, be prepared to see fascinating innovations — not just in how music is distributed and marketed, but how it is created and how it interacts with fans.
That said, some aspects of the music composition side of things will remain the same. It’s important for artists to follow what drives them, not be driven by what to follow. "I think the best way to get started is to just spend as much time as you can making music that means something to you and that you're proud of. How things sound sonically really matters in such a competitive field," advises composer Jonas Friedman, who has created music for video games such as "Splinterlands."
The best way into the industry is preparation; Fairfield suggests 10,000 hours of learning is a good target. "That's around 5 years of full-time employment, or 10 years of part-time evenings and weekends. I started earning my hours in middle school with my first [Digital Audio Workstation]," he notes. "Create, fail, learn, fix, and repeat. GET YOUR REPS IN. From there, it was evenings and weekends, side-projects, and tours."
Any evolving and competitive market requires time and knowledge. It’s also important to know the gaming landscape, as well as its various fanbases, because this is also your fanbase.
The Present: Global Access
Gaming has a monumental global platform, offering the music within games an international recognizability that may otherwise take years or decades to cultivate. According to Deloitte, 34 percent of Gen Z gamers look up the music they hear in games to buy or stream; nearly a quarter share music recommendations with fellow gamers.
"Video games are bigger than the film and music industries combined," says Schnur. "And I believe one of the main reasons is that gaming has never feared technology. We’ve embraced technology from the very beginning, and often evolved it. Video games are an entertainment medium that always shifts towards the consumer. That’s why the future of this industry is driven solely by players’ imagination."
With constant enhancements in technology, access to music and the ability to create it will also increase. Fairfield believes that the decade-plus trend of proliferant music-making tech will only continue.
"This will bring in a new pool of talented creators into our industry….The downside of this accessibility is that it will flood the industry with mid to low quality content, and potentially drive prices down due to supply and demand (we've seen this with Spotify)," he says. "It means that game studios will have a lot of unique talent available to them — when they learn how to parse through the noise — which will lead to some really amazing innovation."
The Future: AI And Evolution
Gaming is ingrained in Gen Z's culture and its earnings are projected to be over $260 billion by 2025, notes Rasoul. There are over 2.7 billion current casual gamers worldwide — over a third of the world’s total population. Consider that number for a second: video games are a nearly unparalleled musical platform; it's like hitting a Konami code to access.
As video game music continues to evolve, there will be a whole host of new opportunities. These opportunities have yet to be fully capitalized on in the music industry, but the turn has already begun.
"I think it will be a continuation of what we’re seeing now with more opportunities for game soundtracks and composers to be recognized and reach new audiences," echoes Friedman, adding his enthusiasm for the new GRAMMY category. "That sort of acknowledgement for the artists behind the music, and respect for the industry as a whole, I think will become more commonplace."
Some even believe that musicians will soon prefer placing songs in a video game over films and television.
"Movies are much more fleeting and moments in time. Video games, behaviorally, bring people back, over and over to play," Rasoul says, positing that the nature of video games makes them a more dynamic and evergreen platform. "Games update over time, which gives the artist more opportunities to re-engage their music and audience." With the metaverse peeking its head into the conversation, this interaction has the potential to become even more lively, organic, and customizable.
In the future, Rasoul strongly believes musicians will inform gaming. "Artists will simply produce their own game experiences to communicate their music stories, versus needing a partnership with an existing title. Development resources are more abundant than ever, and creating their own franchises can produce long term fan engagement."
Backman, the composer, agrees, suggesting that mainstream artists may release an album within a video game, or curate a radio station within the game's universe (like Flying Lotus and others did in "Grand Theft Auto"). "We just saw Dr. Dre in their last [downloadable content]; your mission involves helping him get his stolen phone back, but you also see him and Anderson .Paak record a song together. I think we’re only going to see more and more of this type of merging of video game music and mainstream artists."
GRAMMY-winning composers have created scores and themes for video games, among them Hans Zimmer ("Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2") and Danny Elfman ("Fable"). "The work that’s happening in game themes and music is already incredible, but I think our part of the craft of game making might gain a little more notice and prestige if we have an Oscar winner composing the theme to the next 'Uncharted' game," continues Backman.
