The US president’s annual State Of The Union address is always a loaded subject because no one can agree exactly what state the union is in or why it’s in that state, especially in such a polarized, compromised, altogether monumentally fucked political environment. We can’t even agree on who should be considered a part of the union or who should be allowed to visit, much less join. But at least we can all point to said union on a map.
Pop music is almost as contentious as politics, partially because in its own way, pop is politics. (And if Kanye West runs in 2020, pop will really be politics.) Each of us approaches music with our own personal biases and agenda, and — especially since the advent of online personae — we all wield taste as a tool for carving out identity. So evaluating the state of pop is a messy business, further complicated by the fact that unlike the United States, pop has no explicit boundaries. Like “indie,” “rock,” and even “music,” “pop” has long been a fluid term, one that means many different things to many different people.
Arguing about what pop is supposed to be is kind of like arguing about what America is supposed to be: a question of values and philosophy more than cold hard facts, one that often involves people passionately talking past each other. And even though there are ways to convert pop into something measurable — sales figures; YouTube and SoundCloud play counts; charts from Billboard, Spotify, or iTunes that compile such statistics into hierarchies — even those methods of classification only dictate what’s popular, not necessarily what’s pop. Are Slipknot pop because their last album debuted at #1? Is Carly Rae Jepsen not pop because her last album failed to generate radio hits? What about Grimes or PC Music? It’s easy to see why, in a recent essay at FACT, former Stereogum writer Claire Lobenfeld said the term pop “has been rendered almost completely meaningless.”
But I’m still going to assess the state of pop anyway, OK?
Obama won’t get around to everything when he takes the podium next Tuesday, and neither will I here today. The president and I will focus on what we deem most important. We’ll take a bird’s-eye view, zeroing in on the issues and trends that illustrate the overarching themes of this moment in time. When I launched this column two years ago, I included some basic guidelines that will prove handy in this endeavor:
Typically, we’ll be looking at music that cracks Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart or gets airplay on Top 40 radio stations — or music that aspires to those destinations. Rap and R&B songs that rule urban radio without crossing over into the Top 40 might merit a closer look, too. We’ll also steer into mainstream country here because these days the Hot 100 crosses over with Nashville almost as often as it crosses over with rap and R&B. Anything that goes viral might fit here — and, therefore, anything your parents might ask you about. As usual, the definition of pop will be malleable enough to encompass any music that is popular and widely accessible. Suffice it to say most of the time pop is self-evident.
Alright, let’s get to it.
At the dawn of 2016, Adele is pop’s center of gravity. In the three months since she shared “Hello,” the first single from her album 25, she has become the supernova that set the record books ablaze. Both the single and the album had the best first-week sales of the SoundScan era, and neither one has yet relinquished the #1 position. Many more records have fallen since. But beyond her undeniable statistical domination, Adele is a part of the zeitgeist in the way few other alleged superstars have managed this decade — a mainstay on primetime television, the object of many memes about her formidable tearjerking powers, the subject of an SNL digital short about her ability to unify the public by appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Adele was also pop’s center of gravity five years ago, when 21 was beginning to set all the records 25 would go on to break. But in the interim, Adele disappeared from the public eye, and Taylor Swift took her place as The Biggest Pop Star In The World. Swift’s appeal is nearly as universal as Adele’s, she’s one of few performers who can approach Adele’s sales figures, and her empire is arguably even more expansive when you factor in her powerful social media presence and relentless celebrity networking. But whereas Adele ensures her universal appeal by making incredibly safe music and letting the people come to her, Swift hustles hard to get more fans inside her ever-expanding tent.
Back when Swift was a crossover country phenom, she was already an unstoppable pop-cultural force. She landed albums and singles atop the pop charts, she won a Grammy for Album Of The Year, and exploits ranging from her awkward awards-show dancing to her ill-fated love life were constantly landing her in the headlines. Yet her entire 1989 album cycle has been a concerted effort to expand her already mammoth fan base by widening her already broad appeal. She abandoned country and country-pop hybrids in favor of ’80s-inspired dance-pop, even cutting most of her old material out of her tour setlist. The 1989 Tour itself was a study in coalition-building; most nights, she invited one or two fellow celebrities on stage to perform, as if to mark them as her own. The phenomenon escalated to comic heights in her blockbuster “Bad Blood” video, in which Swift and her menagerie of famous female friends played a team of assassins at war with a rival squad.
