The late 2000s and early 2010s are usually seen as a low ebb for pop music. The chintzy club-pop sound that artists like Pitbull and Flo Rida used to dominate the airwaves put plenty of noses out of joint, and a lot of people were switched off by a style they saw as brash, braggadocios and vapid. It seemed to be a soundtrack for a generation of millennials, concerned with little more than money, partying and looking at their phones.
It’s true that you don’t find any Dylan-esque confessionals or punk fury in, say, LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem”. But pop has always reflected the mood of its era, and the 2010s were no different. During a delusional period of endless war, financial crisis, terrorist attacks, zero hours contracts and an intensifying culture of data surveillance, this era of pop – which I’m going to call ‘millennial pop’ – became defined by its desire for an almost manic form of escapism.
Millennials were overeducated and underpaid, and the biggest hits – like Black Eyed Peas’s “I Gotta Feeling”, Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop”, and Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love” – combined a broke-with-expensive-taste aspirationalism with an existential sense of “fuck it”. And this month is the anniversary of a song that did that better than anything else; one of the era’s most apt and prescient bangers – “Starships” by Nicki Minaj.
Despite Minaj’s attempts to disown “Starships”, it remains one of her most popular tunes; one that broke records in the US for the longest stretch a track had spent in the top ten of the Billboard chart. It is famous for its Tatooine-sized chorus, which sounds great after a few Jägerbombs, but it is also a deeply strange piece of music that is singularly chaotic in both form and content.
“Starships” feels like a dam breaking – the point where the mental strain of trying to have fun and be young during a terrible moment in history becomes too much to bear. The apocalypse may lurk in the background of other pop hits of the time, but “Starships” is its point of arrival.
Lyrically, the song takes pop music’s long and noble history of making hit songs out of gobbledygook to extremes. The song is all over the place – a bar of grindset affirmation here, some fuck-the-haters posturing there, and the odd attention-grabbing gimmick (“twinkle twinkle little star”). A general sense of anarchy is clear on lines like “I ain’t paying my rent this month – I owe that”, “I’ma blow all my money and don’t give two shits”, “Dancehall life, there’s no end in sight”, and “Get on the floor like it’s your last chance”.
But that doesn’t mean the song is inaccessible; in fact, it is quite excessively concerned with audience engagement at all costs. It was created by a hivemind of hitmakers centred around the 2010s pop producer du jour, RedOne, and the way the track constantly throws new ideas at you is weirdly reminiscent of doomscrolling on social media.
From the heavily side-chained guitar that introduces the track to the jarring shift between verse and chorus, nothing here sounds entirely natural. However, there is perhaps not a single moment which expresses the apocalyptic strangeness of this song – or this entire period of millennial pop – better than the thing producers valued more than anything else in 2012: the drop.
It wasn’t unusual for songwriters to chuck a whopping great EDM breakdown into their tracks in 2012, but the inferno of writhing bass and disembodied chanting that occurs after each “Starships” chorus goes further than most. Complete with what sounds like barking hounds, it’s like the actual gates of hell have been sprung open.
The artist that comes to mind when I hear this section is not Katy Perry or David Guetta but Death Grips, a group who spent 2012 making music that was something of a photo-negative of the garish stuff dominating the charts. In fact, sticking with Death Grips provides a good route into understanding some of the mechanics around precisely why millennial pop came to sound the way it did.
Generally speaking, the history of pop is one of rising sub-cultures gatecrashing the charts through sheer volume of sales, and the mainstream subsequently absorbing and repurposing those sounds. Death Grips – who leaked their own album, No Love Deep Web, in 2012, and topped the BitTorrent chart after receiving tens of millions of downloads in a single day – were one of the most popular underground acts in the world at the time.
However, by this point, illegal downloading and streaming meant that bands of Death Grips' stature were far less likely to make the breakthrough to the mainstream, and the band choosing to leak their own work gestures to how many like them had started to see little point in even bothering to engage with the charts. Still, it isn’t a reach to think their influence may have touched mainstream pop producers.
As time wore on, millennial pop began to eat itself. While the intense and explosive nature of the songs made them danceable, it became harder and harder to decipher what kind of music anything was. Almost all of the major hits featured rapping, but weren’t hip-hop; four-to-the-floor thumps stolen from house tracks; drops taken from the EDM trend, and the kind of synths and vibes you’d expect on Europop. Both of its time and out of time, the only genre lineage that millennial pop truly inhabited was one of its own.
Two years after “Starships” came out, the UK charts began to count streams towards a single’s positioning, which effectively rubber-stamped the end of the sales era. The maximalism of millennial pop fell quickly out of fashion, as streaming services prioritised playlists over albums and singles. It became prudent for stars to stack their chips on duskier, moodier sonics and craft tracks that can fade into the background if needs be. Grassroots sounds re-entered the mainstream to an extent, but the endless pursuit of playlist-friendly music content also created the conditions for Minaj’s old sparring partner Drake to roadblock the top 40 every time he dropped a new project.
For both pop music and our lives in general, the late 2000s and early 2010s saw an old world dying and a new world struggling to be born. Where it once ruled the radio, the legacy of millennial pop and songs like “Starships” is now most keenly felt in the increasingly ill-defined border regions between the pop sphere and the global underground, like PC Music and the hyperpop of Charli XCX et al.
Many of the real-world issues haunting “Starships” remain as acute as they were a decade ago, and the apocalyptic atmosphere of 2012 has made way for an actual end-of-life-as-we-know-it scenario in the form of a global pandemic. But “Starships” still remains the most monstrous that pop has ever been.