How The Music From 2011 Is Still Defining Pop Today

Women like Adele and Nicki Minaj changed the direction of pop in 2011. 10 years later, that influence is stronger than ever.

2011 pop albums adele nicki minaj photo

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Pop music today would not be the same if it weren’t for the music made by women in 2011.

Adele (21) and Lady Gaga (Born This Way) both released career-defining albums, while Katy Perry’s classic Teenage Dream was at the peak of its success. Rihanna was in the midst of her most prolific period as a pop musician, having released Loud in November 2010 and Talk That Talk in November 2011. Nicki Minaj, Kesha, Britney Spears, P!nk, Beyonce, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jennifer Lopez and Taylor Swift were all dominating the charts.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, “overall album sales were up…by four percent (since 2004). Of that, digital album purchases increased by nearly 20 percent and track sales by nine percent.”

This jump was thanks mostly due to monster sales of Adele’s sophomore record 21 — but there’s no denying the massive impact of Gaga’s Born This Way, Rihanna’s Loud and Talk That Talk, Beyonce’s 4, Britney’s Femme Fatale — the list goes on.

For all this non-male representation, it makes sense to me that, as a female musician, 2011 was the year I fell completely and irrevocably in love with pop. And looking back, it’s clear 2011 had a significant impact on the direction of pop music — and we’re still hearing the impact today.

Adele, Olivia Rodrigo, And The Break-Up Ballad

If one song was to define 2011 as a whole, it would have to be Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ — sparse, devastating, it’s the definitive heartbreak anthem of the early 2010s. If the purpose of pop music is to evoke real emotion from as many people as possible at once, ‘Someone Like You’ is the epitome of the genre.

The simplicity of ‘Someone Like You’ is at the core of its genius: the piano accompaniment is almost plain; small arpeggios (that is, a three-note chord broken up so that each note is played solo; like repeatedly stepping up and down a series of three stairs) undulate underneath Adele’s voice, which has the starring role.

Adele didn’t invent the breakup ballad — but she did reinvigorate it for a new generation. ‘Someone Like You’ was so huge, so all-encompassing, that it’s difficult to think of another song that reached the same heights. Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘drivers license’, however, did just that — or at least, it came the closest any song has ever come. ‘Drivers license’ utilises some of the same conventions of pop that Adele implemented in her touchstone classic, while also building upon them; propelling them forward into a new world of popular music.

The song’s chorus and bridge reach the tense heights of Rodrigo’s vocal range in a similar way to how ‘Someone Like You’ pushes to the top of Adele’s impressive range — adding a physical edge to how emotional and cathartic both ‘Someone Like You’ and ‘drivers license’ become as both songs progress; it actually feels like expelling something when sung at that position in the range. The tension of the quiet, constrained verses of both songs open into lush, devastating choruses.

Piano features heavily in ‘drivers license’, conjuring the same stark feeling as ‘Someone Like You’; it still embraces modern innovations of the pop genre, i.e. soft, diving synths, samples like the car lock beep, and lo-fi-inspired textures reminiscent of music produced by self-taught artists in their bedrooms.

A song achieving total global domination looks different these days to how it did in 2011. While ‘Someone Like You’ was inescapable on radio, ‘drivers license’ created such furor upon release that the Tiktok hashtag #driverslicense amassed over 888.5 million views in just one week. Listeners were fascinated by the ‘real story’ behind ‘drivers license’, one which features Rodrigo’s famous ex Joshua Bassett, and dissected the song online for clues as to the more personal meaning of ‘drivers license’.

That’s not to diminish the quality of the song itself — ‘drivers license’ is an exceptional pop song, one that we will feel the impact of in pop music for years to come, just as we have felt the impact of ‘Someone Like You’.

Kesha, Britney, And Early Hyperpop

Pioneering producer and artist SOPHIE once said that making pop music “should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing…the challenge I’m interested in being part of is who can use current technology, current images and people, to make the brightest, most intense, engaging thing.”

Such is the nature of hyperpop; the eclectic, self-referential, bombastic, unpredictable subgenre of pop that has gripped the industry in recent years. Famously tricky to define — as it can be argued that relatively mainstream artists such as Charli XCX and Kim Petras are simply pop, and more intense, obscure artists such as 100 Gecs and A.G. Cook fit better into the PC music genre — hyperpop is a wide-ranging umbrella term for pop that pushes the boundaries of current trends and conventions. Common pop production techniques are extended to almost bizarre lengths — shiny synthesizers are blinding in their glow, samples are manipulated and distorted beyond recognition, and dance-pop beats are faster, darker, and written in technically challenging time signatures.

Similar to the success of ‘drivers license’ in 2021, hyperpop is really only a subgenre that could exist in today’s music industry, mostly due to the fact that many of the biggest artists of the subgenre are self-taught and create in ‘bedroom’ studios, something that was only just starting to be a possibility in 2011. These ‘allrounders’ are artists who often write, produce and mix their own songs — bucking the trend of widely popular music that is written by a massive team of writers, then hand-balled amongst producers until the final product is done.

