Pop music is fluid. Like any vibrant creative field, it exists in a constant state of flux. It has to, or else it would cross over from an active concern to a historical relic, a format frozen in time for museums and reenactments. Pop is special in this regard because unlike rock or jazz or metal or rap or disco, it is defined less by its stylistic elements than by its vast popularity and central place in culture. There are certainly aesthetic patterns that have followed pop through the years — catchy melodies, danceable rhythms, the kinds of characteristics that typically denote approachability — but it’s less a genre than a container for the dominant sound of the time, taking bits and pieces from across the musical map and nudging them toward the center. Defined simply: If it’s popping, it’s pop.
Getting a handle on what pop is and does in a certain era might tell you a lot about that era. At the very least, it could make for a fascinating study of the evolution of sound. So at the dawn of 2016, I posted my first State Of Pop Address, an overview of mainstream music’s key figures and reigning trends. A year later, I am attempting to sum it all up again. As with the previous column, I won’t be exhaustive, choosing instead to “take a bird’s-eye view, zeroing in on the issues and trends that illustrate the overarching themes of this moment in time.” Let’s begin.
The biggest album of 2016 was Drake’s Views, an endless, monolithic playlist that benefitted from ridiculous streaming stats but also outsold every other LP released last year. Per Yahoo, its 1,579,000 American sales just nearly edge out Beyoncé’s 1,527,000 copies of Lemonade, though Adele’s 1,684,000 sales of 25 last year make it the actual bestselling album of 2016 despite being released in 2015.
Views is a dense, brooding collection of music that burrows ever deeper into Drake’s fortress of melancholy self-pity, but its public face was “Hotline Bling” and “One Dance,” two pop songs so lightweight they could practically be called flimsy. “One Dance” was also the third biggest single of the year according to Billboard’s year-end Hot 100, bested only by a pair of Justin Bieber tracks, the passive-agressive breakup ballad “Love Yourself” and the more genuinely reconcilatory “Sorry.” Both, like Drake’s biggest hits, were emphatically, unrepentantly soft, and they represent two prominent strains of pop circa now — call it soft-natural (“Love Yourself”) and soft-synthetic (“Sorry”).
“Love Yourself,” a whitebread acoustic ballad, was co-written with Ed Sheeran, whose own latest batch of whitebread acoustic balladry is imminent. Sheeran is also a mentor of sorts for Bieber’s young Canadian peer Shawn Mendes, an ascendent next-gen John Mayer type with better behavior. Niall Horan, late of One Direction, is also going this troubadour route, and it bears mentioning that Mayer himself is on the comeback trail. Factor in babyfaced piano man Charlie Puth, British sad boy James Bay, and obnoxious Danish crowdpleasers Lukas Graham, and there’s certainly no shortage of quote-unquote authentic back-to-basics soft rock from sensitive white men — which makes sense at a time when political conservatism is experiencing a massive surge. If Adele is the undisputed queen of adult contemporary music, lots of men are vying to be the king.
And then there’s “Sorry,” exactly the sort of track that has been inescapable for a year and change: bouncy, effervescent dance-pop that often borrows heavily from dancehall without maintaining any distinctly Caribbean personality (with rare exceptions like Rihanna’s patois-heavy “Work”). Bieber himself advanced this sound with hits for Major Lazer and DJ Snake last year, and island breeze coursed through high-charting titles including Sia and Sean Paul’s “Cheap Thrills,” Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s “Side To Side,” and Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” and “Ride” as well as numerous Drake singles.
But perhaps no one capitalized on EDM’s soft-rock phase like the Chainsmokers, music’s biggest breakout success story of 2016. “Closer,” the duo’s 12-week #1 hit featuring Halsey, was the year’s longest-tenured chart-topper, and it would have finished higher than #10 on Billboard’s year-end list had it been released earlier than 7/29. Before it came “Roses” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” two well-crafted tracks that further ensconced the sound of electronic pop music in the middle of the road. One aftershock from the EDM explosion is that producers have a more public role in pop music than ever, and at this point none are more public than the Chainsmokers, largely because they’ve figured out that pop is deep inside an easy listening phase defined by narcissism and melancholy.
