The Week In Pop

The 2018 State Of Pop Address

“Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.” So saith Bono at the dawn of 1983, and he was right — to a point. Flipping the calendar doesn’t initiate any grand transition. The morning after the ball drops, life is right back where we left it. But in another sense, everything changes all the time. Organisms grow. Landscapes erode. Culture evolves. Something changes on New Year’s Day, microscopic though it may be. We may not be able to perceive them in the moment, but over time all those minute actions and reactions add up to metamorphosis. Just look at a picture of Bono from 35 years ago and then look at him now. Even better, compare the pop music ecosystem into which U2 released “New Year’s Day” with today’s stratum of interconnected scenes and behold the transformative power of time’s ceaseless march.

The last couple years, I’ve brought The Week In Pop back from winter break by taking stock of that evolutionary process as it pertains to music, presenting a snapshot of where pop’s mainstream stands now. Because of its proximity to the US president’s own Constitutionally mandated yearly check-in, I’ve taken to calling this exercise the State Of Pop Address. As explained in 2016 and 2017, assessing the state of pop is tricky, not just because pop is constantly in flux but because it’s so hard to find consensus about what constitutes pop in the first place. To repeat a relevant passage from the first of these columns, “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.”

For our purposes, pop is that which rises to the top — the culture-saturating, conversation-dominating music and musicians that become so pervasive they’re virtually impossible to ignore if you’re paying attention to modern pop culture — as well as the music and musicians that aspire to that sort of ubiquity. Although anything that’s blowing up at top-40 stations certainly qualifies, pop doesn’t necessarily have to thrive on these channels, which present a strictly controlled yet undeniably influential vision of the mainstream. Thanks to the advent of streaming, pop could just as easily constitute anything that is ruling Spotify on a given week. Pop is, after all, just an abbreviation for “popular,” which is why last year I wrote that pop is “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.” I’m aiming to share a bird’s-eye view of this sprawling, amorphous musical mass culture, not necessarily to cover every single last angle. So, once again, let’s do it.

Pop experienced a serious overhaul in 2017. Many of our reigning icons seemed to lose their footing, while a new generation of stars firmed up their own. Not that every household name faltered: Taylor Swift still had the bestselling album of the year with Reputation, and Spotify’s four most streamed artists of the year were Ed Sheeran, Drake, the Weeknd, and Kendrick Lamar (largely on the strength of their respective albums ÷, More Life, Starboy, and DAMN.). Ed Sheeran and Kendrick Lamar in particular had banner years, each scoring their first #1 single as a lead artist — “HUMBLE.” for Kendrick, “Shape Of You” and then “Perfect” for Sheeran — and remaining omnipresent forces throughout 2017.

The Weeknd and Bruno Mars also tacked on their latest #1 hits, and Justin Bieber found his way on to two chart-topping singles, including one that tied the record for most weeks on top. Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Coldplay also logged big hits with guest features in off-cycle years, and younger establishment figures like Sam Smith, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Shawn Mendes, Charlie Puth, and the Chainsmokers firmed up their place on pop’s A-list by consistently serving up conservative, traditionalist pop and soft rock sounds. Chameleonic veterans Maroon 5 and P!nk continued to demonstrate remarkable staying power via similar means. DJ Khaled expanded his empire. Sam Hunt shored up his status as country’s most marketable crossover star this side of the Florida Georgia Line.

Yet quite a few surefire hitmakers from earlier this decade bricked on the singles chart last year due to some combination of impotent songcraft and strategic retreat into album-artist status. Katy Perry saw her latest album’s lead single “Chained To The Rhythm” plummet out of the top 10 after listeners’ initial curiosity wore off, and the rest of her subsequent Witness tracks flopped even harder. Southern gals Miley Cyrus and Kesha followed Lady Gaga down the path of self-conscious rootsy quote-unquote authenticity — a dirt road Justin Timberlake seems to be treading with his upcoming Man Of The Woods — and like Gaga, both Cyrus and Kesha saw their radio potency significantly reduced compared to half a decade ago.