That song and video were heavily rumored (but never confirmed!) to be an affront against Katy Perry, one of several female monoliths who might have reasonably been called The Biggest Pop Star In The World at some point this decade. Like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga, Perry has fallen behind Adele and Swift in the race for world domination, but all of them except Gaga are still undeniable A-listers whose prominence wanes only when they’re between album cycles, and sometimes not even then. They constitute the majority of mainstream pop’s upper echelon, iconic figures who continue to be commercially potent.
Although Beyoncé and Rihanna have been known to take risks with their sound — see Bey’s walloping AutoTune excursion “7/11″ or Rih’s acoustic oddity “FourFiveSeconds” — most of today’s superstars are building their kingdoms by steering straight down the middle. Many of the women aspiring to join their ranks have adopted a similar strategy: Ariana Grande’s savvy Britney/Mariah mashup, Meghan Trainor’s goofy Motown pastiche, Ellie Goulding’s blind rush into facelessness. Even Sia, who shies away from the spotlight and hides her face behind ridiculous disguises, finds her way into radio rotation by way of deathless formula. Shout out to Tove Lo for being the rare pop B-lister to infuse her music with real flavor.
No one is more indicative of big-budget pop’s too-big-to-fail tendencies than Adele. She excellently executes her MOR ambitions, but her dominance suggests that despite its much-documented potential as an apparatus for revolution, the top of the pops is in a state of conservatism. A quick survey of pop’s leading men further cements that perception. Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, John Legend, Jason Derulo, Charlie Puth, Hozier, Shawn Mendes, Aloe Blacc, the late One Direction, even former trailblazer Pharrell: There is an abundance of male milquetoast near the top of the charts. Presented as torchbearers for the classics, mostly they trade in banal recitations of bygone forms, occasionally stumbling upon genuine inspiration.
There are some exceptions, most notably the Weeknd. Abel Tesfaye spent 2015 becoming pop’s newest A-lister, and he did it his way. Tesfaye, too, could be accused of playing to the middle by cravenly mining nostalgia, but when “The Hills” hit big, Michael Jackson and Prince cosplay turned out to be a Trojan horse for the nihilistic R&B the Weeknd made his name on. At this point he’s the only modern superstar who could reasonably be described as edgy. It will be intriguing to see what spills into the path he’s cutting through the top 40.
The only male pop star bigger than the Weeknd last year was Justin Bieber, whose complete domination of the Spotify charts lately suggests he’s the first male since FutureSex/LoveSounds-era Timberlake with potential to become The Biggest Pop Star In The World. Like Grande, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Nick Jonas, and (soon) Zayn Malik, Bieber has been transitioning out of teeny-bopping and into the realm of young adult pop stardom. While most of his peers strain to emphasize how grown-up they are now, Bieber has maintained his petulant boyish image even as he constantly apologizes for childish indiscretions. If pop’s current crop of badass women is indicative of the female empowerment in the air, Bieber is a superb example of the endless adolescence of today’s men. The only thing mature about him is his sound, largely thanks to fluid, soft-spoken electronic beats from the likes of Diplo, Skrillex, and BloodPOP.
Those guys are among the electronic producers who have been willing to adapt, so they’ve been able to stay in the mainstream despite the tides shifting away from EDM. Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Avicii, and DJ Snake remain music industry power players, but at this point they feel like holdovers from another era. Although electronic music will always have a place in pop from now on, the big-tent, big-drop EDM that continues to attract America’s drug-fueled youth to summer festivals has been replaced in the mainstream by subtler, gentler forms that feel more like the glow of an LCD screen than the crunch of a dial-up modem.
It’s becoming true across the board, from Swift’s tasteful synth-pop to Gomez’s stylish minimalism to Sheeran’s singer-songwriter fare: Even as stars strive to become bigger than life personalities, the sound of pop is trending smaller. Perhaps credit the influence of Lorde’s dark, barebones, genreless music; she’s certainly accumulated her share of disciples, Halsey and Alessia Cara among them, who’ll soon have to reckon with her return. For every bombastic Years & Years dance hit, there is an introverted Troye Sivan synth mirage. (Both artists, by the way, are helping to normalize queer love songs in the pop mainstream.)