Those Chainsmokers tracks exhibit something you can also find in G-Eazy and Bebe Rexha’s “Me, Myself, & I” or Zayn’s “Pillowtalk” or gnash and Olivia O’Brien’s “i hate u, i love u” or Maroon 5 and Kendrick Lamar’s “Don’t Wanna Know” or Troye Sivan’s “Youth,” a sort of narcotized aimlessness that lulled listeners into a daze and not coincidentally made pop less memorable. As chart expert Chris Molanphy pointed out at Slate, radio programmers struggled to identify uptempo hits this year, and even exceptions like Justin Timberlake’s unrelentingly cheery “Cant Stop The Feeling!” hit with all the force of a down pillow. If DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s 2014 smash “Turn Down For What” marked the peak of EDM aggression, pop radio has gotten so gentle in the interim that the pendulum may be ready to swing again.
Where it will go next is anyone’s guess, but I’m betting it will sound something like Twenty One Pilots. The Columbus duo’s hybrid music draws from hip-hop, reggae, and EDM among other styles, but its foundations are in alternative rock — which makes them the only rock band among America’s top-flight pop royalty. We are due for a nu-metal revival, and these guys are like a Family Values Tour band that genuinely cares about family values, scrubbed-up upstanding citizens who happen to have some Limp Bizkit in their DNA. And although they broke through to radio by largely curbing the explosive quirks and rangy songwriting that helped them build their audience in the first place, they did manage to sneak some titanic howling onto otherwise placid airwaves (the climax of “Ride,” for instance).
Twenty One Pilots’ success extends far beyond radio plays, though. They’ve tapped into a mainstream ubiquity no other rock band has grasped since Coldplay at their peak. Which other rock artist boasts three of last year’s top 25 singles (#5 “Stressed Out,” #20 “Ride,” and #21 “Heathens”) or two of last year’s top 40 albums (#6 Blurryface and #38 Vessel)? And that’s just in America; they were also the fourth-most streamed artist on Spotify globally last year (just under Rihanna, just above Kanye West). They are unquestionably the most popular rock band in the world right now. Expect plenty of imitators to crop up in the coming years.
You can also expect the return of some familiar faces in 2017, foremost among them Taylor Swift. At times this decade Swift has been pop’s center of gravity, but she stayed mostly quiet on the musical front last year, penning songs for Calvin Harris and Little Big Town and releasing a tepid Zayn duet last month. She’s surely ready for another promotional onslaught this year, as are peers including Lorde, Justin Timberlake, Coldplay, Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, Sam Smith, and Ed Sheeran, all of whom are basically guaranteed a spot on top-40 playlists upon arrival — and don’t forget about pop group refugees Harry Styles (late of One Direction) and Camila Cabello (late of Fifth Harmony), both of whom are launching their solo careers. Any one of these artists could skew the trajectory of pop radio with a big enough hit, though only some of them are daring enough to try.
That said, where top-40 radio goes is not necessarily indicative of where pop goes anymore. Consider the current #1 and #2 songs in America, Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane’s “Black Beatles” and Migos and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bad & Boujee.” Rae Sremmurd and Migos are two Southern rap groups who traditionally would be blocked out of the pop mainstream by virtue of being too black and/or too hood. But they’ve risen to massive popularity via meme-ing and streaming, a grassroots groundswell that has made them so ubiquitous that they qualify as pop by default. Similar things happened with Desiigner’s Kanye-assisted “Panda” (a former #1 hit and the sixth biggest song of 2016) and Zay Hilfigerrr and Zayion McCall’s “Juju On That Beat” (the latest viral dance smash to captivate schoolyards everywhere).
The internet has always cultivated stars of its own, and some of them (like Twenty One Pilots) made the jump to pop radio eventually. Now the opposite is just as happening as well: The internet has become a fertile home for many performers who came to fame on the top-40 airwaves. Beyoncé’s Lemonade was nearly the bestselling album released in 2016. It permeated the culture without support from pop radio, relying instead on streaming and a much-hyped HBO premiere plus some rap and R&B radio spins. Ditto Frank Ocean, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga: In their own ways, all of them played the part of the pop star without help from pop radio. Whatever prejudices and barriers to entry keep music off the air, a cult of personality is all you need to flourish online — and flourishing online is all you need to top the charts.
