Pop Matters

Pop Matters

The world changed Tuesday, and yet it carries on. Most of us still have the same responsibilities we did at the beginning of the week, before Donald Trump’s “extraordinary” campaign made him the most unusual president-elect in American history, and we had to fulfill them Wednesday regardless of what sort of reaction his election elicited in us. Jobs, classes, families: Life kept happening, and we had to keep living it, even if most of it was suddenly cast in a different light.

My job is to write about music. At a time like this, with America plunging headfirst into uncharted territory that suspiciously resembles some of the darker chapters of modern history, much of the pop culture analysis that pays my bills feels offensively trite. Late Tuesday night, into the vacuum that is media Twitter, Spin associate editor Jeremy Gordon wrote, “The idea of waking up tomorrow to read about how people aren’t enjoying Westworld or indie rock the right way is literally vomit-inducing,” and, yeah. So was the idea of writing a standard The Week In Pop column about Alicia Keys or Kiiara or Little Mix within days of Trump’s election. It seemed even more ridiculous than that one Thursday a few months back when Prince died and I had to finish analyzing the godforsaken Lumineers before I could queue up “Little Red Corvette.”

So instead of a normal column, you get this.

When a seismic shift turns life upside down, the typical response among those who chronicle the entertainment industry is to question the value of our work and of entertainment in general — to wonder if we’re merely diverting attention from what’s really important — before concluding that entertainment can also be art and coverage of that entertainment can also be meaningful journalism. I think that’s correct, but it feels like a cliché to go through those same motions this week, at least as cliché as attempting a pithy analysis of some pop star. Ditto the questions of whether artists have a responsibility to speak out on social issues or whether entertainment coverage should or shouldn’t be political. We’ve already had those conversations. Resolved or not, they feel so tired. The thought of cycling through them again is as exhausting as the prospect of reliving this election.

So what can we do instead? For one, I think we need to more clearly delineate what’s important and what’s not — and if we find ourselves pouring lots of effort and attention into unimportant matters, to ask ourselves why. Why draw attention to this thing? Why pick this fight? Why contribute your voice to this particular conversation?

There’s no question that a heavily researched feature or a thoughtful essay or a smart interview or an insightful album review can have a meaningful impact, be it personal or political. Beyond the basic value of transmitting information, one of the functions of journalism and criticism in particular is to help people see your subject in a new way. I’m also quite sure distractions have their place and that we all need a respite from the real world sometimes — I’m the guy who condemned St. Vincent’s hatred for burritos, after all. The trouble is when the escapism and the substance are treated with equal weight, and when minor controversies are elevated to major stories, and when the insignificant begins to drown out the significant, and when you end up lost deep inside some elaborate fanboy tangent that has little to no bearing on real people’s daily experience.

Cue the aforementioned thinkpieces about enjoying Westworld or indie rock the wrong way. These are not Actual Problems, but it’s easy to reach when you’re on deadline and in search of an angle that hasn’t been beaten to death. You’ve all read articles that leave you wondering, “Who cares?” and I’ve written a few of them too. Let’s make a conscious break from that sort of thing. There’s more than enough to get worked up about in this world without adding invented controversies. I already try not to waste my energy huffing and puffing about something that has no lasting ripple effect, but now I will try harder.

Thankfully, as your weekly pop music columnist, I can report that pop music continues to have a profound impact on American life. When I launched this column almost three years ago, I wrote, “Exploring the music that dominates our culture is fun, and it can provide valuable perspective about our world and ourselves.” I still believe both of those things. Whether substantial or vapid, pop remains a powerful venue for communication and a prism for understanding our world, and anything that brings joy to many millions of people is worth expositing.

Consider pop’s cross-pollination effect: It’s the only means by which some Americans come into contact with people from different races and cultures. Rap has both helped black America to persevere and helped white people to comprehend their experience. Regardless of motive, stars like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Rihanna have exposed millions of young people to feminism. Zayn Malik is a Muslim artist reaching people who might never engage with Muslim culture beyond what they see in their Facebook news feeds. Sam Smith is an out gay man whose music touches people who fight to marginalize gays. Even artists that are not explicitly political, like Bruno Mars, make a statement simply by existing as a multiracial person in the spotlight.

So pop can be a force for empathy and education, but it can also be a force for evil. It can reinforce stereotypes and function as a camouflage for backwards thinking. The music business is somehow the most progressive industry in America and the most conservative all at once. And though it may not determine the policies that guide this world, in an instant or over a generation, it can shape the hearts of those that do, even sometimes accidentally. Even an apolitical hit song is the most intuitive kind of grassroots movement because people don’t have to be convinced to love powerful music. We’d be fools to ignore such a cultural powerhouse.