Video games create new worlds — some familiar, some fantastical — but they all have music. The future of video game music is full of endless possibilities, with the chance to tell new stories in different ways, to have music interact with fans on a completely new level, and with unprecedented levels of global access.
Photo courtesy of the artist
Meet Stephanie Economou, The First-Ever GRAMMY Winner For Best Score Soundtrack For Video Games And Other Interactive Media
In a victory for the video game music community, Stephanie Economou took home the first-ever GRAMMY in that brand-new category for her soundtrack to 'Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök.'
Stephanie Economou was so certain she wouldn't win a GRAMMY, that she sat near the back of the auditorium.
The video game soundtrack composer was nominated for the inaugural Best Score Soundtrack For Video Games And Other Interactive Media award for her score to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök" — a lavish expansion of the latest entry in Ubisoft's series of historically inspired action role-playing games.
"I was up against titans in the video game composing industry, so I was just happy to be nominated and happy to be there," Economou tells GRAMMY.com. But despite the heavy competition — Austin Wintory for "Aliens: Fireteam Elite," Bear McCreary for "Call of Duty Vanguard," other industry juggernauts — the golden gramophone was hers.
From rows and rows deep, Economou dashed to the stage feeling more than a little conflicted. "I was experiencing a lot of impostor syndrome," she says. "I'm still pretty new to this, and I was like, Did I earn this? Do I deserve this?"
It was Wintory, who Economou characterizes as "very, very, very well-known," who set her self-doubting mind at ease: "It's absurd to even question why you're here," he told her, from her recollection. "The music is great, and what you represent is something important."
The soundtrack to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök" isn't just high-quality; it's immersive, evocative and boundary-pushing. Taking cues from neofolk, Nordic folk and black metal, Economou employed a diverse palette of instruments — synthesizers, lap harp, viola da gamba, et al — to make the open-world RPG evermore captivating and transportive.
Economou opened up to GRAMMY.com about her creative journey through the worlds of film and TV, the manifold inspirations behind the "Dawn of Ragnarök" score, and her hope that this new GRAMMY Award will grant the video game music community the esteem it deserves.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I imagine there's a degree of aristocracy in the video game scoring community, as there is in many subcultures. If so, was there a feeling upon receiving this GRAMMY that it's giving way a tad?
Yeah, I think there was. Truly, whoever won this category, it was going to be a huge celebration, because it's such a win to even have the validation from the Recording Academy to have video games as their own thing. So, regardless of who won, it was always going to be somebody who I think has earned a level of respect in the industry.
But I do think there is something to be said potentially for the fact that: yes, I am younger, and I am slightly newer to games. Maybe that balance is shifting where people are connecting with creators who are coming at this with a different lens and have something slightly different to say.
I just think that as a composer, I represent something different from what much of this industry can be — which is not better or worse, it’s just another perspective. And sometimes people can be attracted to what that diversity can bring.
Tell me about your early inspirations and what drew you to this medium.
I grew up playing violin and piano, and I pursued in college specifically concert music. So, I didn't score my first short film until I was in college at New England Conservatory, which is a music-only school.
There was just something there that clicked with me. I loved the collaborative process, working with a filmmaker who was really challenging me to try things out of my comfort zone. I grew up loving a lot of music. I grew up loving orchestral music because it's what I was playing in school. Most of all, I grew up loving classic rock, and just the rock genre — punk, metal, things like that. So, I have a lot of different, very, very eclectic influences, which I think is what made it so exciting to write music that felt genuine to me.
But I thought that film music and scoring for media in particular offered this really rare opportunity to potentially harness all of those influences that I loved from growing up — just putting them in a blender and seeing what comes out.
Depending on the project you’re working on, too — you could be working on a period drama where you have to study baroque music, or you could be working on an Assassin’s Creed game and someone says they want to do a black metal score. That’s pretty much exactly what happened. So, I love the challenge that’s built into this work.
Stephanie Economou. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Tell me how your career ramped up to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök." What games did you work on prior to this title?
I mainly just worked in film and TV. Video games are still a pretty new thing for me.
But when I moved out to LA to start working in the industry, I got pretty lucky and ended up working for a composer named Harry Gregson-Williams, who is very well-known and respected. He composed for Shrek and Chicken Run and The Equalizer and Mulan, and had a bunch of huge, really different films.