Hip-hop’s sound has also long since softened in feel and narrowed in size, because for more half a decade now hip-hop’s center has been Drake. Although he’s spent that entire interim somewhat successfully toughening up his facade, Aubrey Graham had his biggest mainstream showing in years with “Hotline Bling,” a chintzy production that deployed passive aggression as a salve for emotional wounds. Drake is rap’s biggest star by a wide margin, an industry unto himself, but he doesn’t live in the pop mainstream like Pitbull, Flo Rida, Iggy Azalea, or Macklemore, and his songs don’t cross over as often as Jay Z, Wiz Khalifa, Fetty Wap, or his Young Money associate Nicki Minaj. Oddly enough, Drake has had a more direct lifeline to pop radio in recent years via his influence on Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt, the only country artists to properly cross over lately. Until “Hotline Bling” took off, the likes of Big Sean, A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Juicy J, and 2 Chainz were more readily heard on top-40 stations than Drake, albeit in guest spots on tracks by pop singers.
The reason for this is clear enough: Mainstream pop continues to default to a white perspective. Any rap songs that don’t cater to traditionally white sensibilities, songs that could be labelled thuggish by the Facebook uncles of the world, are relegated to urban radio. The hits most likely to make waves in the mainstream are fun, cutesy novelty dance tracks like Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip, Nae Nae)” and iLoveMemphis’ “Hit The Quan.” Even mid-period Kanye had to piggyback on a Katy Perry hit to cross over. The same is true for R&B: When Usher, Chris Brown, and Jeremih score crossover hits these days, it’s usually by making tracks that seem expressly designed for that purpose. Ne-Yo has become a mainstream mainstay by almost exclusively releasing bright, shiny, corny stuff that will play with viewers of The Voice.
Racial factors aside, ruthless blandness has long been the simplest recipe for landing your rock band in the pop mainstream, too — just ask Maroon 5, OneRepublic, and Walk The Moon. Some acts, such as Paramore, Bleachers, and the 1975, have found unique routes to the middle and come up with some excellent music along the way. But rock is also currently the cauldron for some of mainstream pop’s most intriguing experiments. Sometimes these stylistic evolutions grate against hip sensibilities but are actually kind of rad — the boy band/mall-punk hybrid 5 Seconds Of Summer for example, or the undefinable schizoid pop of Twenty One Pilots — and sometimes they’re outright atrocious, as with Fall Out Boy’s hamfisted monogenre jock jams and Coldplay’s recent attempt at rainbow-colored sonic universalism. It’s often not pretty or even good, but there’s not a more fascinating wing of mainstream pop right now.
Here’s the thing about pop today, though: You don’t actually have to be in the mainstream to be a practitioner. What to make of Miley Cyrus? Or Lana Del Rey? Or JoJo? Or Jordin Sparks? Or Fifth Harmony? Or Pentatonix? They all occupy their own lanes to varying degrees of hysteria and notoriety. Or how about the wealth of critically acclaimed “indie” artists crafting their own versions of pop? Some of them, like Charli XCX, Haim, and Carly Rae Jepsen, have had their moment in the limelight and, thanks to their contractual affiliations, aren’t properly “indie” at all. Others, like Grimes, Robyn, or the PC Music collective, seem more likely to continue as cult favorites. Maybe if the likes of Chvrches and Purity Ring and Chairlift continue to bring the hooks, pop radio will make room for them. Or maybe they’ll just keep inspiring songs like “Blank Space.” Who knows? Mainstream pop desperately clings to the normal, but you never know when the new normal is about to arrive.
On the strength of 363,000 equivalent units (307,000 in pure sales), Adele’s 25 rules the Billboard 200 for a sixth consecutive week. The album thus wraps up 2015 with 7.44 million copies sold, the best since Usher’s Confessions tallied 7.98 million in 2004. Billboard also notes that 25 is the first album since Susan Boyle’s 2009 release I Dreamed A Dream to debut at #1 and stay there for six weeks and the first since Creed’s 2001 release Weathered to sell at least 300,000 copies in each of its first six weeks.
