The Week In Pop

The Path To A Hit Single Is Changing — Just Ask Miley Cyrus & Demi Lovato

Do you remember “Party In The U.S.A.”? Ha ha, funny question, right? How could you forget it? It was everywhere. There was no escaping it.

Ditto “Wrecking Ball” and “We Can’t Stop.” All three of those singles were massive hits for Miley Cyrus, songs she’d be a jerk to omit from her setlists on tour, the selections from her catalog most likely to unite a karaoke room. They are part of our shared cultural history. They are monoculture.

“Malibu” is not. The lead single from Cyrus’ new album Younger Now, out tomorrow, charted respectably on Billboard’s Hot 100, peaking at #10 this past spring. That’s not as impressive as “Wrecking Ball” (#1), “We Can’t Stop” (#2), or “Party In The U.S.A.” (#2), but it’s not nothing. I mean, according to Billboard’s metrics, only nine songs were more popular that week. Yet “Malibu” never got any higher than #27 on the Radio Songs chart, which tracks airplay across all formats. By comparison, it debuted at #7 on Spotify’s US singles chart in mid-May and spent the next couple months in decline. The data suggests that Cyrus got a lot of streams out of the gate — as lead singles from a major star’s new album are wont to do — but couldn’t establish any kind of long-term foothold. By Miley Cyrus standards, “Malibu” was a flop.

The other advance tracks from Younger Now have performed even worse. “Inspired” did not crack the Hot 100. “Younger Now” peaked at #79, even after Cyrus performed it at the VMAs. Last week’s “Week Without You” was DOA. Chalk up the tepid response to equally tepid songwriting; where are the hooks, the beats, the personality, or any distinguishing characteristics beyond some vague nod toward Cyrus’ Nashville roots? Or maybe the public just isn’t interested in Cyrus’ latest reboot, an exercise in straitlaced, mildly twangy pop-rock that pointedly rejects the hip-hop and weirdo-psych cosplay of her Bangerz and Dead Petz eras (along with, apparently, her fondness for the letter z).

In other words, we get a Miley Cyrus with all the old obliviousness but none of the fun. These singles mark Younger Now as a remarkably inert and unexciting pivot from a performer who has long been one of pop’s wildest iconoclasts. Given that they’re arriving less than a year after Donald Trump won the White House by appealing to “real” (read: white) Americans, it’s possible to interpret them as a cynical play for the same crowd who put him there, even if Cyrus’ politics are at odds with the president’s. Or maybe she just needed tunes that would connect with her viewership on The Voice; same diff, probably? As a route to the kind of cultural saturation Cyrus is accustomed to, it hasn’t worked.

Cyrus isn’t alone among pop superstars in her struggle to regain the radio foothold she once enjoyed. Katy Perry’s comeback single “Chained To The Rhythm” debuted at #4 due to heavy interest before rapidly plummeting, and none of her other Witness singles came anywhere near the top 10 — which, again, represents a massive falloff for an artist who typically lands multiple #1 singles on each album. If Witness is remembered at all in the annals of pop history, it will likely be for its awkward rollout rather than any one song. A number of other figures who were radio mainstays around the time Cyrus dropped Bangerz have been similarly absent from the pop airwaves even though they dropped new albums this year, from Lorde and Paramore to Calvin Harris and Macklemore. Some of these LPs have been #1 debuts on the albums chart, but in conjunction with singles that barely seem to exist outside streaming platforms, it makes me wonder how far outside their core fan bases any of these acts are reaching anymore.

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Demi Lovato, who also has a new album out tomorrow, never matched the ubiquity her fellow Disney Channel refugee Cyrus achieved with her biggest hits. Lovato’s best-charting singles, “Heart Attack” and “Skyscraper,” topped out at #10, same as “Malibu,” which means her greatest successes performed about as well as a mild Cyrus flop. She hasn’t failed to build a successful career — don’t @ me, Lovatics — she’s just operating on a slightly lower tier of exposure. Put her on par with Pink: She’s always out there doing her thing, making semi-generic hits, playing to her base, yet the general public would squint and cock their heads sideways if she won an award usually reserved for icons.

Partially that’s because Lovato hasn’t played the pop-star game to its fullest extent. For decades, A-list pop artists have largely felt the need to reinvent themselves with each album, following the lead carved out by Madonna, David Bowie, and Michael Jackson. Lately the trend has been larger-than-life figures rebranding as rootsy, down-to-earth characters giving up plasticine pop in favor of quote-unquote authentic music. Cyrus tried it, Kesha tried it, and last year Lady Gaga tried it, too, as documented in her new Netflix documentary. Lovato switches up her look and sound to an extent, but she forgoes Madonna-grade metamorphosis and mostly just puts her gargantuan voice to work wailing away over of-the-moment production. The approach tends to produce a few truly enjoyable singles and a bunch of competent filler, which is what has happened again with Lovato’s new Tell Me You Love Me.

