The 2021 State Of Pop Address
Pop music is whatever the people say it is. This has always been true to a point — pop is short for “popular,” after all, and consumer behavior has always factored heavily into the Billboard charts — but as we enter into 2021, pop feels more populist than ever. On the other hand, corporate interests continue to find ways to maintain their stranglehold on the musical mainstream, often by infiltrating the same platforms that could theoretically work as a democratizing force. Perhaps you’ve heard the one about how the more things change, the more they stay the same?
Every January, I start out a new year of my column The Week In Pop by surveying the state of pop music at large. It’s Jan. 4, 2021, and the time has come once again to deliver the State Of Pop Address. As usual, we must first draw some blurry boundaries around the concept of “pop.” The word can imply popularity, accessibility and/or catchiness, or even a particular radio format. Because culture is always evolving, pop is also a moving target. I’ve previously described it as a container, but even the container changes over time. Ten years ago, Spotify still hadn’t even launched in the US. Now it’s the establishment, and TikTok is the insurgent force redefining everything: a corporately owned, grassroots-powered medium the whole industry is attempting to co-opt, with its own norms and constellation of native stars. The rise of these platforms and others has helped to shape not just the business of pop music but also its sound, be it the chilled solitude of so-called “Spotify-core” or the new place of primacy TikTok has gifted to novelty hits.
It’s hard to understate the influence TikTok, the addictive short-form video app, has on pop music now. It is the natural culmination of the social media “challenges” that propelled songs like “Black Beatles” and “In My Feelings” to #1. When it works like industry players hope it works, one person will perform a silly dance to some random track, and then suddenly hundreds of thousands of people are doing the same dance to the same track, which in turn sends listeners scurrying to play the whole song on YouTube or Spotify, which may ultimately lead to more old-fashioned forms of exposure like radio airplay and TV appearances.
In 2019, it was novel to see the platform powering the success of hits like “Old Town Road” (a song directly promoted to TikTok as part of Lil Nas X’s savvy grassroots marketing campaign) and “Truth Hurts” (a years-old Lizzo song that seemed to go viral naturally after it appeared in a Netflix movie). In 2020, seemingly every breakout hit first found its feet on TikTok, from lo-fi hip-hop doofus Powfu’s beabadoobee-sampling “Death Bed” to country superstar Morgan Wallen’s “7 Summers” to a zany EDM remix of dancehall-informed rapper SAINt JHN’s “Roses.” With a vigor once reserved for radio programmers and then streaming service playlist curators, record labels are openly paying influencers on TikTok to expose their vast audiences to particular songs. The people are ultimately deciding what hits big on the platform, but the powerful are doing their damnedest to manipulate that process.
Sometimes it’s not a matter of record executives forking money over to someone like Charli D’Amelio behind the scenes. Sometimes the attempt to engineer TikTok virality happens out in the open. Drake, still one of music’s biggest stars and most reliable hit-makers, directly catered to the platform with “Toosie Slide,” a drowsily catchy #1 single named for a noteworthy dancer on TikTok. It’s hard to say whether that contributed to the track’s big debut; Drake is the rare artist who can land a single at #1 through sheer public interest. But ironically, within two months a different Drake song — “Nonstop,” a minor hit from 2018’s Scorpion — went viral on TikTok naturally thanks to a gag meme based around its opening lyric “I just flipped the switch.” It didn’t surge all the way back to the top 10, but suddenly “Nonstop” was back on the streaming services’ top rap playlists alongside much more current hits.
Speaking of Drake, here’s one example of how formerly revolutionary methods are now the norm: In 2015, it was noteworthy and innovative that his “Hotline Bling” was explicitly designed to be harvested for GIFs and memes. By the time his “Laugh Now, Cry Later” video arrived last August, it was a given that the footage would include an abundance of images crafted to circulate on social media, shots like Drake performatively weeping or dramatically lifting his head out of the water. Such was the cumulative effect of YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. But a heavily memed video like “Laugh Now, Cry Later” is positively quaint coming more than a year after “Old Town Road,” which skipped past the step of inspiring memes by arriving as a fully formed meme unto itself. (More recent examples include Mario Judah’s comically angry sing-rap song “Die Very Rough,” Salem Ilese’s “Mad At Disney,” and Trey Lewis’ scorned-lover country anthem “Dicked Down In Dallas,” all of which have since made headway on the Spotify and Billboard charts.)
So TikTok has become a powerful promotional tool and has even begun to pay out royalties to artists. But it does not yet directly impact the charts the way Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, and other streaming music services do, to say nothing of merch bundles and deluxe editions. Sales and streaming’s potential to power chart success have made them key battlegrounds for stans, the volunteer superfans who basically operate as free online promo teams for pop’s biggest stars. Stans, who often seem disturbingly obsessed with numerical validation for their faves, have coordinated campaigns to harass critics whose reviews have damaged an artist’s score on Metacritic. They can make a hashtag like #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trend in response to some rival star’s perceived offense. And they’ve been known to boost songs and albums to the top of the Billboard charts, only to see those same releases plummet once the stan campaign lets up.