Early whispers of what would eventually be deemed hyperpop can be heard in some of the most popular dance-pop and pop music released by women in 2011. Kesha’s ‘Blow’ presents a tamer artistic approach to autotune than, say, ‘SugarCrash!’ by ElyOtto, Kim Petras and Curtis Waters, but it still pushes the use of the convention into more melodic, experimental places than previously heard in mainstream pop at the time.

Kesha’s grating, half-spoken vocal featured in this track and all of her early work, in fact, feel reminiscent of a lot of the intense vocals in hyperpop today — even Charli XCX’s vocals share some of the same textural qualities.

Britney Spears’ impact on hyperpop is undeniable — a leading lady of pop throughout the 2000s and 2010s, most of today’s hyperpop stars would have grown up with her varied pop discography ever-present on the radio. Britney’s 2011 dancefloor fillers ‘Till The World Ends’, ‘Hold It Against Me’ and ‘I Wanna Go’ all share the same pounding beats that populate modern hyperpop.

Although more conventional dance-pop chord progressions, lyrics and melodies are featured in each of these songs, there is a faint sense of recognition in ‘Good Ones’ by Charli XCX, for example, or even ‘Future Starts Now’ by Kim Petras. It’s all synth-driven, pounding pop music that leans into something more experimental, more intense, more complicated — showcasing hyperpop’s ability to take conventional, classic pop trends and push them into an entirely new, exciting place.

The ‘Roman Holiday’ To Planet Her Pipeline

If one female pop artist was to define 2021, Doja Cat would be a strong contender. Her third studio album Planet Her, featuring irresistible earworms ‘Kiss Me More’ feat. SZA, ‘Get Into It (Yuh)’ and ‘Need To Know’, earned the biggest opening day for a female rapper in Spotify history.

There’s many parallels to be drawn between Nicki Minaj’s late 2010 debut album Pink Friday and Planet Her — it could be argued that Planet Her may not have been so successful if it weren’t for Pink Friday’s blueprint. Nicki and Doja share larger-than-life artistic personas, intricate rapping styles and talent for caricatured, sometimes comical accents. Both records take listeners on a journey through multiple genres and styles, and both cemented each artist as a force to be reckoned with in their time. Doja Cat herself even thanks Nicki for her influence in ‘Get Into It (Yuh)’: “Thank you Nicki, I love you!”

Pink Friday’s impact on pop, rap, and even hyperpop is absolutely undeniable — in fact, Nicki’s 2012 track ‘Come on a Cone’ is a fascinating example of early PC music/hyperpop, and it’s very much worth noting ‘Superbass’ as an early influence on the subgenre. Pink Friday sparked several hit singles (‘Superbass’, ‘Moment 4 Life’, ‘Fly’, ‘Right Thru Me’) that not only remained on the charts and on the airwaves all throughout 2011 and beyond, but have remained culturally relevant even now in 2021. In fact, ‘Moment 4 Life’ is still a hugely popular song on TikTok, reliably used to soundtrack users’ inspirational life stories.

The enduring nature of Pink Friday’s singles seems prophetic for what may become of Planet Her’s singles. The two artists embrace the same genre and style versatility in each record, while Doja Cat’s flexible delivery style throughout Planet Her is reminiscent of Nicki’s early work. Even just in the song ‘Ain’t Shit’, Doja’s vocal style moves from soft and melodic, to percussive and forceful, to hysterical, shrieking ‘You should’ve paid my rent, go get a fucking job’. In Nicki’s track ‘Roman’s Revenge’, performing as her British alter-ego Roman Zolanski, her vocal delivery is similarly expressive and versatile.

Nicki and Doja share an ability to create within a seemingly endless world of styles and genre conventions. Doja Cat’s Planet Her plays on a number of genres, from ‘Woman’s bright and shining afrobeat, to the sharp yet lush hyperpop of ‘Payday’. Both artists switch effortlessly between skillful, intricate rapping to sweet, strong singing, solidifying the connection between the two albums; two women creating interesting, exciting, enduring pop-rap records, one whole decade apart. Planet Her’s explosion onto the pop scene may not have been possible without the lasting influence and cultural impact of Pink Friday.

Besides simple nostalgia, it’s worth revisiting the pop made by women in 2011; many of the hits from that year still feel quite fresh. Something was clearly in the water — from Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’, a track still referred to as genius by songwriters and artists in 2021, to Nicki Minaj’s hyperactive, inspiring debut Pink Friday and every Gaga, Beyoncé, Kesha, Britney, Carly, Rihanna hit in between — women were releasing the pop music that today’s popstars are still referencing, still inspired by, and still learning from.

Eilish Gilligan is a musician, writer and Lady Gaga superfan from Melbourne. She streams at and tweets at @eilishgilligan