“Sorry Not Sorry,” for instance, is straight fire. Built upon a gospel piano foundation and infused with a pop-minded hip-hop undercurrent, the song is an exceptional showcase for Lovato’s churchy powerhouse vocals. “Now I’m out here lookin’ like revenge, feelin’ like a 10, the best I ever been,” Lovato sings, and for three and a half minutes it’s hard to disagree with her assessment. And although the album is as front-loaded as we’ve come to expect from Lovato, that front half does have a few more winners: especially the streak of “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore,” a passionate slow jam about the absence of passion, into the shimmering electro-pop track “Daddy Issues,” into the slinky slow-creeper “Let’s Ruin The Friendship.”

Still, “Sorry Not Sorry” is up front for a reason. It’s the sort of ridiculously catchy but not particularly revolutionary single Lovato tends to record, the kind that usually gets decent pop radio burn and maybe scrapes the lower reaches of the Hot 100 top 10. Except, despite its #13 peak on the Hot 100, the song has not really caught on at FM stations; it topped out at #29 on the Radio Songs chart. Just like “Malibu,” any true chart success “Sorry Not Sorry” has enjoyed has been largely powered by streaming. It’s been lingering between #9 and #12 on Spotify’s US singles chart for months, hanging around the chart’s upper reaches far longer than “Malibu” or “Chained To The Rhythm” or almost anything her oft-transforming peers have unleashed this year, with some key exceptions. If nothing else, it is a lesson in the value of consistency over playing the chameleon game.

Ultimately, both pop’s endlessly rebranding hares and its old reliable tortoises are struggling to make hits like they used to. A cursory scan of the charts — Billboard, iTunes, Spotify, Shazam, YouTube, whatever — reveals a more democratic pop landscape. The industry machine cannot create hits out of thin air anymore — or at least the methods of engineering such success have changed dramatically. Radio, still capable of launching a song into the cultural consciousness, takes a lot of cues from streaming success, according to a 2015 Billboard report about how payola influences curated playlists on streaming services. This Watt feature suggests there are entire playlists controlled by the labels themselves but sneakily disguised to look like the ones handled by Spotify’s staff. And even the playlists actually programmed by Spotify, like the much-ballyhooed RapCaviar, are subject to heavy lobbying. As for radio, this week’s chart depicts a field dominated by white male singer-songwriters plus a smattering of crossover hip-hop and EDM-lite, with programmers leaning into lowest-common-denominator blandness.

Yet there is a sense that we’ve entered a wild frontier in which genuine grassroots success is much more attainable and people’s compulsive listening habits wield real power. Look at the year’s longest-reigning #1 hit, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” which was rocketing up the charts even before Justin Bieber hopped on the remix. Look at all the rap songs riding viral success to the top of the charts. Look at the influx of new genre-benders crowding the top of today’s Spotify rankings: Names like Post Malone, Cardi B, Khalid, 21 Savage, and Lil Uzi Vert represent not just a new evolutionary step in hip-hop and R&B but a new generation of pop stars ruling the music industry right alongside (and often above) established hit-makers like Taylor Swift and Sam Smith. There is an overhaul happening in the monoculture, one that is not exactly putting figures like Cyrus and Lovato out of business but is relegating them to their own narrow silos, nudging them just beyond the reach of a pop hit in its truest form: the song everybody knows.

CHART WATCH

Cardi B scores a momentous victory on the Hot 100 singles chart, becoming the first female rapper to land a #1 single with no featured guests since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in 1998 thanks to her smash hit “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” rising to #1. According to Billboard, they’re the only two women to accomplish that feat, and only three others have hit #1 as part of a package deal: Lil’ Kim on the 2001 pop posse cut “Lady Marmalade,” Shawnna on Ludacris’ late-2003 chart-topper “Stand Up,” and Iggy Azalea with the Charli XCX collab “Fancy” in 2014. Cardi’s also the first woman to hit #1 unaccompanied since Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” in 2014.