Paramore, one of the few rock bands with a strong foothold on pop radio, lost that foothold despite releasing one of the year’s best albums. Ditto Lorde: Melodrama was brilliant, but it failed to produce a genuine hit. Calvin Harris couldn’t crack the top 10 with anything off his all-star party record Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1. Although Drake’s “playlist” More Life was Apple Music’s most-streamed release of 2017, no one song on it approached the impact of “One Dance” and “Hotline Bling.” Kanye West, always the agitator, spent a rare year out of the public eye. Even Reputation, despite its blockbuster sales, has not been the monster hit machine we’ve come to expect from Swift; its one undisputed smash, the #1 “Look What You Made Me Do,” experienced a historically rapid cascade down Billboard’s Hot 100 after the initial hype wore off. These artists largely performed better on the album chart than in the singles realm, yet in that respect many of them seemed walled-off within their own fan bases, racking up streams among the faithful while failing to connect with the culture at large.

The dearth of ubiquitous anthems from those old favorites coincided with a new generation of pop royalty coming into focus, most of them informed by hip-hop to some extent. You can find some of them at the top of this year’s big festival posters in the form of genre agnostics like Halsey, Khalid, Post Malone, SZA, Travis Scott, and Lil Uzi Vert, and in the Grammys’ Best New Artist category, where Uzi and SZA and Khalid are up against newly minted top-40 staples Alessia Cara and Julia Michaels. The former members of One Direction pulled off one of the most successful boy band dispersals ever, with (wannabe Weeknd) Zayn Malik, (wannabe Sheeran) Niall Horan, and (wannabe Bieber) Liam Payne all scoring legit American radio hits and young classic rocker Harry Styles playing stadiums after delivering a truly impressive debut album. (Despite his best efforts, Louis Tomlinson is having better luck as a music festival analyst than a solo pop star so far.)

The changing of the guard had a lot to do with the re-centering of rap as a dominant force in pop, a phenomenon widely chalked up to the democratizing power of streaming. Rap’s undeniable supremacy on streaming platforms helped fuel a hip-hop invasion on Billboard’s Hot 100. Superstars like Migos, Rae Sremmurd, Chance The Rapper, Cardi B, 21 Savage, Post Malone, and (once again) Uzi logged their first #1 hits, some of them even crossing over to top-40 radio. Besides those #1s, the top 10 remained littered with rappers of many varieties, among them Future, Young Thug, G-Eazy, Kyle, Logic, Machine Gun Kelly, French Montana, Lil Pump, and Lil Yachty. Guest features enabled R&B young guns SZA, Khalid, and Bryson Tiller to worm their way into the pop radio universe. Even the latest influx of Latin pop in the English-speaking sphere, another symptom of streaming’s influence, was decidedly urban: Luis Fonsi teaming with reggaeton star Daddy Yankee on the inescapable “Despacito”; J Balvin and Beyoncé sing-rapping their way across Willy William’s body-moving “Mi Gente” beat in multiple languages; Camila Cabello and Young Thug drawing a line between Cuba and East Atlanta on “Havana.”

There’s no denying the way in which streaming has leveraged people of color toward the pop spotlight. It’s hard to imagine a Spanish-language smash like “Despacito” ruling the summer without widespread streaming support all but forcing radio stations to play it. It’s hard to imagine BTS storming American TV without producers seeing analytics revealing the K-pop superstars already had a huge stateside audience. It’s hard to imagine the Hot 100 breaking so emphatically from the traditionally white-catered sounds of top-40 radio without millions of black listeners streaming songs like “Bad And Boujee” and “Bodak Yellow” on repeat, gatekeepers be damned.

Pop radio, for its part, has responded by at least nominally diversifying. Driving around listening to my local iHeartRadio top-40 station last week, I heard ostensible rap, rock, country, and salsa tracks within an hour (Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar,” Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder,” 30 Seconds To Mars’ “Walk On Water,” Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be,” Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana”). Yet despite hailing from different genre galaxies, these songs sound deeply homogenous, as if all the genres were scrambling to meet in the middle. Craig Jenkins published a brilliant analysis of this false inclusivity at the end of last year, positing that this decade his finally found its defining sound via an inorganic mad rush to the middle: “It feels like market expansion by virtue of shrewd centrism, pop stars straining to prove that they can do everything everyone else can.”

