Your standard-issue decade lasts ten years, they say, but 2010 now seems an age away. For the ‘Twentyteens’ (as no one calls them) have been more than a little turbulent. And their popular soundtrack hasn’t done much to calm the nerves. So, as 2020 dawns upon us, let’s give another spin to the songs the public so loved. With eighteen billion YouTube views between them, these tunes statistically suggest that – regardless of your tastes – you’ll have heard them at some point during the decade. So put on your headphones, and suffer some nostalgia.
Ah yes, the year the Eurozone financial crisis, the Wikileaks scandals, and that Icelandic volcano erupted. It also marked the end of Labour, after a decade of Blair and 150 weeks of Brown. For the first time in 13 years the Conservatives limped to partial power; their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, found the experience utterly mind-bending.
As he frolicked with Clegg in the Number 10 rose garden, Cameron’s message of modernity oozed machismo swagger: ‘I’m living in that 21st century | Doing something mean to it | Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it.’ Highlighting the importance of cross-party politics, the PM humbly added, ‘No one man should have all that power.’ But no one man was prepared for his closing claim: ‘I’m fighting for custody | With these responsibilities that they entrusted me | As I look down at my diamond encrusted piece.’ 2010 was also the year in which Kanye West – a passionate advocate of centre-right politics – set these and some other words to music.
Kanye West, Power (with apologies to King Crimson)
Like the previous year, or indeed any other twelve-monther, 2011 had its highs and lows. The onset of mass demonstrations in North Africa, the Middle East and the Levant inspired millions to protest for a different way of life. In the end, however, the ‘Arab Spring’ blew through like any other season. That said, Gaddafi was killed. Bin Laden was killed. And Beyonce was killing it, by, er, dressing as a North-African potentate with a Libyan-lite militia of martial women.
Her message was that of the well-meaning dictatrix: ‘My persuasion can build a nation | Endless power | Our love we can devour | You’ll do anything for me | Who run the world?’ The simple answer, as the song reminds us 50 or so times, was ‘Girls’. Each of us well remembers the first time we stripped down to a bikini and ran through Tahir Square crying to all and sundry: ‘Who are we? | What do we run? | We run the world. | Who run this motha’?’ The song has enjoyed limited cross-cultural success.
Beyoncé, Run the World (Girls)
One of the decade’s chief highlights came with the Olympics landing in London. And having played the long-game in becoming world-class at any high-cost, low-participation sport, Team GB rightfully won its place on the medals podium. Everyone was jubilant, and the Queen was a-jubileeing diamond-style.
To mark the twin successes, the British Arts Council commissioned a little-known Korean artist to write a popular song. It emerged that ‘PSY’ had not met Her Majesty: ‘A classy girl who know how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee | A girl whose heart gets hotter when night comes… | Ehhh, sexy lady!’ His picture of Philip, whom he had met on his D of E Bronze Award, was a little closer to type: ‘A guy who looks well-mannered, | but when he plays, he plays | A guy who really goes crazy when the time comes | A guy with rugged thoughts instead of muscles | That kind of guy.’
The song’s bridge on Olympic disciplines was almost unintelligible, as was its accompanying dressage-inspired dance sequence: ‘Above the running man is the flying man | Baby baby, I’m a guy who knows a thing or two | You know what I’m saying | Oppa Gangnam style!’ The whole song manifestly needed to be scrapped. But when a disgruntled civil servant claimed the Korean lyrics were ‘just a loose translation of Carol Ann Duffy’, it instantly conquered the world.
PSY, Gangnam Style
2013 was a year of progress: same-sex marriage became law, women bishops got the go-ahead, Prince George entered the world, and Professor Peter Higgs won a name-and-find-your-own-boson contest, thus landing the Nobel Prize for Physics. A self-confessed ‘science N*E*R*D’, Pharrell Lanscilo Williams, took to song to celebrate: ‘Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth | Because I’m happy | Clap along if you know what happiness is to you | Because I’m happy | Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do.’ And that’ what we did. Seemingly on repeat. Indeed, these were simpler times.
Pharrell Williams, Happy
For all the good cheer, the United Kingdom came dangerously close to disintegrating in 2014. The Scottish Referendum threw the future of the union into doubt. A concerned member of the public named Samuel Smith spoke for many when he sang to Scotland, ‘I don’t want you to leave… Oh, won’t you stay with me? | Cause you’re all I need | This ain’t love, it’s clear to see | But, darling, stay with me.’
