When I saw the cover of Miley Cyrus’s upcoming new single, two things went through my mind: 1) finally, ‘Slide Away’ was so fantastic and her last EP did not do it for me and 2) haven’t we seen this glittery, glammed up look before?
The answer to the latter is yes, we certainly have.
The glitter aesthetic, which is how I describe the look and visual concept dominating pop music in 2020, is everywhere. Many of the biggest pop albums of the year have gravitated towards this look with their cover art; if there isn’t a literal disco ball in view, visuals for today’s pop elite are glossed-up and shiny, embodying a nostalgic vibe as many of the pop releases of the last couple years have been part of a disco/funk revival.
Calvin Harris’s 2017 album ‘Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1’ was an obvious callback to the pop-funk sound, followed in 2019 by Mark Ronson’s ‘Late Night Feelings,’ an album full of sad bops with a literal broken disco heart glimmering on the album artwork. Miley Cyrus sings vocals on ‘Nothing Breaks Like a Heart,’ the album’s lead single, and Ronson’s group Silk City (which consists of Ronson and producer Diplo) tapped Dua Lipa for the hit single ‘Electricity,’ which helped Dua transition from flat (though successful) radio pop to her heavily disco-influenced sound featured on her latest album, ‘Future Nostalgia.’
It doesn’t get much more on the nose than ‘Future Nostalgia,’ as Lipa harnesses the disco sound of the past and infuses her vibrant voice and exuberant pop production into one of the best 2020 projects so far. The glitter aesthetic is alive and well with Dua; check out this promotional Instagram post for the ‘Hallucinate’ music video.
But you can scroll through most any other active major pop star’s feeds and find similar imagery. Kylie Minogue, in her triumphant return to the scene with the forthcoming album literally called ‘Disco,’ is a flashy cosmic supernova in the music video for lead single ‘Say Something’ as she rides a golden horse in space with colorful, mesmerizing lights dancing about. Sparkle embellishments frame Doja Cat in her Instagram post graphic as she campaigns for an MTV Award, while the glitter aesthetic bounces across the screen in her music video for ‘Like That.’ Even Lady Gaga, whose meteoric rise to pop culture icon status was marked by her erratic, campy, off-putting and otherwise show-stopping fashion statements, photoshoots and music videos, has gone from meat dress to glitzy space queen on planet Chromatica with a shimmery makeup line. (If you were wondering, there’s even a Wikipedia page dedicated to the buzziness and cultural impact of the meat dress.)
The glitter aesthetic is as much a staple in pop visuals today as it is woven into the fabric of Gen Z-run social media like TikTok and Instagram. Here’s a tutorial to accessing the bling effect on TikTok, which has become an incredibly popular look for creators who make their fortune off of viral dance videos from Hollywood mansions like the Hype House. Instagram, the current owner of the cultural cache provided by the ‘stories’ feature, has had plenty of sparkly filters ever since filters were first on the platform. Young people, the purveyors of pop culture, are intent on bathing in a luxurious gleam; it’s not entirely surprising, then, that pop stars are reflecting that back to us.
There’s no looking past the music industry’s recent, widespread embrace of older sounds like disco and funk. Pitchfork called Ariana Grande-collaborator Victoria Monet’s new album ‘Jaguar’ a ‘sleek cocoon of funk-tinged R&B,’ and her promotional visuals and artwork have been bedazzling; her music video for the glimmering single ‘Experience’ has all of the 70s rollerblading disco fantasy you could ever ask for. The cover art for prolific songwriter Tayla Parx’s latest single, a 70s-tinged pop bop ‘Dance Alone,’ depicts a shot of her hair with a disco ball overlayed.
Visually, we’ve moved past the polaroid kitschiness of Taylor Swift’s ‘1989,’ an aesthetic further made popular by the likes of stars like Lana Del Rey and Ariana Grande. The muted, grainy visual is still very effective (see: Folklore), but consumers today seem to want pop imagery to be comforting yet alluring. Sonically, we’re being wooed by the shiny re-packaging of already existing sounds, which is familiar yet to a certain level, exciting.
It does feel nice that this new era of visuals lines up with one of the most abysmal years in American history. Pop has offered a convenient distraction to the hellscape unfolding around us, and the pulsating dance music being put out at breakneck speed reminds us of how things used to be (perhaps, almost to a fault).
But even when it’s not the most critically resounding, pop music has always been there to make us feel good. It makes sense that we are harkening back to older times, holding on for dear life to glitter and gloss as beacons of coziness. We lament on Twitter about how these 2020 albums would feel so great had we been able to listen to them at the club, but they still give us something now.
I do wonder when we’ll move on from the 70s/80s revival. I’m a huge fan of the pop-punk, disco, house-flavored sound. I’ve loved the music we’ve been getting in 2020, and I’m excited about the new Miley single and the Kylie Minogue album. The glitter aesthetic is as romantic as it is fun; it urges us to preserve the images of our pop stars, to embalm them in an idealized, hyper beautiful, glamorous sheath. And that’s all good and fine!
However, I’m eager for someone to do more than just make their own redressing of this visual and sound, to not just construct pop-funk or disco in their own image, but to create something more novel and less tied to what’s been done. There will come a point when this aesthetic has been worn past its shine.