An extremely long album helps, though. One of the most egregious trends of 2016 was tracklists that spiraled to unmanageable lengths, presumably an attempt to cull more track streams and thereby inflate a project’s standing on the Billboard 200. Drake’s Views was a major offender here, as was Starboy by Drake’s Toronto frenemy the Weeknd. Both albums were lengthy slogs that could have easily been trimmed to allow for a stronger, more satisfying listen. Instead, for a generation spending life in front of screens, Views and Starboy were dreary sonic wallpaper ideal for zoning out. And the overlong album trend is not the sole province of Ontario — it extends to Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo and Bieber’s Purpose and Ocean’s Blonde and the 1975’s I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. Given how successful all those albums have been, and considering the increasing prominence of streaming, we may be unfortunately looking at a future filled with needlessly sprawling marquee pop albums.
Props, then, to Bruno Mars for keeping 24K Magic to a neat and tidy nine tracks. If the album’s 33-minute runtime seems out of step with pop circa now, so do its retro stylings; he’s the best of a subset of pop stars cutting against the sound of today by resurrecting the sound of yesterday. That group that also includes Meghan Trainor and DNCE, the Joe Jonas-led project jockeying to become the next Maroon 5. The pop sphere always has room for a few such revivalists, just as it seemingly never tires of divas such as Ariana Grande and Adele or corny pop rap by the likes of Flo Rida, G-Eazy, Iggy Azalea, Kiiara, and Wiz Khalifa. (The aforementioned Twenty One Pilots also have a foot in this circle.) There are certain factors that always seem to remain no matter how much pop evolves.
These days perhaps pop’s most constant element is a person. Ever since she crashed the charts in 2005, Rihanna has been a pop mainstay, the most reliable hit-maker in the business. That remained true in 2016. Rih’s long-awaited eighth album ANTI was one of many pop tentpoles that seemed designed more as an LP than a collection of singles padded out with filler, yet it still generated two massive singles anyway. Those hits plus collaborations with Calvin Harris and Drake accounted for four of the year’s top 30 tracks (#4 “Work,” #13 “Needed Me,” #17 “This Is What You Came For,” and #29 “Too Good”), making her as inescapable as ever — and that’s not even factoring in the ways she extends beyond music such as her role in the upcoming film Ocean’s 8 and her fashion line for Puma.
There was a time when Rihanna seemed like nothing more than a cipher for industry songwriters. As we enter 2017, she’s a star in just about every way imaginable: on the radio and online; scoring smash singles and a critically acclaimed blockbuster album alike; both owning the sound of the moment and transcending it; a part of the machine who nonetheless puts her own unmistakable stamp on everything she touches. There are a lot of reasons to feel blasé about the state of pop, but if we judge it by its reigning MVP, pop is doing pretty well for itself: reliably entertaining, occasionally thrilling, and with endless fascinating potential to evolve.
As indicated above, Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane’s “Black Beatles” has reclaimed the #1 spot from the Weeknd and Daft Punk’s “Starboy,” and it’s followed by the biggest chart story of the week: Migos and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bad & Boujee” leaps from #13 all the way to #2. Coming soon: Raindrop / Chart top? Down to #3 goes “Starboy,” followed by the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” at #4 and Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” at #5. Zay Hilfigerrr and Zayion McCall’s “Juju on That Beat (TZ Anthem)” drops to #6, then comes Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s “Side To Side” at #7 and DJ Snake and Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You” at #8. Up to a new #9 peak is Drake’s “Fake Love,” followed by D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty’s “Broccoli,” back in the top 10 at #10.
Over on the album chart, Pentatonix’s A Pentatonix Christmas unsurprisingly rose to #1 over the holidays, and it remains on top for a second week with 101,000 equivalent units and 82,000 in pure sales. The Weeknd’s Starboy follows at #2 with 94,000 units, then comes Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic at #3 with 81,000 and J. Cole’s notably featureless 4 Your Eyez Only at #4 with 75,000. (Mars doesn’t have any features either, but his fans don’t make a big deal out of it.) The rest of the top 10: the Hamilton soundtrack at #5, the Moana soundtrack at #6, Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface at #7, Drake’s Views at #8, Pentatonix’s previous Christmas album That’s Christmas To Me at #9, and the Suicide Squad soundtrack at #10.
