When I was younger, I used to listen to music from different decades with family members based on what they grew up listening to. The 1950s and ’60s with my grandparents, the 1970s and ’80s with my parents, the 1990s and 2000s with my older sister. It was easy for me to separate music chronologically, based on the sounds I heard alone — my ear had been trained to differentiate the hard feedback of the Rolling Stones’ recordings from the soft vocals of The Eagles, and the upbeat rhythm of ’80s pop from ’90s grunge. 

With a few more years behind me, I’ve given more focus toward genres of music rather than simply categorizing music chronologically. In today’s generation of young people, with wide access to music streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud and YouTube, how do we put a label, a sound or a rhythm to the music of the 2010s?

Wide and instant access to music has deeply specialized the tastes of the generation who defined the culture of the 2010s, who I will say range between the ages of 16 and 30 presently, as they came of age during this decade and had the most influence on popular culture. We don’t have to choose between a handful of radio stations to define our personalities and tastes, we can explore and delve into any niche we can find. We’re no longer dependent on the radio disk-jockey, American BandStand or Billboard for discovery. Ultimately, our music taste feels less united than in past generations. Taking a sampling of the most popular songs from the last decade is interesting because the sound doesn’t feel quite as homogenous as it does when you look back at a decade like the 1960s or ’70s. While different genres were consumed by different people then as they are now, it seems the effects of technology on culture and music have led us to extreme specification and — in some ways — polarization. 

The range of songs that defined this period are as diverse as they come, from “Levels” to “Despacito” to “Uptown Funk.” Reviewing the list of songs that Billboard published that “defined the decade” is fascinating, with so many genres and different sounds represented, a future and hypothetical “Best of the 2010s” radio station could never exist. An “oldies” station for my generation would have to be so widely encompassing that, in an attempt to appeal to everyone, it might fail to attract anyone. The diversity of this generation’s tastes could never be bottled into a radio station, and in fact, most of us don’t listen to the radio anymore at all.

The increased use of the auxiliary cord and Bluetooth technology, coupled with the rise of smartphones and streaming services, has allowed people to control their own vibes in a way that radio or mix-CDs never could. Each song and each rhythm is in the power of the listener and that has fundamentally changed how we enjoy music collectively. With so much more to choose from, we aren’t categorized by one genre or sound from the past 10 years, there isn’t one popular or mainstream sound to base counterculture and “countermusic” off of anymore.

There are many arguments as to how streaming services negatively impact artists and put less money in their pockets. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it has become significantly easier and cheaper for artists, especially new artists, to release music, market themselves and reach a niche with the current music streaming and consumption infrastructure. Spotify and SoundCloud allow you to upload your music for free and receive money based on listens, which represents a sort of “bottom-up” approach to the music industry where new and relatively unknown artists aren’t dependent on major labels or high-budget studio albums to see a payday.

It seems we are less united by a common music taste than in generations past — but this shared experience of growing up with and embracing technology has separated our human experience from those that came before us, and has created a new shared identity of experiencing life and culture in a way that it never has been before. Our generation has pioneered the full integration of life and tech, and it will be extremely interesting to see how we are observed and studied by future generations. The variety of music that has defined the 2010s won’t be able to be encompassed by a “Best of the 19-XXs” radio station, but that doesn’t mean we won’t remember the meaningful tracks that defined our generation. 

Shad Jeffrey II can be reached at shadj@umich.edu. 

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