So, I cut my teeth with him for six years and was writing on his scores and just being a part of his team, and that's pretty much where I learned everything. I got my credits writing additional music on his projects.
And when I went out on my own, I was looking to get offered a Netflix TV series called "Jupiter's Legacy," which I think was a big catalyst for making an imprint with Netflix in particular, and with other people who really enjoyed that show.
From there, I've been doing lots of different work — documentary work, feature films, animations, a lot of different stuff. I instantly forget every single project I've ever done when anybody asks me this question, but there are lots of things that were propelled forward.
And then, Ubisoft called and said they were looking for a composer they hadn't worked with before — someone who didn't necessarily have game experience — and they asked someone to demo for this DLC [downloadable content] for "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" called "The Siege of Paris." That was my first intro to video game music.
So, I demoed for that, I got that job, and then the following expansion was "Dawn of Ragnarök," so they asked me if I could do that one.
What are some of the specific procedures involved in scoring a video game? What mental space do you need to occupy to write music for games as opposed to the other mediums you've worked in?
In film and TV, those stories are fixed. So, even though they might be editing throughout the time you're writing the music, they're still linear. Video games are nonlinear and interactive with the player, so the music is very alive. It's almost communicating with the player as they're going through the story.
When you're composing the music for something like that, you're kind of designing it as well. So, you need to have an awareness of: OK, even though this track is three minutes long, the player could be in this space for an hour.
Or they could happen upon a danger or tension area, and you need to design layers on top of a base layer that could be triggered at any moment, that can give them that rush or feeling of uneasiness. And then you could have a fight break out, and it's all sort of modular building blocks.
But the biggest challenge that comes with something like that where there are so many moving parts musically, is that you still need to make sure that it's not just the same thing looping over and over again.
The music needs to have shape and a theme, and it can have harmony and modulate, and each of the layers can play with the rudiments of tempo. You can play with double time and half time and triplets and subdivisions that can play into that intensity, but in a very carefully designed way.
So, there are a lot of levels of awareness that need to go into composing something that is interactive and nonlinear, which I think is a really fun challenge. But coming into games and being newer to it, there was a steeper learning curve.
I think that's the challenge with it — making a piece feel really musical and gripping, but being able to do all of those very specific technical things at the same time.
How would you characterize your personal stamp on whatever score you create?
I'm truly bad at recognizing what I think my signature is, because I think it's ever-evolving. But I do think that I try to bring an edge, or something a little bit risk-taking, into all of the music that I make.
I really don't like the idea of writing the same cue more than once, even though sometimes that's what we have to do for the job. I really like the idea that not one of my scores sounds like another one. That's not specific, but process-wise, I get excited by projects that can allow me to do something I haven't done before.
I feel like the space of video games is especially encouraging for taking those kinds of risks, and working with Ubisoft, that's definitely what they were doing. At every turn, they were like, Push it further, get more experimental, get less expected. And I love that. I love playing with the expectation of the listener and redefining what people consider to be game music.
Tell me more about how you incorporated the building blocks of black metal in the "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" score — grainy production, tremolo picking, a symphonic sweep.
The black-metal thing came as a suggestion from one of the game developers very, very early in the process. I love metal music, but I had never studied the black-metal subgenre in particular. So, I looked into that stuff.
My first protocol was finding musicians who were really well-versed in that. I found this band called Wilderun; Wayne Ingram is the lead guitarist. He was one of the biggest collaborators on this project, and he introduced me to Heilung and Wolves in the Throne Room and all these amazing black-metal and neo-folk bands.
"Assassin's Creed Valhalla" also has this Nordic folk influence, which is something I wanted to tie into "Dawn of Ragnarok." There's actually a lot of musical overlap, I would say, between Nordic folk and black-metal. Even if it's coming from a rustic, primitive way, it's very cinematic. You can have these symphonic sorts of influences with distorted guitars and really punchy drums and blast beats and growly vocals and stuff.
So, it all ends up tying together, but getting the right temperature for each of the stylistic influences was a challenge. So, dialing in that black metal and some of those performances from the soloist… it wasn't hard, but it was definitely something that I had to pay very close attention to [in order] to make sure that I was really nailing it.
