The Week In Pop

The 2020 State Of Pop Address

The #1 song in America this week was released more than 25 years ago. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is often deemed the most recent tune to become a holiday standard, but for reasons mostly related to business, technology, and Billboard chart rules, it was not a Hot 100 hit upon release in 1994. A lot has changed since then — business, technology, and Billboard chart rules included — allowing Carey’s Christmas classic to emerge as, in the words of chart expert Chris Molanphy, “a smash waiting for the metrics to catch up.”

It’s entirely appropriate that we ended the 2010s, a decade that broke our sense of time, with a quarter-century-old Christmas song atop the singles chart for the third straight week. The track sounds entirely anachronistic in the context of modern music, but its ascent says a lot about where pop stands now, a subject we once again return to as I begin a new year of this column. Every year since 2016, I’ve started off January by posting my State Of Pop Address, a snapshot of mainstream pop music’s big picture as the calendar turns. The time has come to do it again — but first, my usual disclaimer.

“Pop” means many different things to many different people, but as usual here I’m defining it as the music that becomes massively, statistically, unavoidably popular (particularly in the United States) and the artists that aim for that kind of ubiquity. Maybe they do so by appealing to certain ideas about what constitutes pop music — gargantuan hooks, quotable lyrics, beats that inspire involuntary body motion, characteristics loosely understood to be accessible and attention-grabbing — but for our purposes, pop is less a musical style than a container for understanding the dominant sounds of the moment. Really, it’s a series of containers, among them the Hot 100, the various factors that feed into it (streaming, radio, and track sales), and whatever other delivery systems have come to define people’s experience of widely beloved music.

Despite the best measurement efforts of Billboard and others, there’s no single prism you can peer into to understand what constitutes pop right now. How do billions of track streams compare to hundreds of thousands of album sales? Can a song more assuredly claim cultural saturation by hitting #1 on the iTunes sales chart or by appearing in countless endlessly looped TikTok memes? Could one hastily assembled essay hope to communicate the full breadth of popular music at the dawn of 2020? Let’s start peeling this onion and see if we can get to the center without crying.

As you may have heard, we are entering not just a new year but a new decade. Understanding how much the consumption, promotion, and discussion of music changed over the past 10 years is essential to understanding what pop currently is and how it currently works. Which brings us back to “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” So much of the infrastructure that allowed Carey’s carol to hit #1, the infrastructure that drives pop music as we now know it, did not exist 10 years ago. Flash back to this day in 2010: You couldn’t yet view images and video clips on Twitter. Instagram was still months away from launching. Spotify wouldn’t come to the US for more than a year, and Beats Music — the platform that later became Apple Music — wouldn’t begin development for another year after that. The TikTok precursor Musical.ly was four years off, TikTok itself six years away.

It’s easy to forget how recently streaming became a dominant force in music distribution and social media became a foundational element of society. Along with evolving Billboard standards about what songs can be included on the Hot 100 (at this point basically anything goes) and where stats on those songs can be collected (YouTube playcounts were a game-changer), streaming and social platforms played a central role in the development of pop in the 2010s. So many of the hits that defined the sound of pop this past year probably would not have happened without these changes.

The biggest, of course, was “Old Town Road.” In the finale of his great essay series tracing the narrative of the decade year by year, Billboard’s Andrew Unterberger explained how the viral mega-hit exemplified what pop in this past decade was about and where it’s going: “The world of popular music at the end of the 2010s is a wildly unpredictable one, where new stars are minted overnight and old ones can return at full strength seemingly at a moment’s notice, where genre’s overall collapse makes radio playlists and Grammy ballots close to impossible to properly fill out, and where the future of the genre seems to mostly be in the hands of a bunch of kids.”

Lil Nas X’s country-rap novelty was a stroke of genius on many levels. He leveraged the modern attention economy beautifully: promoting “Old Town Road” through his well-followed meme accounts, positioning it to circulate in user-made TikTok videos, weaponizing the outrage over Billboard’s decision to exclude it from the country charts, releasing remix after remix to further expand the song’s already massive cultural bootprint. We also cannot discount the song’s power as a musical giddiness agent, its ability to capture children’s attention and turn grownups back into kids, too. And amidst so much music reflecting the confusion and despair of the times, listeners were in the market for a lark whether they realized it or not. Cloudy vibes continued to proliferate in 2019, but “Old Town Road” was one of several tunes that hit like sunlight breaking through.