This phenomenon, which I like to call the monogenre, is not new, but it has reached full bloom in the past year. Although this convergence seems intentional across the board, some artists pull it off with grace, presenting a sound that feels like a complicated person’s specific point of view — think of the Weeknd and Bruno Mars, impeccable stylists who’ve figured out how to straddle multiple radio formats without losing their distinct personalities. More often, though, this stuff comes off like craven laboratory work. Jenkins smartly summed up the situation by assessing the overlap between three recent hits, “What Lovers Do” by Maroon 5 and SZA, “Wolves” by Selena Gomez and Marshmello, and “Let Me Go” by the industry-plant Voltron that is Hailee Steinfeld, Alesso, Watt, and Florida Georgia Line:

The three songs feature two teen actresses turned pop starlets, two EDM producers, the most popular soft-rock/pop band of the millennium, an ascendant rap/pop producer and session player, a CMA-certified country vocal duo, and one of the biggest emerging voices in R&B. But the records sound like they could’ve come from the same album. All three songs mix mainstream “indie” flourishes — fluttering horns, folk-pop–indebted guitar licks — with fat synth lines played staccato or else broken up into choppy eighth and 16th notes, and drums that nod either to the hand claps and finger snaps of epochal post-millennial Cali rap hits like “Rack City” or southern trap beats. The mix comes out a little different each time — Hailee’s song sounds like a funeral procession breaking out into a trop-house second line, while Selena’s sounds like Mumford & Sons with drops — but the core ingredients are largely the same.

The disparate names attached to those particular songs reveal one cause of this sonic singularity: More and more often, pop artists are teaming up, Avengers-style, turning their singles into mammoth exercises in brand convergence. It makes business sense — with so many stars operating in silos and unable to break through to a truly universal audience, how better to pierce through the noise than by joining forces? It’s also another, subtler way rap traditions have been weaving their way back into pop; the posse cut was a hip-hop hallmark long before pop stars started ganging up.

Yet for all the different ways black culture is flexing its influence in the modern pop sphere, as ever, pop’s utilitarian middle remains caucasian. The singles that make their way into traditionally white spaces still mostly relegate black artists to a featured credit if they’re included at all. Note that Post Malone, G-Eazy, and Machine Gun Kelly have worked their way into heavy rotation as lead artists while Quavo, SZA, and 21 Savage only cross over as guests on songs that tend to gentrify black stylistic elements into snowblind oblivion. The week “HUMBLE.” hit #1 on the Hot 100, it didn’t even crack Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart, which tracks top-40 radio airplay. The same situation occurred with “Bad And Boujee” — you couldn’t escape it, except by tuning to a pop radio station.

The reason why these songs were excluded seems clear enough: They are proudly trunk-rattling rap songs that make no concessions to a white audience. Yet by virtue of their sheer ubiquity they were two of the most successful pop songs of the year. If pop stations are truly supposed to represent a snapshot of what’s popping at a given moment, those big Kendrick and Migos hits belonged on the airwaves. It will be interesting to see whether top-40 stations cave to these cultural currents and becomes indistinguishable from the Spotify charts this year or holds strong as a gated community ruled by Sheeran and Mendes and Horan and Puth and Levine.

In the meantime, Migos are hopping over that gate by hopping on every available pop song. Judging by today’s new single “All The Stars,” Kendrick and SZA have decided to bum-rush pop radio by releasing a song that plays by its rules, following in the footsteps of T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life” a decade ago. That these artists would pander so directly to pop radio demonstrates its continued reach even at this late date — or, considering the payday that probably comes from hopping on a Maroon 5 song, at least its continued profitability. The fact that such hurdles remain necessary at a time when genuine diversity is infusing the charts renders top-40 stations the final frontier for a truly representative vision of pop.

Not that streaming services are some kind of populist utopia. For all the talk about these platforms handing control over to the people, in other ways Spotify and Apple Music are reinforcing the music industry’s existing power structures. It’s true that streaming allows songs to catch fire in semi-grassroots fashion, but users have to find them first, and exposure on these platforms is far from organic. Writers such as Liz Pelly and David Turner have penned smart critiques of these services’ playlists, revealing that they’re increasingly beholden to the same major labels who’ve been leaning on radio programmers for decades. These companies are already learning to game the system the same way they’ve been gaming radio for years.

