Adult Pop: A Lost Art?

Is the generation gap within pop’s potential audience wider than ever?

Image: Nathan East (right) and Phil Collins perform in 2006. Photo: Denise Truscello/WireImage.

Your mom busted in and said, “What’s that noise?” Aw, mom, you’re just jealous, it’s the Beastie Boys –

“(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)”
Beastie Boys, 1986

In the not-so-distant past, just a couple decades back, the Top 40 featured at least a fair amount of songs that appealed to younger listeners and their parents or older siblings. Guitar-focused rock acts still had plenty of chart-topping potential, allowing the Woodstock Generation and their kids to enjoy some of the same hits. The distance between best-selling contemporary R&B and classic soul was a hop, skip and a jump.

Much of the Top 40 these days, however, features songs that seem aimed exclusively at tweens, teens and the youngest bracket of millennials. Many thirtysomethings, Gen-Xers and baby-boomers — feeling lost among the charts’ Disney-kid pop stars, SoundCloud rappers and trap celebrities — have fled to adult R&B, country, indie rock, Americana and other genres to find music they can relate to.

Even so, a newer crop of popular acts and some older favorites — including artists you might not expect — are bridging the generation gap.

Back in February 1985, that gap was difficult to discern. The top five of Billboard’s Hot 100 was incredibly adult-friendly. Foreigner’s power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is” topped the chart, followed by “Easy Lover,” an upbeat number pairing Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire with Phil Collins. That was trailed by “Careless Whisper,” by onetime teen-pop act Wham!, “You’re the Inspiration” by Chicago and Billy Ocean’s “Lover Boy.”

Veteran session bassist Nathan East performed on “Easy Lover” and co-wrote the song with Bailey and Collins. In the 1980s and ’90s, he played on such adult-friendly crossover hits as “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins, Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” and Michael Jackson’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” More recently he appeared on Daft Punk’s smash “Get Lucky” and “I Feel It Coming,” a 2016 Top-10 collaboration between Daft Punk and the Weeknd.

East, who continues to work with a diverse list of artists, including former Eagles guitarist Don Felder, Ringo Starr and Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien’s solo project, EOB, notes the long-running differences in taste between adults and teens. “There’s always been a time where music was being played and somebody was getting it and somebody wasn’t,” he says. “When we were growing up, what we were listening to, whether it was the Beatles or Motown or whatever, our parents would say, ‘Wow, in our era, we had big band and Tommy Dorsey.’ So I think there’s always going to be that disconnect.”

That disconnect might explain a recent top five of the Hot 100, which featured rapper Roddy Ricch’s multi-week No. 1 “The Box,” a TikTok-fueled hip-hop track tailor-made for teens. That was followed by “Life Is Good” by Future featuring Drake, Post Malone’s “Circles,” Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey” and Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now.”

Though a sizable chunk of today’s adults grew up on hip-hop’s purported “golden age,” some of the current class of hip-hop chart-toppers may be putting veteran rap fans off with a more esoteric or aggressive sound and minimalist beats. And then there are Post Malone and Drake, whose laidback approach often doesn’t sound like rap because they often aren’t rapping at all; they’re singing. The former is a curious case: If it weren’t for the face tattoos, Post Malone may be an overtly adult-friendly artist — if he’s not already.

“I have had conversations with middle-aged people who get and like Post Malone, despite all of his ‘I got drunk at this party’ lyrics,” says Chris Molanphy, host of the Hit Parade podcast and author of Slate’s recurring feature Why Is This Song No. 1?“He’s a guy who basically started playing acoustic guitar — I’ve frequently called him the Everlast of his generation — and then he kind of shifted into something rap-adjacent. … [He] has very much made late-’10s hip-hop legible to an older audience, because so much of it is not only sung, it’s even almost got an acoustic edge to it that reads as a kind of guitar-pop filtered through the hip-hop machine.” (And Post’s recent collaborations with 71-year-old rocker Ozzy Osbourne can’t help but increase his appeal to an adult demographic.)

Another newer hip-hop artist with adult allure is Lizzo who, according to trend-watchers, managed to appeal to adults before finding favor with teens, largely because of prime syncs in movies and TV. Jim Lenahan, who co-hosts the daily podcast Rockin’ the Suburbs(which, in an earlier incarnation, was known as Dad Rock), has said on his show that Lizzo is one artist he, his wife, his 19-year-old daughter and his 15-year-old son can agree on. Lenahan was aware of Lizzo from the music press, while his wife discovered her independently in an old-school fashion, on terrestrial radio. “She would come home and be singing these Lizzo songs,” he says. “And it was funny, because it was one of the first times in recent memory that the kids knew what this music was that she was suddenly into. Did it make it less cool for them? Probably. But they recognized it and knew who it was.”

That teens and their parents have found a common bond in an artist like Lizzo is good news for radio programmers, many of whom are hoping to maximize their audience while reaching an older demo with more discretionary funds to spend on their advertisers. Sean Ross, who authors the Ross on Radionewsletter, has written extensively on this topic, including a 2018 piece for Billboard on “Radio’s Mother & Daughter Reunion…” “There was a moment where there were a lot of adult-friendly records, though they weren’t necessarily what you thought of as adult-friendly records,” Ross says. “It could be ‘Ho Hey’ [by the Lumineers]. It could be Bruno Mars. But it was also, for a while, Usher’s ‘DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love,’ Rihanna’s ‘Only Girl [In the World]’ and [LMFAO’s] ‘Party Rock Anthem.’ They challenged what people thought of as adult-friendly.”

While that moment may have passed, another artist who might help bring it back is Billie Eilish, who initially challenged adults with her edgy first megahit, “bad guy,” and its shock-and-awe video. Since then, however, Eilish has scored another Top 10 hit with the downtempo “everything I wanted,” swept the Grammys, appeared on the Oscars singing the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and dropped the latest James Bond theme, “No Time to Die.”

“You would think the parent who 10 years ago was happy to bond with their kids over Rihanna or Usher is now willing to bond with their kids over Billie, especially since she has so much [in common with the] singer-songwriter tradition,” Ross says. “You can trace her back to Alanis [Morissette], and you can also trace her back to Joni Mitchell.”

One such parent who’s been turned on to Eilish via their teen is Erica Kleinman, a yoga instructor based in Los Angeles. “Her go-to favorite is Billie Eilish,” she says of her 14-year-old daughter, who favors streaming music and making playlists over listening to the radio. “I like Billie Eilish, but sometimes I like a more upbeat type of song. I get the appeal, but sometimes it’s too depressing.”

They have managed to find a common bond, however, in artists such as Maroon 5 — who’ve reached younger listeners by featuring guests like Cardi B — and Harry Styles. The One Direction superstar will (hopefully) be their first mother-daughter concert experience when he plays the Forum in L.A. in September.

Meanwhile, East, too, has found common ground with his 19-year-old twins, one of whom is an accomplished pianist who has performed with East onstage and on his solo records. “They were excited and thought I was cool when ‘Get Lucky’ was on the radio,” he says. “Now I take them to concerts by some of these guys that they like, like Tyler, the Creator. My daughter’s favorite artist is Kendrick Lamar.”

Still, some of the music his kids enjoy can put off even a hip musician like East. “Every now and then I’ll hear some hip-hop they’re listening to and I’ll go, ‘Really? Did I fail as a parent?’ And they’ll go, ‘But Daddy, we like the group.’

“The lyrics aren’t saying anything to me,” East adds, “but they might be speaking to them.”

And thus, the generation gap is alive and well.


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