Sam Hunt – “Drinkin’ Too Much” & “Drinkin’ Too Much 8pm”
Hunt’s debut Montevallo was basically Drake-indebted country music, and it was awesome. Hunt made the Drake influence explicit by covering Aubrey Graham’s drunk-dial lament “Marvins Room” in concert. But with “Drinkin’ Too Much,” Hunt’s grand New Year’s Day return, he’s burrowing even deeper into that aesthetic, essentially releasing a “Marvins Room” of his own. From the pensive, apologetic, spoken-word verses to the soft, melancholy synth swells undergirding Hunt’s vocal, it’s a dead ringer — a ripoff, even — and yet I love it so, so much. Give me a whole album of country Drake. Give me a whole career of it. (The acoustic “8pm” version is cool, too.)
Desiigner – “Outlet”
Speaking of “Drake” influence, here’s Desiigner’s very own “Trophies.” It’s not on a “Panda” level or even a “Timmy Turner” level in terms of contagious power, but it suggests he’s not going anywhere.
DJ Snake – “The Half” (Feat. Jeremih, Young Thug, & Swizz Beatz)
Snake used to be a bit of a chameleon, but he’s been developing a signature sound: smooth, synthetic, marked by those tweaked vocal loops. It’s cool to hear that sound translating pretty well to a rap and R&B context.
Kelsea Ballerini – “Yeah Boy”
Ballerini is my least favorite of the Best New Artist nominees, but this is a pleasant little track that has me almost OK with the idea of her taking home the Grammy. Almost.
Chris Brown – “Party” (Feat. Usher & Gucci Mane)
A lot of musicians are cruddy people, but Chris Brown is so publicly cruddy that it makes enjoying his music a complicated experience. Yet he stays dropping radio-ready jams like this, songs I would be happy to crank up while running errands in the car.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Ed Sheeran is releasing new music on Friday. [Twitter]
- Ariana Grande tweeted about being objectified by a Mac Miller fan then defending herself when some fans claimed it is hypocritical if she expresses herself sexually in her music. [Twitter]
- Grande also announced that she’ll be a character in Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius. [Instagram]
- Selena Gomez is the new face of Coach. [NY Times]
- Katy Perry teased a new song on Snapchat. [Twitter]
- Liam Payne tweeted to a fan that he’s 100% certain One Direction will reunite. [Twitter]
- His fellow 1D alum Niall Horan’s upcoming folk-pop solo album is inspired by Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. [EW]
- A long-running copyright dispute between Devin The Dude and Usher and Justin Bieber was quietly dismissed. [Billboard]
- Bieber has, however, been indicted for a 2013 incident in Argentina where he allegedly ordered a beatdown on a photographer. [TMZ]
- Kacey Musgraves got engaged on Christmas Eve. [Instagram]
- Avril Lavigne announced she’ll have a new album in 2017. [Instagram]
- The Weeknd was seen filming the video for “Reminder.” [Instagram]
- On Christmas day Taylor Swift surprised a 96-year-old veteran with a performance at his home in Missouri. [E!]
- Lana Del Rey sang “Santa Baby” on Instagram “per the request of the 11 year olds.” [Instagram]
- Kelsea Ballerini got engaged to Australian singer Morgan Evans. [Just Jared]
- Pink gave birth to her second child, a boy named Jameson Moon. [People]
- Beyoncé and Solange’s mom Tina Knowles-Lawson announced that she’s taking a break from social media after she accidentally liked a post criticizing Jennifer Hudson’s voice. [Instagram]
- Sia filed for divorce from her husband of two years. [Hollywood Life]
- Emma Watson performs “Something There” in the first musical preview from Beauty And The Beast. [EW]
- Karmin’s Amy Noonan announced a new solo project Herby. [Twitter]
- The Chainsmokers signed a three year exclusive club residency deal with Wynn Nightlife in Las Vegas. [Las Vegas Weekly]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
someone just give the poor girl a high five already pic.twitter.com/EUfKNYLRm9
— jas (@adoringcabeIIo) October 28, 2016
HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME
— CNN (@CNN) January 3, 2017
HOLD ON, WE’RE REALLY GOING HOME THIS TIME
I'm mad this fit so well pic.twitter.com/t8eHJgO5UE
— Nathan Zed (@NathanZed) December 27, 2016