“Bodak Yellow” dethrones Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” after three weeks on top. (Swift sent Cardi congratulatory flowers.) Actually, “Look What You Made Me Do” slides to #3 this week thanks to a massive #2 debut for Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar,” which instantly becomes the highest charting song for both artists and which set Apple Music’s record for most streams in a week. The arrival of “Rockstar” also bumps Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid’s “1-800-273-8255″ down to #4 and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s record-tying “Despacito” down to #5. After French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” at #6 and Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” at #7 comes a new #8 peak for Yo Gotti and Nicki Minaj’s “Rake It Up.” Charlie Puth’s “Attention” falls to #9, and at #10 just in time for autumn is Portugal. The Man’s surprise summer smash “Feel It Still.” It’s the indie band’s first top-10 hit, and along with “Believer” it’s one of only two top-10 hits this year — out of 55 — to appear on the Hot Rock Songs chart. (The other is the aforementioned “Believer.”)

Foo Fighters rule the Billboard 200 albums chart thanks to 127,000 equivalent album units and 120,000 in traditional sales for Concrete And Gold. Per Billboard it’s their second #1 album following 2011’s Wasting Light. Former #1 albums from Lil Uzi Vert, Thomas Rhett, and Kendrick Lamar follow at 2-3-4. Then it’s the controversial XXXTentacion at #5 with 17 followed by Khalid’s American Teen at #6.

South Korean boy band BTS have the week’s second biggest debut and the largest US sales week ever for a K-pop act as Love Yourself: Her enters at #7 with 31,000 units/18,000 sales. After Imagine Dragons at #8 comes country duo Big & Rich, debuting at #9 with 27,000 units/26,000 sales for Did It For The Party. Lastly, capitalizing on the excitement around “Rockstar,” Post Malone’s Stoney is back up to #10 this week.

POP FIVE

Fergie – “A Little Work”
Fergie’s new music video-as-short film is really something. It’s… a lot. Of something. I dunno. Just watch. Even better, save yourself 10 minutes.

Pink – “Beautiful Trauma”
This is unmistakably a Jack Antonoff collaboration, but I’m surprised to report that out of all his popular works it sounds most like Fun.’s Some Nights. Still got that Pink stink on it, though.

Walk The Moon – “One Foot”
In which the guys who brought you “Shut Up And Dance” embrace their destiny as the next Maroon 5 without abandoning the ‘80s nostalgia that made them.

Why Don’t We – “Turn It Off”
These guys are the best of the new wave of boy bands, and “Turn It Off” demonstrates their appeal pretty well: Well-written easy listening pop songs with tastefully minimal modern production. Looking forward to revisiting this subject soon…

Bhad Bhabie – “Hi Bich / Whachu Know”
I don’t know if I’m ready to declare “Cash Me Outside” girl a good rapper per se, but this is so much better and/or less obnoxious than what those superstar YouTubers are coming up with that I guess I consider myself pleasantly surprised?

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Jennifer Lopez donated $1 Million to the Puerto Rico relief effort in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. [NYT]
  • Pitbull sent his private plane to assist cancer patients stranded in Puerto Rico. [The Hill]
  • In addition to Migos and Ed Sheeran, the debut week of MTV’s TRL relaunch will feature visits from PRETTYMUCH, Noah Cyrus, Playboi Carti, Demi Lovato, and Lil Uzi Vert. [Billboard]
  • Mark Ronson is apparently in the studio with Christina Aguilera and Anderson .Paak. [Reddit]
  • Charli XCX, Julia Michaels, and other current pop stars talked to FADER about the 10th anniversary of Britney Spears’ Blackout. [FADER]
  • Niall Horan unveiled his Flicker album art and tracklist. [Direct Lyrics]
  • Kesha performed “Praying” on Ellen. [YouTube]
  • She also sang “Godzilla” with her mom in Nashville. [Music Mayhem]
  • Ed Sheeran announced a 2018 North American stadium tour. [Instagram]
  • Madonna demonstrated her MDNA facial on Jimmy Fallon. [YouTube]
  • Madonna also made her stand-up comedy debut with Amy Schumer at NYC’s Comedy Cellar. [Instagram]
  • Taylor Swift’s stalker has been deemed psychologically unfit to stand trial and was committed to a state psychiatric facility. [The Guardian]
  • Blake Shelton’s new album Texoma Shore is out 11/3. [Instagram]
  • Cardi B performed with G-Eazy on Fallon. [YouTube]
  • Meghan Trainor will executive produce and provide original music for ABC’s girl group drama Broken Record. [THR]
  • Harry Styles covered Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” for his Spotify Singles. [Spotify]
  • Maroon 5 released a video for “What Lovers Do,” their collab with SZA. [YouTube]
  • Jason Mraz will make his Broadway debut in Waitress. [Playbill]
  • Snakehips have teased a Sam Smith collab, possibly a “Too Good At Goodbyes” remix. [Instagram]
  • Noah Cyrus released a song with XXXTENTACION, which is not cool and we’re not linking to it.

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME