My initial self-isolation playlist contained what I thought I would want to listen to during this indoor period – wistful folk-rock and simmering ambient, the types of music I feel rooted and reflective in. How wrong I was.
Since the onset of lockdown, a number of factors have encouraged my Spotify queue to fill with female-fronted pop and R&B: the frequent need for a motivational boost, the balmy weather outside my window, and the search for an up-tempo accompaniment to home workouts and meanders around the block. But, above all, is the fact that at this point in time women seem to be releasing quality projects in these genres, left, right and centre.
It all began with Dua Lipa’s much-anticipated sophomore album Future Nostalgia, which was released early on March 27th after the double blow of being leaked in its entirety, and having a carefully planned release strategy pulled out from under its feet by a global pandemic. Lipa remained pragmatic, remarking that the cancellation of countless tour dates and festivals was ‘a small price to pay’. Now the newly-crowned ‘Quarantine Queen’ finds herself the soundtrack to workout videos rather than dancefloor sets, her impact manifested in getting the population moving not in clubs, but in living rooms.
Since then, a torrent of releases have gone ahead in spite of, or even because of, current circumstances: Rina Sawayama’s genre-exploding SAWAYAMA, the accomplished Hayley Williams’ solo release Petals for Armor, and ALMA’s debut offering Have U Seen Her? to name a few from the alt-pop sphere. The release of Laura Marling’s seventh studio album Song for Our Daughter was also brought forward from August to early April in response to the pandemic.
Other female artists have taken the opportunity to drop surprise projects, to the delight of antsy fans. Mahalia’s Isolation Tapes EP was put out on her 22nd birthday, the day she would have been playing Brixton Academy. The gorgeously intimate first track BRB strikes all the right chords, relaying an intense aching for a faraway loved one, which feels so apt right now.
The lockdown has also led to positive creative stimulus for artists willing to embrace a more DIY approach, in a situation where the often-overlooked abilities to self-write and produce become pivotal.
One of the most exciting releases, and so far the only full-length album by a major artist to be made completely from scratch during the isolation period, is Charli XCX’s how i’m feeling now. Tethering herself to an ambitious deadline of just six weeks, she explained ‘There’s more likely to be some kind of screw-up or error in a short amount of time, which is probably more interesting’.
The result is brash, unbounded electro-pop which exudes anxiety and liberation in equal measures. In involving her fans through Zoom conferences, Charli has provided exactly what they crave right now: some sense of spontaneity and expression during a time of restriction and limitation. Studio perfection is now secondary – delivering responsive art to lethargic listeners has been dutifully reprioritised.
This is not to say that there should be pressure on artists to create and release in what is clearly a uniquely challenging time for every individual. It is also understandable that for some, planned releases no longer feel appropriate in this shifted global situation; Sam Smith’s originally titled To Die For, which had been slated for a May 1st release, remains suspended until further notice. But seeing artists like Charli XCX turn to music as more than a living, but as their means of survival through a period of uncertainty and stagnation, is triumphant.
We’re also seeing female artists hone new skills and take charge of promotion to push through with their disrupted releases. Kehlani’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is an admirable example of making the best of the situation, with a striking reworked album cover and four exemplary ‘quarantine style’ videos self-directed at home.
It remains inevitable however, that many major artists are choosing to postpone highly anticipated projects: Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, HAIM and The 1975 have all fallen victim to delays. How much of this is a financial decision, incited by the obliteration of opportunities for conventional touring, promotion and physical sales, versus genuine logistical issues or discomfort surrounding releasing music in a sensitive global atmosphere, is unclear. Audiences may have more time on their hands, but judging whether that equates to receptivity, whilst staying wary of overstepping (no one wants to replicate a Gal Gadot-style cancellation) must be at the forefront of artists’ concerns.
On the flip side, the decision by Fiona Apple to bring forward the release of her first record in eight years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and in doing so risk rejecting the traditional album cycle, brought an immense pay-off. In her case, the timeliness of a masterwork exploring themes of isolation and confinement was met with resounding critical acclaim.
The continued release of long-form projects is so important for listeners left dissatisfied by one-off charity singles or novelty songs tailored for TikTok. It is full-length bodies of work that provide a vital medium for perspective and emotional fulfilment.
One common factor sticks out plainly: it is broadly the music industry’s female contingent who are stepping up to the plate, showcasing adaptability, resourcefulness and compassion in doing so.
This isn’t to say that men aren’t playing their part too; I have appreciated listens through planned releases from Thundercat to Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes, Jack Garratt to Moses Sumney. But when I look back on lockdown, it will have been the women artists that carried me through.