If this sounds like one of Stuart Smalley’s daily affirmations retrofitted for a music critic’s existential crisis, maybe it is! One of my mostly deeply held convictions is that our feelings are not reliable barometers for reality and we need to reaffirm truth to stay in our right minds. I am loathe to turn this column into a narcissistic pep talk, but hey, y’all show up to read this stuff every week too. So in a week when music feels irrelevant compared to the looming specter of fascism, let’s not forget that pop matters in a big way. It is worth studying, and when it’s at its transcendent best, it is worth celebrating.

CREDIT: Mark Davis/Getty Images


This time eight years ago, Young Jeezy was enjoying massive success with his Barack Obama-inspired anthem “My President.” Now, the same week our first orange president was elected into office, no-longer-young Jeezy has a new #1 album to his name. Trap Or Die 3 debuts on top with 89,000 equivalent units and 73,000 in sales. Per Billboard, it’s the rapper’s third #1 and first since 2008’s The Recession, which gave us “My President.” (His 2006 effort The Inspiration also started on top.) Last year’s Church In These Streets debuted at #4 but actually did better numbers: 107,000 units and 98,000 in sales.

Jeezy narrowly beats Kenny Chesney’s Cosmic Hallelujah, which clocks in at #2 with just under 89,000 units. Chesney’s album sold more copies than Trap Or Die 3 — 79,000 — but rules are rules. Time to break out your disgusted Beyoncé-watching face, Kenny! Perhaps an even bigger beneficiary of streaming equivalent units is Meek Mill, whose DC4 begins at #3 with 87,000 units and only 45,000 in sales. And there’s one more debut in the top 10 this week: Avenged Sevenfold’s surprise album The Stage, launching at #4 with 76,000 units and 72,000 in sales.

Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” holds onto to #1 for a 12th straight week, which makes it the longest-running #1 since Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” held on for 12 weeks last year. Billboard notes that “Closer” is one of only 17 songs in the 58-year history of the Hot 100 to spend at least 12 weeks on top. Actually, #1-5 all hold steady for a third straight week — “Closer” followed by “Starboy” at #2, “Heathens” at #3, “Let Me Love You” at #4, and “Broccoli” at #5 — the first such streak since April 2014.

Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s “Side To Side” reaches a new peak of #6. (Relatedly, thanks to her feature on Meek Mill’s #68-debuting “Froze,” Minaj has tied Taylor Swift for the second most Hot 100 singles by a woman; with 69 hits apiece, they trail Aretha Franklin’s 73.) Zay Hilfigerrr & Zayion McCall’s viral dance smash “Juju On That Beat (TZ Anthem)” rises a spot to #8, also a new peak. Speaking of viral, Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane’s great “Black Beatles” crashes the top 10 this week, rising to #9 largely thanks to its role in the #MannequinChallenge. Per Billboard, it’s the first top-10 hit for each artist and the first to namecheck the Beatles.

Lastly, Drake scores his 18th top-10 hit with “Fake Love,” which rises from #24 to #10. That figure is third best among rappers — trailing Jay Z (21) and Lil Wayne (19), tying Ludacris (18), and passing Eminem (17).


Bruno Mars – “Versace On The Floor”
Here’s Bruno Mars with the best Boyz II Men song in decades.

The Chainsmokers – “Setting Fires” (Feat. XYLØ)
Unlike the Phoebe Ryan collab “All We Know,” this new “Setting Fires” diverges enough from the “Closer” formula to distinguish itself as a possible hit. It’s the first Chainsmokers single all year to not sound like a surefire hit, though.

Little Mix – “F.U.”
This Little Mix album is shaping up to be an epic kiss-off to asshole boyfriends everywhere. Looking forward to it!

Lukas Graham – “You’re Not There”
This is the most relatable, least annoying Lukas Graham song I’ve heard: a paean to a loved one who died before he found success.

Kiiara – “dopemang” (Feat. Ashley All Day)
So Kiiara is our new Iggy Azalea?


  • Katy Perry taped a segment to air during Stephen Colbert’s election night special on Showtime, but once it appeared Trump was gonna win, the piece was cut. [Billboard]
  • John Legend shared the cover of his new album Darkness And Light, which is out 12/2 and features Chance The Rapper, Miguel, and Brittany Howard. [Twitter]
  • Post Malone’s Stoney is out 12/9. [Instagram]
  • Michael Bublé revealed that his 3-year-old son has been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment. [Us]
  • Gigi Hadid and Jay Pharaoh will host the 2016 American Music Awards on 11/20. [ET]
  • Justin Bieber was watching the Raptors game at a Toronto bar on Friday night when he was inspired to sit at the piano and play five songs. [TMZ]
  • Destiny’s Child reunited to film a #MannequinChallenge video. [The Fader]
  • Garth Brooks will join The Voice as an adviser next week. [Taste Of Country]
  • Rihanna began filming her Ocean’s Eight role on set in NYC. [Vulture]


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