It was super fun. I never thought I was going to be able to write a black-metal influenced score, but the best part of it was being able to collaborate with these musicians. It was just a really amazing, fruitful experience.
Tell me about your other collaborators on this soundtrack.
Ari Mason is another one of the soloists. She was a vocalist and played viola da gamba on the score too. She put off this really fresh Nordic folk, neofolk energy to the whole score, which was really amazing.
I got a tagelharpa, which was really, really difficult to play, but cool to just gather. I tend to collect instruments based on the project that I'm working on. So, I recorded on that and experimented with a lap harp, which was really fun, and then recorded with a bunch of different string instruments.
And then, we put some synths in there, because, as you probably know too, black metal and neofolk, it's very uniquely ambient and textural as well, So even though there can be these big black-metal moments, there's a lot of heavily curated ambience and textural stuff going on in there too.
That's the most fun stuff for me. That's something that I feel like lives in most of my music, regardless of the style.
Prior to your black-metal immersion, what are some other formative influences that made their way into your work?
So, I grew up listening to System of a Down, and Toxicity is probably still one of my favorite albums of all time. I listen to it [chuckles] a lot. I do feel like there were some times when it was tipping more into System of a Down, and Ubisoft was like, "I think we're departing a little too far from black metal!"
Pink Floyd is probably my favorite band of all time, and Animals is my favorite album. There's things in that music where I can look back at my own music and say, "Oh wow, there's something in there that does remind me a bit of Animals," or a bit of this, a bit of that. I used to listen to Blink-182 and stuff from my childhood that brings me a lot of joy still. And then newer stuff like Patrick Watson and Father John Misty.
I try to just listen to new music whenever I can — which, truth be told, I struggled with for a long time, because working in music and doing music all day, sometimes you just feel really inundated and don't want to listen to anything else.
So, I sort of struggled with that for a while. But now, every morning, I come into the studio and go on YouTube and just listen to different things that I have never heard of before, and I think that's a really inspiring way to start the day.
Stephanie Economou. Photo: Claus Morgenstern
With this GRAMMY in hand, where do you want to creatively venture next?
I would just love to keep working with these amazing creators in the video game space and keep doing more film and TV projects. I always strive to work with storytellers who are saying something different and being innovative, and people who are going to want music that opens a different dimension for the viewer and the audience.
I do feel like games are the most direct way into that world for listeners. I think it's all art, really.
Can you talk about the subculture of video game scorers, positive or negative? What would you do to change it if you could?
I think we've all read about how some of these video game companies can be very toxic working environments, and in particular for women. I have to say that my experience as a woman composer in the video game music space is that I have only been supported by these game companies, and it's been a really lovely, encouraging space to make music. Then, I would say the video game composing community is really great too.
I really appreciate this community of composers. We're all just putting our heads down and doing the work. But ultimately, I think that the amount of diverse voices in video games is a bigger population as compared to film and TV. I think game companies are more apt to hire women composers, and video game composers are super-accepting and a generally diverse group of people.
I'm really lucky to be here, and I've only felt support from my fellow artists in this world. So, I would say all good stuff, but maybe ask me in 10 years and I'll have some more stories.
With the initiation of this GRAMMY category, do you feel like the video game music world might get more of the respect that it deserves?
I'd f—ing hope so, man. It's so crazy that it did take this long to recognize video game music on its own.
There are some people I talk to who aren't really even gamers or don't really understand how exciting the video game medium is. They're like, "Oh, wow, it's really a sign of the times that video game music is being recognized." It's like, we've been here for decades.
I think it's well overdue, especially because gamers really, really listen to this music. I grew up gaming and I still do now, and there's something about hearing those scores that I grew up with from these games; it elicits this very visceral memory. It sets you in a place and time and it's a very deep-seated thing.
I love film soundtracks too, but I don't get that same overwhelming thrill when I listen to the music for a film soundtrack as I do for a game soundtrack. If I hear the theme for "Halo," it's like I'm overcome, and I think there's something to be said for that.
I think people who live in these narratives in video games really want to listen to the music again and re-experience the excitement of that story just by listening to the soundtrack alone. It defines this little slice of time that they enjoyed this game and fought through it. It's just a really special experience.
So, I think it's well-timed that game music is recognized, because it really does offer this emotionally connecting experience for the audience.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.