When you clicked play on a team-up between some of the most popular leading men in pop, R&B, and country music after it was released to the world on July 5, immediately being hit with a fuzzy electric guitar riff, a live drumbeat, and the extended, shouted high note of a pure rock n’ roll frontman was likely the last thing you expected.
With these names working together, you probably weren’t sure what to expect. But it certainly wasn’t this.
The track is called “BLOW”, and it’ll serve as the final song on Sheeran’s upcoming album, No. 6 Collaborations Project, set to drop tomorrow. The project sees the ginger Brit linking up with some huge stars ranging everywhere from Eminem to Skrillex to Camila Cabello.
Sheeran, despite being the lead artist, honestly has the least command over the track itself. Mars actually produced it single-handedly (that guitar solo was all him!) and lends his powerhouse vocals surprisingly well to a heavier mix, while Stapleton has dabbled in more rock-heavy outlaw country material in his own work. All the same, Sheeran doesn’t seem hopelessly out of place.
The track is just the latest example of an increasingly exciting world where even the biggest, blandest stars like Sheeran aren’t afraid to throw the notion of genre out the window and completely blindside fans with what their upcoming music might sound like. The most fascinating part is that they’re following the lead of the kids.
If you take a look at this week’s Billboard top 5 songs, save for Mr. Sheeran himself at No. 5 with his much more marketable Bieber collaboration “I Don’t Care,” the remainder of the reigning artists are representing with music you could argue fits into this genreless mold, or at least, shows that musical tastes are widening due to the influence of global genres working their way into the mainstream.
These tracks are Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Senorita,” Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and Khalid’s “Talk.” The average age of these five artists is only 20, if you remove the 57-year-old Billy Ray Cyrus and his feature on “Road.”
Generation Z artists have been pushing the boundaries of genre for a while, and rising to the top of the charts as a result. The current top 5 doesn’t even reflect the huge ongoing trend of alternative rock and punk influence creeping into rap hits, but it will again as soon as Juice WRLD drops his next single.
The trap-country blend of “Old Town Road” started out as a joke before legitimately catching on, while Eilish’s whispered, emo-pop vocals with a hip-hop beat and alt-R&B king Khalid’s link-up with deep house DJ duo Disclosure present formulas listeners know with an unexpected twist thrown into the mix.
Maybe it’s just because certain pop trends have become a bit tiresome as a decade of culture comes to a close, whether it’s the tropical pop explosion, dancehall beats or trap hi-hats, but if the domination of someone like Eilish indicates anything, it’s that people are clearly seeking out something surprising and new.
Regarding Mendes and Cabello’s Latin-tinged hit single, it’s also been very clear that in an increasingly globalized world, more and more different genres of music are being introduced to North American consumers in a way that they never had before and expanding their musical palate.
The aforementioned Ed Sheeran is probably the only guy in the music industry who is decidedly whiter than Shawn Mendes right now, and yet, here he is convincingly selling a sultry Latin-pop track.
There’s no way he would have gone in this direction if we didn’t have something like J Balvin and Bad Bunny’s OASIS album heating up the charts as we speak. Since he did, he’s attracting more and more clicks due to curiosity’s sake. Of course, the red-hot music video is helping too, but still.
Songs in Spanish and Korean are making huge gains on the charts right now. “Old Town Road” is chasing a record for most weeks at No. 1 that’s jointly held by “Despacito,” and K-pop is everywhere you look right now. K-pop videos seem to break view-count records every day. BTS played Saturday Night Live and BLACKPINK headlined Coachella.
Looking past some of the artists at the very top, 2019’s biggest breakout star is Lizzo, who is as multitalented as they come with a booming, soulful voice, sassy rap lyrics, retro-pop sensibilities and and a penchant for playing the flute.
Chart-watchers hoping for something fresh to hit the summit of the Billboard Hot 100 and dethrone the current 14-week reigning champ, “Old Town Road,” had been all abuzz about “BLOW” ever since Sheeran revealed his tracklist.
Surely, a collaboration between Sheeran and Mars, two of the highest-selling male artists of all time, would be a cheerful pop tune that would generate enough radio attention to be a chart smash.
“BLOW” really is a rock song through and through, so don’t hold your breath on that one. Hip-hop influence continues to be the most important thing to locking down a summer anthem, but with musical tastes expanding as much as they have been, maybe we’ll be proven wrong.
There seems to be absolutely no possible way of predicting what will catch on anymore. Put your hand up if you anticipated number one hit singles for Bradley Cooper, Billy Ray Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers this year.
Maybe all it takes for a genre like rock n’ roll to rocket back into the mainstream, nauseating as it may sound, is for it to be re-introduced as a marketable kind of popular music by someone like Sheeran.
What might be even harder to admit is that “BLOW” is actually a pretty fantastic song. We live in very strange musical times indeed.