Anyway, yes: “Old Town Road” is a great song, but its success only stems partially from that lightning-in-a-bottle joyous absurdity. Lil Nas X also understood that in our modern social media environment, fame is the dominant currency, often as measured in likes, shares, and retweets. He knew that streaming has enabled young people who once depended on allowance money for their music to impact the charts like never before (see also: certified Hot 100 hit “Baby Shark”). He figured out a way to distill the essence of a meme into two minutes of contagiously goofy music, and its popularity was so enduring that it became the longest-running #1 hit in Hot 100 history — surpassing none other than Mariah Carey and blocking brand-name stars like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Justin Bieber from #1. (Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello too, though their “Señorita” eventually rebounded to grab the crown after Lil Nas X’s reign finally ended.)

The artist who ultimately did dethrone “Old Town Road,” after 19 weeks encompassing most of spring and summer, is one of the figures who best represents pop as it sounds now. Billie Eilish’s sparse, bass-powered, profoundly weird “bad guy” — a playful club track that bottoms out into lurching gothic trap music — spent many weeks at #2 behind Lil Nas X’s supernova smash before finally edging it out to become her first chart-topper. By that point Eilish’s debut album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? had been lingering in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 albums chart since about the same time “Old Town Run” began its run at #1. Thanks to persistent streaming, it’s still in the top 10 most weeks, a full nine months after its release.

The eminent critic Craig Jenkins called Eilish’s debut “the odd post-Reputation pop album that seems versatile and post-genre by sheer function of taste and creativity rather than record company edict.” It was the work of two siblings (Eilish and her brother/producer Finneas) who had internalized many of the trends that dominated the internet mainstream this past decade. Eilish’s music crystallized the influence of several artists who became icons in the 2010s from inside the industry but mostly outside the boundaries of Top 40 radio: the swooning Instagram-ready drama of Lana Del Rey, the sleek synthetic minimalism of Lorde, the stylish hip-hop provocations of Tyler, The Creator, the genre-hopping unorthodoxy of the late XXXTentacion (a troubling and massively popular lightning rod who Eilish counted as a personal friend).

And of course there remained the impact of Kanye West, who continued to cast a long shadow in the 2010s even as he transitioned from unstoppable hit-maker to the world’s most famous cult musician (and then, last year, the world’s most famous Christian musician). If Kanye’s noise-bombed, leather-clad art freakout Yeezus loomed over Eilish’s work — and in so much of the music these days that speckles its high-fashion darkness with outbursts of charming quirk — his ever-more-influential 808s & Heartbreak may have finally found the endpoint of its lineage with Post Malone. In the wake of 808s, the 2010s became a decade of sad rappers singing in Auto-Tune about their broken hearts, a new kind of blues that culminated in Post Malone ruling rap while hardly even sounding like a rapper. In 2019 he scored a slew of monstrous hits that transmuted hip-hop into something more like easy-listening classic rock, among them “Sunflower,” “Goodbyes,” and “Circles.”

Tattoo-faced Austin Post may now be an even more surefire hit-maker than Drake, the artist who steered rap in this direction and who arguably spent the entire 2010s as the genre’s center of gravity. Like all of today’s dominant acts, Posty maintains a strong bastion of streaming support that keeps his albums in the top 10 for many months, last year’s Hollywood’s Bleeding included. It also helps that he has a foothold at both rap and Top 40 radio, a function of mixing so many ingredients into his stylistic stew. Eilish, too, gets spins in multiple formats. Thanks to the fluidity baked into her songs at an intuitive level, they fit in just as neatly at pop stations as at alternative stations, where “rock” is no longer always a necessary genre descriptor. Many of the acts who enjoyed a massive 2019 did so by becoming unclassifiable, or at least chameleonic: Ed Sheeran, Khalid, Halsey, Marshmello, Panic! At The Disco, and so on.

This was just as true in the percolating scenes that sometimes bubble over into the pop mainstream. Rap saw the ascent of hardscrabble old-school spitters like DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion, but also teenage Auto-Tuned mewlers like Lil Tecca and Lil Tjay and post-genre phenoms like the late Juice WRLD. R&B embraced modern spins on classic stylings via Summer Walker and Ari Lennox. Country had its line-walkers like Luke Combs and its subtle innovators like Maren Morris. Urbano boasted genre-agnostic weirdos like Bad Bunny and J Balvin and the talented interloper Rosalía. The K-pop scene continues to barrage listeners with endless genre combinations from BTS and BLACKPINK on down.