And anyhow, as we’ve seen with the rise of insufferable YouTubers and morally troubling SoundCloud rappers, the music that bubbles up democratically online is not always something to be excited about. Virality is not necessarily a virtue. And even after you set aside some of the more disturbing characters popping off these days, virality mostly equates to vapidity.

If pop’s sound is becoming blasé and in need of disruption, so is its subject matter. Almost without fail, the songs that ruled 2017 ignored the year’s dominant social and political themes in favor of zoned-out lifestyle music. Pop has always served an escapist function, but it has also been one of the more effective delivery methods for meaningful content. So at a time of extreme national turmoil, it was surprising not to hear a single protest song among 2017’s biggest hits (though bless her heart, at least Katy Perry tried). Nor were there any big singles addressing gun violence or the opioid crisis, unless you count Post Malone glamorizing drive-by shootings and “popping pillies.” Although pop stars aligned for a number of charity concerts in response to terrorism, hurricanes, and deadly racist demonstrations, the music itself mostly sidestepped weighty topics.

There were exceptions. Kesha faced down Dr. Luke on “Praying,” which took on deeper resonance as women began to out their abusers thanks to the knowledge that the world was finally listening. Proud bisexual Halsey lamented a doomed lesbian romance on “Bad At Love,” a rare glimpse of queer love in a mainstream landscape where the only affirmative references to gay culture tend to come in the form of straight folks expressing their approval, Macklemore-style. Amidst a growing mental health crisis, the triumvirate of Logic, Khalid, and Alessia Cara sang against suicide on “1-800-273-8255.” With the electrifying “Mi Gente,” J Balvin (and later Beyoncé) proved populism is not the sole province of white people. And by simply existing as a complicated, revolutionary figure at the nucleus of the mainstream, Kendrick Lamar continued to send shockwaves through pop culture. With any luck, there will be more like him among this new generation of pop stars, figures talented and magnetic enough to be the change they want to see.

CHART WATCH

During The Week In Pop’s two-week winter hiatus, Luke Bryan’s What Makes You Country and Eminem’s Revival both had #1 debuts, while Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé’s “Perfect” remained atop the Hot 100. Phonetically similar but aesthetically disparate rappers G-Eazy and Jeezy both had albums debut in the top 10 last week, too, and Mariah Carey’s 23-year-old “All I Want For Christmas Is You” surged to the Hot 100 top 10 for the first time. Migos also climbed into the top 10 with their Cardi B and Nicki Minaj collab “MotorSport,” which meant Cardi’s first three charting singles all cracked the top 10.

This week Cardi achieves something even more impressive: All three of those singles coexist in the top 10 simultaneously. She features alongside A$AP Rocky on G-Eazy’s “No Limit,” which rises to a new #4 high this week. “MotorSport,” which peaked at #6, is steady at #7. And former #1 “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves),” the song that cemented her superstardom, climbs back to #10. As our friends at Billboard covered earlier this week, only the Beatles and Ashanti managed to put their first three charting singles in the top 10 all at the same time, so congrats, Cardi! The big question now is whether she can put #14 “Bartier Cardi” featuring 21 Savage in the top 10 next week without pushing “Bodak Yellow” out. (Probably not, but if anyone can do it, it’s this woman.)

Some more from Billboard on Cardi’s statistical feat:

Cardi B is the first artist overall to chart three songs in the top 10 simultaneously since The Chainsmokers, who became the first duo to earn the distinction on the March 18, 2017-dated Hot 100. She’s the first woman to do so since both Iggy Azalea and Ariana Grande on Aug. 30, 2014.

Cardi B, Azalea, Grande, Adele and Ashanti are the only women with such a top-10 triple.

The only other acts to chart three Hot 100 top 10s simultaneously (dating to the chart’s Aug. 4, 1958, inception): Bee Gees, 50 Cent, Usher, Akon, T-Pain, Chris Brown, Lil Wayne and Justin Bieber (thus, making Cardi B the 15th act to join the club).

As for the rest of the top 10: “Perfect” remains at #1 for a fourth straight week, followed by Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” at #2 and Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana” at #3. Imagine Dragons are at #5 with “Thunder,” while Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” slides to #6. Sam Smith is at #8 with “Too Good At Goodbyes,” while Halsey’s #8-peaking “Bad At Love” is back up to #9.

