Why Sabrina Carpenter’s ‘emails i can’t send’ is a breath of fresh air for pop music

‘We bonded over Black Eyed Peas and complicated exits. […] I got death threats filling up semi trucks.’ I could end the review right there, but honestly, never mind. There is more to unpack than two ingenious lyrics on this tango for two of a pop album.

The music video promo for the bravely balanced ballad, ‘because I liked a boy’.

Two figures hover over this remarkable record: Taylor Swift, the conventional pop heroine of the 2010s, and Billie Eilish, the alternative pop leader of the turn of the 2020s. Sabrina Carpenter combines the acoustic and lyrical aspects of Swift’s triumphal music with the electronic and visionary dimensions of Billie’s musical revolution. Of course, one era’s rebellion is the next era’s convention. Think 1776 and Hamilton. The revolutions that aren’t conventions are those that failed. But enough politics. Back to the music.

Carpenter on the Singular double album towards the end of the 2010s struck a chord as pop R&B of the 2000s era faded and gave way to the now-dominant hip hop/R&B synthesis of Doja Cat, Jacob Collier, the Weeknd, and other echoes of the 21st century golden oldies of Rihanna, Beyoncé, and the Black Eyed Peas (that eclectic group of visionaries, again).

The 2020s are, in many ways, a synthesis of the grand vision of the 2000s with the sceptical nostalgia of the 2010s. The first decade of the third millennium began in the shadow of Michael Jackson, with Britney Spears’ dance routines overlaying jazz-inflected production on Toxic. But the decade ended with Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and its renewal of the progressive rock tradition in the highest moment of hip hop. The 2010s involved Kendrick Lamar developing jazz, rock, and hip hop in new directions, even while pop as a genre lost its grandiose vision of Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster, analogous to Mr. West’s ‘Monster’ in its shock factor. Gaga’s mid-2010s album Artpop predicted a return of artistic vision to pop, a prediction made true by two siblings in L.A.: Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell.

On the eve of this promised return, Lorde releases the most critically acclaimed pop album of the 2010s, Melodrama. Working with longtime Swift collaborator Jack Antonoff, while dropping the Spears & Swift producer mastermind Max Martin, Lorde developed a darker vision of pop that has now run its course, at least for the time being.

In the meantime, the future lies with the ‘Yeezy’-inspired production-heavy R&B superstars, the Swiftian and Lamarian wordsmiths, and sonic artists in the lineage of Billie Eilish and Kanye West.

Sabrina’s new album combines her earlier interest in electronic production with her post-pandemic turn to lyrical (and, more recently, literal) acrobatics. The result is something neither straightforwardly technical nor strikingly artistic, but defiantly balanced. There is something missing in this album, but only because what it has is what most albums lack, in favour of the tantalising extremes. If this kind of album is made more often, drawing increasingly on the extremes which this record brilliantly balances, perhaps music will change for good. Can you feel the fresh air? I know I can — as clearly as the emails i can’t send.

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