Then vs Now: What It Takes To Be Decade-Defining in Music

Music plays an imperative role in the way we identify but also in the way we remember our past. With various songs and albums contributing to the interminably changing soundtrack of our lives, let’s take a look at what artists have been the most influential and why.

Music can be reflective of our personalities through its ability to evoke emotion and build communities between people who may not relate to one another, otherwise. For that reason, it’s no surprise that when we take a glance at the past, we remember all the artists and all the songs that played significant roles in our daily lives. From Pink Floyd in the 70s to Prince in the 80s to Pearl Jam in the 90s, there’s already a long list of legends that influence and inspire the music we still listen to, today. It’s these artists that pose the question of what current celebrities can compare and preserve enough of that IT factor to adopt the role of being just as decade-defining. 

Every year our music taste expands wider and wider as I’m sure we’ve been able to detect through the annual releases of Spotify Wrapped or Apple Music Replay. Outside of our own experiences, however, the music scene is always growing around us, as well. There are artists from our childhoods that we listen to for a sense of nostalgia or simply because their music still hits as hard as it always did. With that being said, however, the industry has changed significantly since then and it’s a wonder whether the factors that made songs popular in the past still play as imperative of a role, currently. 

There is no clear-cut method of predicting how popular a song will be but there are certainly some ways to ensure at least a bit of success. According to a study conducted by Jonah Berger and Grant Packard, lyrical composition and the average composition of a song’s genre – such as the instruments or a sound commonly heard in particular genres – can be useful in determining originality and thus, can rank higher on future charts.

As accurate as that is, however, a song’s popularity can also be dependent on an artist’s fanbase, their current standing, and their marketing strategies. For instance, over the years, fandoms have grown so imperative to a musician’s presence that the term “stan culture” has been coined to represent its impact and define the power of a fan — or stan. 

Photo by Andrew Gaines

While stan culture has always reigned relevant in the popularity of an artist, social media has granted fans a bridge of communication to fortify a sense of connection between the audience and the artist. 

According to Chanelle Grosbard, a college student at Macalester University, an artist can use media platforms to build on parasocial relationships between them and their fans. In doing so, their popularity increases because they are creating a world of relatability that primarily revolves around them.

However, this may come off one-sided because fans develop “a really personal connection to an artist and feel like they’re your entire life… but outside of their one Twitter reply to you, you don’t seem to have that much stake in theirs.”

Grosbard is currently a sophomore double majoring in Educational Studies and Political Science with a minor in French. However, for years, she has spent a large portion of her time in online fan communities, creating long lasting friendships from the people she’s met over the internet and eventually, in real life. 

As someone with such a large presence in stan culture, Grosbard argues that it wasn’t always the music she’d turn to in difficult times but in actuality, “sometimes it was those friendships and connections [she’s] made, as well.”

Nowadays, fanbases are so influential in the music industry that an artist is capable of maintaining their fame and popularity by solely depending on their supporters once they’ve reached a certain level of stardom. 

Brittany Spanos, a music journalist who’s written for Rolling Stone Magazine since 2015, spoke on the difference between one-hit wonders in small artists vs in bigger artists by using Carly Rae Jepsen as a reference. 

Spanos states that “most people see her as a one-hit wonder because they only know ‘Call Me Maybe’” since it had such a massive reach but in reality, Jepsen has maintained a fanbase that “really cares about her… wants to go see her live, wants to continue listening to her, and still really cares about her music.” Although she isn’t as widely known outside of her own fanbase, she still has a successful career because of her fans and therefore, her presence in the music world can never completely disappear.

Some artists have such huge fandoms that, in Spanos’ words, “even if their next five albums flopped,” they’d still be able to keep up their relevance. Another example of this was brought up by Grosbard as she mentions that despite One Direction breaking up over five years ago, the band has continued to win awards through the loyalty and support from their fans.

Harry Styles and Taylor Swift exemplify the same phenomenon as they were both decade-definers of the 2010s and because of that, they’ve established their roles in the industry and gained a following that’ll remain faithful no matter how much their music style changes over time.

Meanwhile, platforms like TikTok have served as absolute career-changers and during the pandemic when a large number of Gen-Zers and Millennials have taken to spending the majority of their day scrolling through the app, it’s obvious how much influence it can have within the music industry. The app has led to a variety of trends and dances that become associated with particular songs and thus grant an insane amount of exposure that can’t be detected in other forms of marketing like the radio or through Instagram. 

Photo by Aaron Weiss

In September 2020, a TikTok of a man drinking Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice while skateboarding and listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” went viral. Within a few weeks, the video gained over eleven million views and even grabbed the attention of the Ocean Spray CEO. His video created a trend and numerous other creators partook — raising the song’s daily uses in TikTok videos by 1,380%. Not only did it grab the CEO’s attention but by early October, Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks had posted their own renditions of the viral video.

“Dreams” received a 374% jump in sales and an 89% jump in streams which put the hit back on Billboard’s top charts after 43 years from its initial release. According to TikTok’s newsroom, after entering the Top Ten of Spotify’s Global and U.S. charts, hitting #1 on Apple Music, climbing to #3 on Billboard’s Rock Streaming charts, it was able to attain the #1 spot on Billboard’s Rock Digital Song Sales — a perfect example of how much influence the TikTok platform has on escalating traction and attracting new fans.

Viewers migrate to apps like Spotify and Apple Music after listening to a 15-second clip and they add that to their playlist, increasing a song’s streams and then making a name out of the musician. Although that may contribute to “potentially creating a generation of one-hit wonders,” it still permits a sudden bout of success that can boost a smaller artist and encourage future work from them. 

