By the time the doomsday clock that runs this plane of existence hit the year 2010, the internet had firmly affixed itself as a large – if not the largest – presence in our lives. In 2010, I was 15. A hacker-in-training boasting an encyclopaedic knowledge of MySpace profiles, I was also old enough to let MSN Messenger walk out of my life as I welcomed Instagram into it. We were on the cusp of modern television’s greatest triumph (Game Of Thrones) and of modern television’s greatest failure (the Game Of Thrones’ series finale). Meanwhile, as we saw the real-life impact of climate change set the world around us ablaze, climate change went from a fringe interest we heard little about to a legitimate global threat.
And the music – against all odds – was so consistently great that it redefined our idea of what’s considered a classic.
A lot of mainstream music in the 2010s was driven by very personal narratives that played out very publicly – some of which have gone to be considered some of the best albums ever made. Say what you want about him now, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West’s album released just 11 months into the decade, remains one of the most universally adored and acclaimed albums in history – spurred by West’s memorable behaviour at the MTV Video Music Awards just the year before.
You may also recall that Beyoncé – the cemented queen of 21st century pop – wasn’t always that. For a long time, she was just another pop singer. But, almost two decades on from when she first burst onto the scene, she decided to redefine herself altogether – twice. Her self-titled album dropped out of nowhere, invented the phrase “break the internet”, and reshaped the public’s perception of her as an artist. 2016’s Lemonade did the exact same thing, with a deeply personal and political narrative, shining her in a new light after that elevator fight. It signalled a movement for pop stars – they were no longer just there to sing and dance, they were there to fight.
The rise of artists like Kanye West and Beyoncé signal a through line for the 2010s in music: the blockbuster release. Albums from certified legends that had an almost impossible level of hype to overcome, and pulled them off to great success with seemingly zero effort. Rihanna’s ANTI, David Bowie’s Blackstar, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, Taylor Swift’s 1989, Robyn’s Body Talk, Arctic Monkeys’ AM – the list truly goes on and on.
Beyoncé’s self-titled album, as well as Lemonade, also reintroduced the importance of music videos to a generation that had its eyes elsewhere. It was a movement kick-started by Lady Gaga, the master of pushing the visual as much as the audio – she wore her meat dress at the 2010 VMAs after all. Suddenly, music videos were cool again. Gaga’s “Born This Way”. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”. Normani’s “Motivation”. We were spoiled.
Of course, this push was helped by YouTube, but it wasn’t the only form of media giving us new musicians to idolise. Our favourite American child stars – Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato – were growing up alongside us, and we got to watch their craft migrate from laughing-track slapstick to legitimate and entrancing musicians – a pipeline Olivia Rodrigo continues to travel on today. TV talent shows really hit their peak – and then rapid decline – giving us superstar groups like One Direction, Fifth Harmony and Little Mix. We got a chance to watch chart toppers from the very foundations of their career, instead of learning about them as they hit #1.
But, perhaps most importantly, virality determined success more than anything else in the 2010s – for better or worse. Rebecca Black’s “Friday” taught us how scary going viral could be, while Lorde’s “Royals” taught us how quickly it can change someone’s life. The 1975, Lana Del Rey, Clairo, Troye Sivan, Conan Gray, Billie Eilish, Charli XCX, Azealia Banks and many more all experienced a rapid surge of fame, and in some cases already legendary careers, thanks to their songs being scooped up by regular people online – not major labels.
Finally, Australia’s impact on the 2010s soundscape cannot be overstated. At the turn of the decade, a little project from WA’s Kevin Parker titled Tame Impala was just a well-kept secret of ours. But, with 2012’s Lonerism, the rest of the world caught on, and by 2015’s Currents, it could be argued that Tame Impala were the biggest band in the world. Kevin Parker’s masterful work was recognised the world over, with the likes of Travis Scott, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Kanye West and more all turning to him for his undeniably brilliant production.
A young producer from Sydney named Harley Streten would soon follow a similar trajectory. Performing under the name Flume, his unique and refined take on electronic music would make him a mainstay of the Australian festival circuit, and then festivals all across the world. He refreshed the electronic scene’s maximalism that erupted with dubstep and EDM at the turn of the decade, forcing producers everywhere to realise bigger isn’t always better.
Songwriting in the 2010s also came with a very Australian bent, kick-started by Sia’s relocation to the US. After finding moderate success here, Sia linked up with David Guetta for the all-conquering “Titanium” and the rest was history, having written huge hits for basically every pop giant alive – Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Britney Spears and more – before becoming a chart-topping artist in her own right.
Outside of the pop sphere, Courtney Barnett helped spearhead focus on Australia’s alternative and indie scene in a way never done before. Her singular songwriting style and deeply Australiana lyrics captured the world by storm, contrasting the typically humble artist with the biggest accolades and stages around the world. She wasn’t alone – Mallrat, Tkay Maidza, Camp Cope, Julia Jacklin, Sampa The Great, Sarah Aarons and more – all showed the world how it was done, becoming critical and commercial darlings for the foreseeable future.
For a generation raised by the internet, millennials came into their own in the 2010s despite exposure to more gloom and doom than ever before. But, if we had nothing else, we had music that would define lifetimes and, for the most part, be fucking excellent across the board.
Watch Back & Beyond on MTV (Foxtel: 122, Fetch: 104 and Sky: 015) and MTV Hits (Foxtel: 801, Fetch: 237 and Sky: 022) every Saturday in August.
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