Over on the Billboard 200, Taylor Swift’s Reputation has regained the #1 spot for a fourth nonconsecutive week with a very respectable 107,000 equivalent album units including 79,000 in traditional sales. (“Though Reputation is down in sales for the week, it still likely benefited from last-minute Christmas shopping, as the chart’s tracking week included the final three days before the Christmas holiday on Dec. 25,” Billboard writes.) Sheeran’s ÷ is back up to #2 with 92,000 units, likely also due to Christmas shopping plus the continued success of “Perfect.”

The week’s biggest album debut is Quavo and Travis Scott’s collaborative Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho, which accrued 90,000 units to enter at #3 and just barely fall short of #2. Eminem’s chart-topping Revival falls to #4 in its second week, and then at #5 with 77,000 units comes the soundtrack for the P.T. Barnum biopic The Greatest Showman, up from #63 last week thanks to the film’s theatrical release. The soundtrack includes music from actors including Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, and Zac Efron. The rest of the top 10 comprises Pentatonix, Sam Smith, G-Eazy, Kendrick Lamar, and Post Malone.

POP FIVE

Bruno Mars – “Finesse (Remix)” (Feat. Cardi B)
Just this week I was wondering if Mars would be pushing another single from 24K Magic, technically a 2016 release, in 2018. The album is basically hits front to back, so I am pleased to see he’s giving “Finesse” a spin. With the suddenly Midas-powered Cardi in tow and a throwback New Jack Swing sound that will play on pop and rap radio alike, don’t be surprised to see it climb to #1 this winter.

Kendrick Lamar & SZA – “All The Stars”
“All The Stars” is not Kendrick Lamar or SZA at their best, but it’s a pleasant victory lap after both artists’ remarkable 2017. Between Kendrick and SZA’s combined star power right now and the Black Panther tie-in and production geared to infiltrate pop radio, I could see it charting extremely high. If top-40 stations buy in, the chart race between this and “Finesse (Remix)” could be epic. I’m here for it.

Charlie Puth – “If You Leave Me Now” (Feat. Boyz II Men)
Congratulations to Boyz II Men for finding a way back into pop culture that doesn’t involve a Geico commercial.

Kesha – “This Is Me”
This, from the aforementioned The Greatest Showman soundtrack, has me worried Kesha is going all-in on the inspirational festival-core that was sprinkled throughout Rainbow. Her upcoming tour with Macklemore is doing nothing to assuage those fears.

Chloe x Halle – “The Kids Are Alright” & “Grown”
Beyoncé’s proteges are back with a pair of new songs that sound like latter-day Beyoncé in her festival-rock mode (think “XO” but with gang choruses). “The Kids Are Alright” is their single proper, while “Grown” is the theme song for Freeform’s new Black-ish spinoff Grown-ish, on which Chloe x Halle have a recurring role. I am curious about whether these songs would be received as conquering anthems if Beyoncé was the one singing them. They are certainly not terrible!

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • The NY Post suggests Taylor Swift’s Reputation Tour ticket sales are a disaster. [NY Post]
  • Swift and Future shot a video for “End Game” in Miami, but Ed Sheeran wasn’t there. [TMZ]
  • One more Swift tidbit: She sent snake-themed Christmas cards. [Twitter]
  • Rihanna’s cousin was killed in Barbados hours after they celebrated Christmas together. [Sky]
  • Cardi B addressed the leak of nude videos after her fiancé Offset’s iCloud was hacked: “You know there’s videos of me stripping with my titties & ass out on YouTube already right?” [Billboard]
  • People are mad at Luke Bryan for gifting his wife two baby kangaroos in diapers. [Daily Mail]
  • Zac Efron told the story of a tearful phone conversation he once had with Michael Jackson. [Vulture]
  • Ariana Grande shared vocals from a new song on New Year’s Eve. [EW]
  • Mariah Carey’s big New Year’s Eve redemption moment went off without a hitch. [Noisey]
  • Charlie Puth announced a tour with Hailee Steinfeld. [Twitter]
  • Sam Smith was interviewed by Sarah Jessica Parker for V. [V]
  • DJ Khaled is Weight Watchers’ new social media ambassador. [CNBC]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME: MAN OF THE WOODS EDITION