And then there’s Lizzo, who has turned rap into pop in a manner distinctly different from what Post Malone does. Aesthetically, she aligns a constellation of prior pop, soul, hip-hop, and R&B stars into a brash, colorful presence that proved to have wide appeal last year; others saw it as proof that the bright retro pastiche of Iggy Azalea, Macklemore, and Meghan Trainor persisted even in the age of depression-pop. Thematically, she has become an avatar for the empowered feminism that evolved this past decade in parallel to — and sometimes in direct opposition to — the ruling myopic sing-song sadboy rap. She was primed to step into this role in 2019 from the very beginning, with “Juice” dropping the very first week of the year and a vibrant if somewhat cartoonish Cuz I Love You following in the spring.

The album was a critical and commercial success, but it was overshadowed by a pair of songs Lizzo released years earlier, which began circulating online as her star rose and took on a viral momentum no marketing campaign could have summoned out of thin air. Like “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” the #1 powerhouse “Truth Hurts” (from 2017) and subsequent hit “Good As Hell” (from 2016) showed how unmoored the pop charts have become from time itself, to say nothing of genre constraints. Lizzo came up rapping in Minnesota’s underground scene, and even in her current, more commercialized form, she continues to confound attempts to define her sound. The question of whether she’s a singer or rapper remains pervasive and contentious.

There are still artists thriving by making music that fits more neatly within more established boundaries — Ariana Grande, for instance, is a recognizable archetype, a rap-adjacent dance and R&B diva in lineage with the likes of Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. But if Grande is an old-school pop star in some capacities, she’s also playing by the streaming era’s new rules, eschewing the standard album cycles and promo campaigns and pointedly mimicking a more erratic strategy popularized by rappers. In 2019 that meant following up 2018’s masterful Sweetener less than six months later with thank u, next then trickling out even more singles as 2019 rolled along. Adapting to the rhythms of the times helped Grande and other pop stars to have huge streaming years in 2019, marking a retrenchment of pop atop a Hot 100 that had been increasingly ruled by hip-hop in the late 2010s.

At least one factor behind pop’s resurgence as a statistical winner is somewhat unsettling: The rise of the stan. Every successful musician claims a large, devoted fan base, but in the social media era these fan communities have mobilized in increasingly radical ways. Sometimes that means rallying their fellow fans to play their fave’s latest single or album on repeat, a process that certainly contributed to Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez debuting songs at #1 this year. Sometimes it meant ganging up to harass anyone who dared incur the wrath of their king or queen. As Slate’s Jack Hamilton pointed out, it’s not dissimilar from the blind loyalty exhibited by fans of the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, who have become, to quote an oft-cited Alex Pappademas essay, “a volunteer army of PR freelancers for the biggest media companies in the world.” When trying to understand pop in 2020, discount stan activity at your peril.

Carl Wilson began that same Slate Music Club discussion by wondering whether some of the world’s biggest pop artists were afraid to release new music in 2019 and thus risk the potential of flopping within the context of pop’s new world order. Some of music’s biggest names did come out to play, foremost among them Taylor Swift (who continues to enjoy long-tail success even when her singles drop out of the top 10) and her former beau Harry Styles (our latest reminder that you can be a gigantic pop star without sending hits to the top 10 at all). Some had successful years despite sticking to one-offs (Drake) or projects that seemed like something in between proper albums (Beyoncé). But some of the ones who I figured might rule 2019 never really got around to it.

Bieber, who has remained a steady hit-maker between projects and landed two more collabs in the top 10 last year, appears finally ready to roll out his Purpose follow-up; its lead single “Yummy” is out tonight, and both a docuseries and stadium tour are on deck. After what feels like infinite teasing, it feels like Rihanna might actually release her long-awaited R9 this year. Adele moves at her own pace, but her 30 seems imminent too. Whenever they do return, we can be sure an army of wild-eyed zealots will be there on Twitter to bolster their rollouts and shout down all dissenters.