This accessibility to more technology and well-working algorithms led to more changes as back in the day, artists relied on marketing techniques to promote their music. Starting in 2013, however, a new – and occasionally unreliable – strategy took place and has since inspired today’s artists to adopt the same method: the “surprise drop.” 

In 2013, when Beyoncé released her self-titled fifth studio album without any promo lead-up, it was “unprecedented but a huge success.” Several singers, since then, have utilized the method and have done so, spectacularly (although you can still count on dedicated fans to somehow find out what’s in the works and blast everything they know on social media).

On a similar note, in the past, fans were purchasing songs off iTunes or buying CDs to listen to their favorite albums but today, music brands like Spotify and Pandora play a huge role in increasing streams. Although CD album sales have dramatically declined, some parts of the past still ring true today and that includes the importance of tours and live performances.

For Grosbard, live music is a luxury because it “grants this indescribable feeling of sharing an experience with a lot of other people in the room” who like the same things you do.

Photo by Hanny Naibaho

During the pandemic, artists have started performing on virtual sites to try and replicate that feeling and although it’s better than nothing, there still doesn’t seem a way to mimic that adrenaline-filled experience just yet. Nevertheless, these virtual live shows are becoming integral for some smaller artists to get their name out there.

Eli Sailer Bayes, a rising singer/songwriter in New York City, has been using this time at home to work on his music and his seemingly ever-changing sound. He plans on virtually performing in an attempt to forge a solid connection with his listeners but says that everything online right now “feels superficial and almost unreal.”

Bayes and Grosbard have both taken inspiration from some of their favorite artists during their songwriting processes and for Bayes, that list is constantly subject to change. As an intern for a music curation company, he is regularly exposed to many musicians and has said that, in determining who his favorites are, he tends to look for “undeniable originality.”

“When I hear someone who brings something new to the table and is just doing their own thing, I really feel like it’s something I can listen to and appreciate. When I discover them, I see them as their own artist…like a real artist…that’s what inspires me to do the same…to be original, on my own.”

Eli Sailer Bayes

Bayes isn’t the only one influenced by his favorite artists. Singer/songwriter Harry Styles has been known for finding inspiration from a wide array of older artists. With his debut single “Sign of the Times” being released on the 30th anniversary of Prince’s Sign o’ the Times, his Gucci printed suits resembling Jagger’s flare, and his current friendship with Stevie Nicks, he’s been compared to the classics on numerous occasions. 

With that being said, there’s a number of decade-defining artists that many current singers look to and mimic in their music. Some that have made a significant impact in music theory are the boy bands that stole the hearts of many teenagers in every decade. 

The cycle of heartthrobs is never-ending and in the 90s, teenagers were fortunate enough to experience two of the biggest boy bands at once: *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. 

While boy bands were originally intended to appeal to teenage girls, this changed a bit in the 90s because of the two groups. The Backstreet Boys helped to redefine masculinity because they didn’t strictly release slow tempo, love songs. This change encouraged men to “sing songs about emotion in a sensitive way” and, according to Craig Jennex in an article from The Toronto Star, “they made our concepts of adolescent masculinity a lot less rigid.”

Bands like BTS, Got7, and EXO have also played a large role in the way boy bands are generally perceived. Although most Americans were primarily focused on American bands in the past, K-pop has dramatically affected the global music industry with its stunning and intense choreography, design, and vocals. While live performances may feature costumes and unique dances, their music videos are guaranteed to amaze with visual effects and complex plotlines.  

Their presence has changed the music game for years and, as an example, BTS has become one of the largest bands to date – with an intimidating and impressive fanbase known as the ARMY – after debuting only seven years ago. 

Other decade-defining artists include Drake and Beyonce who were also known for leaving a legacy in the 2000s and 2010s. 

As for right now, it’s up for debate who is going to continue dominating charts and leave behind their own mark. Some predictions – and hopes – include Frank Ocean, Megan thee Stallion, and Chloe and Halle but there’s always room for a future musician to pop up and leave the industry a legend. 

In fact, while pop and rap have always been the top genres in terms of popularity, trendy aesthetics have started to make their move and change pre-established dynamics. Grosbard mentions that alt and indie pop have begun to redefine pop music due to a push from TikTok but also because of Gen-Z’s work in bringing back the past and paying respect to the funky sounds from decades like the 80s and 90s. 

Photo by Austin Human

According to Bayes, these categories are almost useless nowadays, with how many have surfaced, because they’ve gotten increasingly difficult to track. He refers to a multitude of genres he oversees when putting together playlists for his internship and states that, at this point, it would be more rewarding to just branch out and listen to whatever you want: “genres really don’t exist in my eyes.”

“As time progressed and people started musically evolving, everyone began searching for an original sound because that’s what they’re going to be remembered by. If they stay in one genre, there’s only so much they can do and versatility is a lot of the reason artists are so successful. People are always going to remember what makes an artist different.”


Although it’s impossible to know who’s going to be the next Madonna or the next Iggy Pop, you should try and keep your ears open to anything and everything musical. Leave some of your own predictions below for who you think defined the last few years and make sure to check out the following playlist* of fan-favorite songs from other music-loving individuals just like you.  

* Songs recommended by: Brittany Spanos, Archie, Eli Sailer Bayes, Amara Gregorek, Glesaidys Eve, Khadijah, Matthew Salazar, Leslie Andrade, Alainna Swift, Aaliyah, Shelley Polanco, Grace Hurley, Carolessa Brown, Merla Ramos, Jose Sanchez, Chanelle Grosbard, Rosa Lopez, Ramon Lopez, Cj Hendricks, Keyara Hill, Soledad Aguilar-Colon, Christopher Rodriguez, Victoria Ramsahoye, Jon Marichal, Samantha Mesa, Rosie Hendricks

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