We never need popular music to let us know when the times are a-changin’, but we can always at least hope that the biggest songs of a period will help to reflect the national mood — and provide comfort, if not outright guidance, to help us get through the tougher parts. That’s the landscape that any new pop song invariably enters when debuting into the post-Brexit, post-Trump, pre-we-can’t-even-imagine world of 2017, and increasingly, it’s starting to sound like it.
The previously bubblegum-smacking Katy Perry set the tone for the year’s heavier, more topical fare in February with the incredulous “Chained to the Rhythm,” which Perry dubbed as the beginning of the “purposeful pop” era. The new epoch has gained steam in April thanks to comeback efforts from One Direction breakout star Harry Styles and pop-punk hitmakers Paramore — two of the most-anticipated singles of 2017, both of which go to great lengths to soundtrack the “Times” at hand.
Harry Styles’ anthemic power ballad “Sign of the Times” takes an optimistic, if largely fatalistic, approach to the state of the universe. Like the Prince title track of the same name from 30 years earlier — which asked “If a night falls and a bomb falls/ Will anybody see the dawn?” — Styles’ “Times” involve a likely imminent apocalypse, with the singer quipping, “Welcome to the final show/ Hope you’re wearing your best clothes” and “They told me that the end is near/ We got to get away from here” over swaying guitars and soaring strings. But Harry prescribes strength in solidarity and a gallows humor in order to push through, assuring “Just stop your crying, it’s the sign of the times.” Dark days, no doubt, but as Styles points out with a falsetto’d mix of frustration and serenity, “We never learn — we’ve been here before.”
Paramore, on other hand, seem to lack the resolve to face what looms on the horizon with such an unwavering gaze, dealing with their own Dusty Rhodes-like travails by yearning for “a hole in the ground/ You can tell me when it’s all right for me to come out.” The “Hard Times” that Paramore acknowledge aren’t the kind you can laugh off with a wry joke about impending doom, or even the kind that rouse you to action and inspire you to protest, but the kind that make you want to check out of 2017 altogether. There’s no guarantee that singer Hayley Williams’ rough patch as described in the song is due to national malaise rather than personal drama, but sentiments like “Hard times/ Gonna make you wonder why you even try” will certainly be familiar to anyone who’s spent an hour on their Twitter timeline this year and felt so overcome by current events that they needed to spend the rest of the day hiding under their bedsheets.
Styles’ and Paramore’s approaches to defining these “Times” may differ greatly, but they serve the same core importance of acknowledging that they’re happening at all. It’s a feeling you might not necessarily get while flipping between Chainsmokers and Migos smashes on your FM dial or Spotify chart. When front-page headlines become so loud and frightening that they invariably trickle down into the other sections of the newspaper as well, it’s important that top 40 not sound completely ignorant of this, and while neither “Sign of the Times” or “Hard Times” is directly topical, both assume a kind of baked-in world-weariness for their listening publics that make them feel inherently timely. In doing so, they might not actively spur anyone to join the movement, exactly, but they’ll let them know — as Styles’ hero David Bowie did in his day — that they’re not alone, in feeling frightened or anxious or simply overwhelmed. And for pop music, that’s the most important role of all.
It’s probably fitting that both Harry Styles’ and Paramore’s upcoming albums will drop on the same day, May 12. The rest of their respective albums may not feel so enormously weighted by their real-world backdrops — though considering Styles told Rolling Stone he wanted to call his LP Sign of the Times, and considering that Paramore actually did title theirs After Laughter, it’s hard to imagine either is marked by rampant frivolity. If the singles are any indications, it may be a valuable cultural marker to have two albums released concurrently that listeners can point to, decades later, to tell future generations, “This is what these times felt like.”