The biggest stars in pop are getting older, and they're looking to their predecessors for inspiration. Consider the No. 1 album in the country the week ending May 18, One Direction star Harry Styles' self-titled solo debut, which pays homage to the rock gods of the last half-century, David Bowie, Queen and Pink Floyd. It became the best-selling debut from a U.K. male artist, moving an estimated 230,000 units. This may mark the first occasion many younger listeners, raised on candy-coated EDM beats, hear rock music that sounds conspicuously like what their parents used to listen to on the radio.
Styles' female contemporaries, many of whom cut their teeth in the world of kids' TV, are charting this surprising course too. Selena Gomez's new single "Bad Liar" uses a prominent sample from Talking Heads' 1977 single "Psycho Killer," earning the approval of that band's front man, David Byrne: "I really like the song ... and her performance too," he tweeted. The song is whisper-thin, gorgeous and strange; it layers bells, snares and hand claps underneath its crisp vocal hook. Gomez, a onetime child star who has carried her young fan base along with her into an adult career, was always the quietly experimental one in the teen pop set. Here she doubles down on the weirdness of her sound.
Then there's Miley Cyrus, the wild child of the Disney crew, who has dialed back the intensity of her new music. On her 2013 album, Bangerz, she loudly asserted her sexual autonomy, twerking on live TV and swinging nude from a wrecking ball in a video. Then she made an experimental psych-rock album, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, which was released free online in 2015. But on her new single "Malibu," Cyrus' sound shifts to evoke '90s adult-contemporary pop-rock by artists like Sheryl Crow, or Alanis Morissette after she went to India and found enlightenment. "Next to you/the sky's more blue/in Malibu," she sings over dreamy instrumentation. There's a little twang in Cyrus' voice that flicks at her Nashville roots, but "Malibu" isn't even country. This is cushiony, lightly percussive soft rock, untrendy as can be.
The video for "Malibu" is set in soft focus, a hazy beachside fantasy in which Cyrus splashes in the surf, pulling a string of balloons. It's a new look for her, but an appealing one. Like her peers, she's just finding her way.