As for the rest of what’s on the horizon, we can spend quite a while listing off established names who’ll drop albums soon (Halsey, the Weeknd, Dua Lipa, Selena Gomez, Kesha) or who’ve been reportedly hard at work (Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Lorde). What we don’t know yet is who’ll shoot up out of nowhere to challenge their assumed supremacy. It could be someone who’s spent years building up a following like Eilish and Lizzo did. It could be a fresh face like Arizona Zervas, the unknown sing-rapper who scored a surprise hit with “Roxanne.” It could be an artist most of us haven’t even heard of yet — the next Lil Nas X waiting in the wings. But one thing’s for certain: By December, it will probably be a Mariah Carey song from 1994 again.

CREDIT: Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images

CHART WATCH

During this column’s hiatus, Harry Styles’ Fine Line recorded a massive debut week. The sophomore LP tallied 478,000 equivalent album units and 393,000 in sales, good for the third-largest album debut of 2019 and the best sales week by a British male solo artist since the dawn of the SoundScan era in 1991. Although its numbers have declined significantly this week, Fine Line’s 89,000 units are strong enough to remain #1 for a second frame.

After Michael Buble’s Christmas at #2 comes Roddy Ricch’s Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial, which debuted at #1 two weeks ago, at #3. Then it’s Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas at #4 followed by Billie Eilish and Post Malone at #5 and #6. The rest of the top 10: The Best Of Pentatonix Christmas at #7, Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song at #8, the Frozen II soundtrack at #9, and Young Thug’s So Much Fun at #10.

Atop the Hot 100, as you know, is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” for a third straight week. But did you know Christmas songs are also at #2 (Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”), #3 (Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock”), and #4 (Burl Ives’ “A Holly Jolly Christmas”)? According to Billboard, it’s the first time the top four slots on the chart have all been occupied by yuletide fare, and for all four artists the placements represent career bests (though in Carey’s case she’s been to #1 18 times before).

After Post Malone’s “Circles” at #5 and Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne” at #6 comes yet another Christmas song, Andy Williams’ “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” at #7 — five Christmas songs in the top 10 is also a first — with Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved,” Maroon 5’s “Memories,” and Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” rounding out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Dua Lipa – “Future Nostalgia”
More like FutureSex/LoveSounds nostalgia! Not that I’m complaining.

Hayley Kiyoko – “Runaway”
I will say this for Hayley Kiyoko: Every one of her songs impresses me on a fundamental melodic/harmonic level, and they all have their own surprising way of grabbing my attention. In this case that entails aggressive drums and shouting transposed into a fundamentally gentle bit of computerized pop.

Meghan Trainor – “Evil Twin”
So you’re telling me the Meghan Trainor we’ve had since 2014 is the good twin?

Hailee Steinfeld – “Wrong Direction”
I love the subtle intensity and busyness woven into what’s essentially a maudlin piano ballad. In other news, has anyone watched Dickinson? Is it worth checking out?

Alan Walker & Ava Max – “Alone Pt. II”
The trouble with releasing a song as catchy as “Sweet But Psycho” is that any hook less indelible seems weak by default.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Taylor Swift explains how she wrote “Lover” in NYTimes.com’s latest Diary Of A Song. [NYT]
  • Post Malone closed out 2019 with a new face tattoo. [Instagram]
  • Justin Timberlake filmed a video with Meek Mill. [Instagram]
  • Kanye West and Kim Kardashian gave North a jacket owned by Michael Jackson for Christmas. [Page Six]
  • Blueface was criticized for humiliating the less fortunate by throwing handfuls of cash at homeless people on skid row. [Newsweek]
  • DaBaby was arrested after a concert in North Carolina and cited with possession of marijuana. [USA Today]
  • Pharrell’s house was the target of a bogus swatting call over the holidays. [TMZ]
  • Finneas covered Imogen Heap’s “Hide And Seek” for SiriusXM. [YouTube]
  • Megan Thee Stallion and Normani will join forces on “Diamonds” from the Birds Of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn soundtrack. [The Fader]
  • Kali Uchis released a video for “Solita.” [YouTube]
  • Fast & Furious 9 will unveil its trailer in Miami 1/31 with a concert featuring Cardi B, Wiz Khalifa, Charlie Puth, Ozuna, and Ludacris. [Twitter]
  • Puth, Josh Peck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Zach Braff joined James Corden to form Hanukkah boy band Boyz II Menorah on The Late Late Show. [YouTube]
  • Ed Sheeran released a video for “Put It All On Me.” [YouTube]
  • Foster The People’s Mark Foster got married. [Instagram]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME