To celebrate Halloween, I’ve decided to reflect on a genre of music seldom mentioned as a definitive portion of popular music: horror-pop.
Horror-pop exists in a weird space between novelty music and timeless entertainment; immediately the success and appeal of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” comes to mind. Novelty Halloween hits like “Monster Mash” are also precursors to modern horror-pop, but are instead mainly seasonal music experiences.
Elements of horror seem to currently manifest largely as an aesthetic, with few pop artists maintaining a top-to-bottom sonically chilling catalog of music.
Indeed, even horror-pop poster girl Billie Eilish hasn’t always been able to bear the label. Most of her early material takes on a foreboding and sad tone, with little before her debut album resembling the haunting nature of songs like “Bury a Friend” or “You Should See Me in a Crown.”
The other vanguards of modern horror-pop merely dabble in the genre more than anything. German pop singer Kim Petras’ “Turn Off The Light” is a Halloween-themed album but doesn’t do much to sound like one.
Japanese-born Joji has a discography featuring lo-fi pop with disturbing themes and equally spooky vibes but he is continually shifting his style to more accessible forms of pop music. Similar things can be said about Canadian artist Grimes, who loves to flaunt creepy visuals but tends to favor synth-pop palettes with her recent material.
In fact, if appearances were any indication, these artists would make you believe they’re certainly horror-oriented. Joji, Kim Petras, etc. carry heavy horror aesthetics that don’t always mirror their sound.
Looking deeper into its history, it appears as if horror-pop has hardly ever existed. Aside from one-off dips into the genre and vague horror concepts wrapped around albums, the majority of pop music refrains from entering that territory.
Michael Jackson has two monumental pop hits I argue to be horror pop: the aforementioned and more obtuse “Thriller,” as well as the dark and slick “Smooth Criminal.”
David Bowie’s 1980 concept album “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” is filled with clear horror tropes without fully committing to them.
Rihanna’s “Disturbia” is an incredibly successful horror-pop single that remains one of the most iconic moments of her discography, and yet she does not brand herself around the horror aesthetic.
These examples are all singular trends, making my assessment of a historical horror-pop genre rather inconclusive.
Other genres are easily identified by their horror elements, while some have the same inconsistencies as horror-pop.
Grunge, metal and emo are all notably dark genres without widespread popular appeal, the main facet of pop music. Emo held a similar place as horror-pop, pushing thematically scary content without always possessing a scary sound.
Emo acts such as Pierce the Veil and Paramore were widely successful during their peaks but sounded radically different from pop music of that era. Modern emo sometimes steps into pop songwriting, but not nearly enough to justify labeling it as horror-pop. Still, I think an artist like Billie Eilish owes plenty of her appeal to the likes of Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, arguably the most notable acts from this modern brand of emo.
I’ve come to the end of this discussion with one conclusion: Billie Eilish is seemingly the only true horror-pop artist. Every other artist I’ve investigated either prefers horror merely as a visual aesthetic or doesn’t sonically enter the realm of pop music. Billie Eilish strikes a perfect balance between the two and hopefully has created a blueprint for horror-pop to succeed in the future.