There are no debuts in the top 10 this week, but Bryson Tiller’s Trapsoul jumps all the way from #33 to #10 with 53,000 units, and Twenty One Pilots’ former #1 Blurryface climbs back to #3 with 79,000 units thanks to a sale at iTunes and the continued success of “Stressed Out,” which climbs to #9 and becomes their first top-10 hit on the Hot 100 singles chart.
Speaking of the Hot 100…
— Joe Coscarelli (@joecoscarelli) January 5, 2016
@joecoscarelli It's like Children of Men, but for pop songs.
— Philip Sherburne (@PhilipSherburne) January 5, 2016
Selena Gomez – “Hands To Myself”
“Good For You” and “Same Old Love,” the first two singles from Gomez’s stellar Revival, were good enough to place on our list of the 50 best pop songs of 2015. But the album’s best track was reserved for 2016 domination. “Hands To Myself” is as irresistible as the object of Gomez’s affection — written, performed, and produced by pros who understand the allure of less is more. The detail that pushes it over the top: “I mean, I could, but why would I want to?” [Watch here.]
Ellie Goulding Vs. Jordan Evans – “Just In Case”
This off-kilter dance track is one of Goulding’s most enjoyable singles ever, even though it casts two disappointing projects in an even worse light. “Just In Case” is better than anything on Delirium except maybe “On My Mind,” and it’s also basically exactly what I hoped Disclosure’s Caracal would sound like. Better to revel in present triumph than to lament past failures, though.
Fall Out Boy – “Irresistible” (Feat. Demi Lovato)
At this point what Fall Out Boy do is less like writing songs than constructing big, heavy, lumbering machines. Rarely has pop music sounded so much like factory equipment. Anyway, it’s a smart crossover for Lovato and even smarter for Joey Fatone, even if it makes me tense up whenever it comes on the radio.
Panic! At The Disco – “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time”
It never ceases to amaze me that a band whose sound boils down to “always one step behind Fall Out Boy” continues to be a thing.
Rachel Platten – “Better Place”
Sara Bareilles better watch out! The “Fight Song” singer is fixing to have the rom-com pop game on lock.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Interscope sent Lady Gaga a horse. [Instagram]
- Brandy ended her feud with Countess Vaughn. [Us]
- Tove Lo is in fact nominated with Ellie Goulding for a Golden Globe for her work on “Love Me Like You Do.” [ABC]
- Drake reunited with his Degrassi girlfriend. [Instagram]
- In a Twitter rant, Rihanna songwriter Glass John blamed Anti’s delay on Travi$ Scott and also says he is married to Rihanna and a bunch of other things. [HipHopDX]
- Sri Lanka’s President condemned Enrique Iglesias’ overly sexy concert there. [BBC]
- Iggy Azalea teased new songs “Team” and “Zillion”. [Twitter and Twitter again]
- Kesha has a new band called the Yeast Infection. [Idolator]
- One Direction’s Harry Styles reportedly registered four new songs, potentially for his solo album. [Telegraph]
- Also, Jay Z apparently wants to sign Styles to Roc Nation. [Daily Star]
- The Zootopia trailer features a new Shakira song written by Sia and Stargate. [YouTube]
- Lorde’s album has a title. [Twitter]
- Celine Dion covered Adele’s “Hello” on New Year’s Eve, completing the circle. [YouTube]
- Channing Tatum dressed up as Elsa from Frozen and lip-synced “Let It Go.” [Billboard]
- Scott Storch is being sued by two brothers who gave him money after he went bankrupt. [THR]
- A rep for Taylor Swift denies reports that she is living with Calvin Harris. [People]
- And Beyonce’s rep denied she is writing and starring in a movie about Saartjie Baartman. [Billboard]
- The first NOW That’s What I Call Rock for the US is out this month, and yikes. [News 10]
- Boyz II Men have been cast in Grease: Live. [Variety]
- Fetty Wap hopped on a Selena Gomez remix. [Miss Info]
- Vin Diesel sang “See You Again” in tribute to Paul Walker at the People’s Choice Awards. [YouTube]
- Spike Lee’s documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall will premiere at Sundance this month. [PR Newswire]