10 Years Gone: A look back at pop music in 2006

Blame it on the dog days of summer. Or blame it on having too much free time. Whatever the culprit, this weekend I spent an inordinate amount of time compiling a playlist. A pop music playlist, to be more specific. Songs like Brooke Hogan’s “About Us” (a song I’ll defend until the day I die, unless I can work out some type of deal for more time), Sean Paul’s “Temperature,” the Timbaland renaissance tracks “Promiscuous” and “My Love,” all had to be included. “Too Little, Too Late” and “Me & U”? Considering both are pop masterpieces, obviously they make it. And what did all these have in common – something I had no idea they had in common at the time? All arrived 10 years ago, way back in 2006. Looking back, it’s jarring how little has changed since, or at least how much we’ve come back to the sounds that were popularized on radio back in 2006. Virality became a key component in pop music, as did a shift towards minimalism. And yes, we were counting the days until Hillary Clinton took office. Many thought it would be about 2900 days earlier.

In February of 2005, the Billboard Hot 100 changed its methodology to include paid digital downloads, which – let’s be real – consisted mostly of sales from the iTunes music store. Being the big machine it is, it took the music industry a year to understand what that change meant, and the larger trend it would set off. 2005’s “Hollaback Girl” was one of the first viral mainstream hits, and set a series of tropes in its wake – it was brash, random, irreverent, all things that drive virality in 2016. This helped open the floodgates in 2006, when we were introduced to the new wave a one-hit wonders, a group assisted by commercial viability and beige lyricism.

Their’s no better explanation for how songs such as Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” or James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” became worldwide sensations. In Powter’s case, he was aided by his song being featured every time a contested was voted off American Idol (because, you know, that would make them have a bad day). Like “Don’t Stop Believing” being featured on The Hills and The Sopranos, the (un?)intended consequence of this was people actually stared buying his record. People bought “Bad Day” millions of times – and finally, there was a hit we could play when we got fired from work, or blew a tire out, or ate a pint of ice cream in one sitting. “You’re Beautiful” – James Blunt’s very blunt #1 single – took a more organic path towards chart domination. But its simplistic, narrow narrative, it’s repeated “you’re beautiful” refrain, made for the type of disposable, universally identifiable hit the digital charts welcomed with open arms.

Fergie piggybacked on Gwen Stefani’s cues with her hits “London Bridge, “Fergalicious,” and “Glamorous,” a sound she’s unsuccessfully tried to recapture on recent singles “L.A. Love” and “M.I.L.F. $.” While the trending sounds in music have moved away from those blunt, in-your-face sonics, another 2006 hit looks more and more like an early trendsetter in the minimalist productions that define modern R&B. At the time, Cassie’s “Me & U” was an underground sensation that grew into a mainstream anthem, and it – along with Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” – helped blur the line between mainstream pop and underground critical sensation.

Even in rap’s crossover hits, 2006 can be viewed as a turning point. Perhaps no other genre was better apt at smoothly integrating virality into its songs, and hits like “I’m In Luv (With a Stipper),” “It’s Goin’ Down” and “Ridin’” all helped pave the way for future hits like “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy),” “You’re a Jerk” and “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).”

We’re still feeling the effects of 2006 today. In many ways, we’ve come full circle. The inoffensive sentiment of “You’re Beautiful” is mirrored in the similarly inoffensive “Let It Go” (James Bay), while you now have a fight song, someone to stand by you if you’re having a bad day. The progressive sensuality of “Me & U” can be felt on tracks such as “Needed Me” and “Sorry.” And Sean Paul, well, he continues to be Sean Paul.

I had no intention of writing a thinkpiece when I started making that playlist last weekend. It wasn’t until I looked later that I began to wonder why so many of the songs came from 2006. Being the first full year an attempt was made to include a song’s digital imprint in its overall popularity, the popular music in 2006 started to better reflect listening habits. What people were buying began to chart high, and it forced radio programmers to play the songs that were getting people’s money. We’re in that same loop now, which has allowed more one-off singles to gain exposure, but also well-oiled machines to tap into their reservoir at any given moment to collect Go!.

In many cases, the names and producers have changed. In others they’ve stayed the same. But even if there’s a different face or name, many of 2016’s biggest hitmakers can trace some influence back to 2006, if not in how their music sounds, how its distributed. It always takes perspective to see when the music industry’s gone through a change, yet more and more 2006’s importance grows. All while we await the next shift. Or the next circle to close.

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