Sam Smith, Stay With Me
Yes, yet another year of trouble for Greece and beyond. But back in Blighty, political forces were converging to build a new future. The Labour Party chose as its new leader a man who gained his two Es at A-Level when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s. At once, various controversial elements of his past cropped up, but Jeremy Corbyn made clear that he offered a ‘different kind of politics’ which involved avoiding the word ”sorry’ at every opportunity. In the light of Corbyn’s catastrophic electoral defeat in 2019, Justin Bieber’s anthem of the year was oddly prophetic. One in two people on the planet have now watched an ex-Nickelodeon star singing these sentiments as a backing track to a ‘Rainbow rhythms’ dance therapy session. It remains unclear whether Labour High Command are among the viewers: ‘Oh, is it too late now to say sorry? | Yeah, I know that I let you down.’
Justin Bieber, Sorry
Then comes 2016, or, in the Chinese Calendar, the Year of the Lesser Pundit. In a world where Brexit was an absurdity, and Trump’s election an impossibility, the people elected to feel otherwise. The news of Britain’s decision to exit the EU caused shockwaves worldwide. Aware that the 52-48 outcome had caused a serious rift in UK politics, and that the 48 were not going to go quietly into the night, an enterprising Australian singer attempted to sum up the spirit of Bremainers everywhere: ‘Don’t give up, I won’t give up, | Don’t give up, no no no.’
Sia, The Greatest
After the unhinged chaos of the year it followed, 2017 was #allaboutTrump. Having taken office in January, he was soon steering the world’s media with an early-morning tweet or two. And it was through the global reach of Twitter that the President won the hearts of two Puerto-Rican superfans, Luis López-Cepero and Ramón Rodríguez. With Reggaeton rhythms firing their loins, they crafted what society and science have since deemed the perfect song. It is hard to decoct its lyrics into printable English, but a few lines give an idea of their passion for The Donald: ‘I want to see your hair dance… show my mouth | Your favourite places | (Favourite, favourite, baby) | Let me surpass your danger zones | To make you scream | And you forget your last name.’ Although we have forgotten their own last names, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee have succeeded in getting their reflections on slow-and-sensual love-making viewed by so many people as exist on the planet. And Trump is still President of the USA. QED.
Luis Fonsi feat. Daddy Yankee, Despacito
It takes a matter of great importance to show up the sheer triviality of global socio-political upheaval. And, come the summer of 2018, England found itself able to kick a football into a net with marginally more success than almost every other nation who tried. But not, alas, Croatia. And since there was literally no pop song on hand to lament the dashed hopes of following the Three Lions at the World Cup, a rag-tag crew of British artists joined with American soccer-enthusiast ‘Macklemore’ to express their pain: ‘I know it ain’t pretty | When our hearts get broke… I know it ain’t pretty when the fire burns out.’
Its prosopopoeia to Fabian Delph’s unusual response to the defeat left few dry eyes in the house: ‘I heard you moved to Oxford | Got an apartment and settled down.’ As good sportsmen, however, they channelled the masochism of true England supporters: ‘I hope someday | We’ll sit down together | And laugh with each other | About these days, these days.’ But, since politics was everywhere by those days, many realised that the song transcended football, with palpable frustration at Parliament’s stasis slipping into the lyrics (‘Three years of ups and downs | Nothing to show for it now.’)
Rudimental feat. Jess Glynne, Macklemore and Dan Caplen, These Days
Our tour of the past must end in the present – by which point art and politics, music and manifestoes, have come into uneasy cohabitation. One of the few non-political voices on the scene is grime-artist Michael Owuo Jr, aka Stormzy. A good example of how his work keeps governmental policy at arm’s length can be seen in his free-wheeling composition on the Vossi bop, a chest-touching bob-squatting recreational exercise. The song ranges through climatic trivia (‘Tell ’em “This is London city, we the hottest in the world”’) and male grooming (‘Then I finish with a facial just to top it off’), to surreal kitchen scenes (‘Man a droppin’ bangers on your baby mums’) and anger at his tennis hero’s financial straits (‘F**k the government and f**k Boris (yeah)’). Still, even Stormzy found himself steering this song into political waters, when he criticised the beleaguered PM Theresa May (‘Rule number two, don’t make the promise | If you can’t keep the Deal then just be honest’). It is a small mercy that her barnstorming replacement – also a Boris – seems to share his affection for the genre.
Stormzy, Vossi Bop
And, if you’d like to stray beyond the popular, here are ten other songs that, in my opinion, made the last ten year’s music listenable: 2010 Midlake, Small Mountain; 2011 La Dispute, I See Everything; 2012 Cleft, Trapdoor; 2013 Deafheaven, Sunbather; 2014 Human Hands, String; 2015 Desaparecidos, Backsell; 2016 David Bazan, Trouble With Boys; 2017 Converge, A Single Tear; 2018 Half Man Half Biscuit, Renfield’s Afoot; 2019 Julia Jacklin, Turn Me Down.