In recent years, genuine hits with significant legs have often prevailed over stan-powered operations: Think of “Old Town Road” blocking singles by Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes, et al from #1 on the Hot 100, or of Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” preventing Justin Bieber from debuting on top despite Bieber encouraging his Beliebers to relentlessly #StreamYummy. But coordinated stan action can be effective in the short-term. The combined purchasing and streaming efforts of 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s fan bases helped “TROLLZ” to debut at #1 before dropping all the way to #34 in its second week. Minaj’s Barbz also nudged Doja Cat’s “Say So” — initially a TikTok sensation — to the top of the chart when Nicki hopped on the remix. Similarly, the BTS Army launched “Life Goes On” to a #1 debut and gave Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Laxed (Siren Beat)” its final push to #1 thanks to a remix featuring the K-pop heroes. (The year’s first BTS chart-topper, “Dynamite,” lasted more than a week at #1 and seemed to be buoyed by more than just stan enthusiasm.) Perhaps no one benefitted from feverish stans in 2020 more than Nike/PlayStation/Fortnite/McDonald’s pitchman Travis Scott, the king of hypebeast-friendly merch bundles, who debuted three singles at #1, none of which left much of a lasting imprint in pop culture.
Thanks to stans and streaming, the biggest stars in the world are more or less guaranteed to see songs post big debuts. The songs from both of Taylor Swift’s surprise albums last year that were paired with a music video each debuted at #1. Ariana Grande’s presence helped duets with Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber to enter the Hot 100 on top. The latter — a quarantine-themed novelty called “Stuck With U,” the sort of cutesy romantic schlock Bieber has honed in on as his personal brand — was bolstered by a sale on Amazon, which had 6ix9ine crying foul when “Stuck With U” thwarted his own bid for a flash chart-topper with “Gooba.” But these artists’ hit-making pedigree and cross-genre appeal also ensures that they benefit from general interest listening; the Weeknd’s “Heartless” quickly shot to #1 upon its release in late 2019 mainly because it was the big comeback single from the Weeknd.
In the latter part of the 2010s, there was a lot of focus about streaming services’ ability to turn a song into a hit with a key playlist placement and the outsized value of being featured on the front page of Spotify. One concern is that Spotify, which is owned in part by the major labels, has become a way for those labels to force-feed certain artists to the public (a concern that has been amplified by the platform’s recent decision to start overtly courting payola from independent artists). Spotify is undeniably powerful, but the existence of behemoth conglomerates like iHeartMedia and Entercom ensures that radio continues to wield major influence as well. The constraints imposed by radio programmers not only impact the sound of pop and the various genres that inform it; they also dictate which tracks have a better chance of crossing over to a general audience or climbing the Hot 100. Country radio continues to elevate down-home bros playing something like classic rock with the occasional trap beat; hip-hop radio prioritizes bluesy sing-rappers a la Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch, and Rod Wave; the ruling sound of alt-rock radio is not immediately recognizable as alt nor rock. For every game-changing figure who comes along and opens up a new lane — like, say, the late SoundCloud-bred emo-rapper Juice WRLD or the dark-hued trap-pop minimalist Billie Eilish — there are dozens of acts just trying to follow in their footsteps and operate within the established framework.
This is a story as old as pop music, but it continues to be relevant at a time when monolithic corporations continue to narrow the boundaries of radio. Thanks to corporate consolidation that has playlists across the country becoming homogenous and sometimes identical, big radio hits are increasingly planting themselves near the top of the charts for an alarmingly long time — especially songs that gain a foothold at multiple formats. Middling, genre-defiant easy listening tracks like Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You,” Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You,” and Post Malone’s “Circles” have logged historically long stints in the Hot 100 top 10 in recent years. In 2020, the Weeknd’s synth-powered ’80s pastiche “Blinding Lights” — a song built to thrive on Top 40 radio from a star grounded in the R&B and hip-hop milieu — spent months climbing to #1, where it spent four weeks. “Blinding Lights” went on to set the record for most weeks in the top 10, a record that extends to 43 this week.
Perhaps no song better illustrates the way pop works now than 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood,” which has been bouncing in and out of the #1 spot for several months and is currently back on top for a seventh nonconsecutive frame. The song followed that now-standard path from TikTok sensation to Spotify mainstay to radio, where it continued to flourish thanks to its lack of genre specificity. Ostensibly, 24kGoldn and Iann Dior are rappers, but they exist within a SoundCloud-rap lineage that has blurred the lines between rap, rock, and pop. As a result, “Mood” became the first song to top Billboard‘s Hot 100, Hot Alternative Songs, and Hot Rap Songs charts simultaneously. It’s the biggest of a few rock/rap/pop hybrids (see also: blackbear’s “Hot Girl Bummer” and the collected works of Post Malone and Juice WRLD) that suggest the catchall “monogenre” of the 2010s has evolved with the times.
SoundCloud-rap types were not the only ones bringing rock back as a mainstream proposition. Pop singers from Halsey to Rina Sawayama to Miley Cyrus also incorporated loud guitars into their music this year, as did urbano trendsetter Bad Bunny. Halsey’s collaborator Machine Gun Kelly had his biggest album ever by pivoting from rap to straight-up blink-182-style pop-punk. Halsey was among those toying around with Eilish’s wispy, dark-hued, post-Lana/Lorde/Tyler sound — a continuum ranging from known quantities like Selena Gomez to upstarts like Benee. Just weeks ago, the American boy band Why Don’t We released a new single built around a generous sample from Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979.” And industry-anointed bedroom-pop stars like Clairo and beabadoobee seem like they could make the leap to real-deal pop stardom at any moment.
So rock as we know it is not exactly resurgent, in the sense of the guitar-bass-drum archetype recognizable from the 20th century. More often it’s being hybridized with the ruling styles of the moment, incorporated as an accent piece in a range of new sounds. It’s easy to imagine rock’s quasi-comeback intersecting with both SoundCloud rap and the blown-out “hyperpop” style perpetuated by the likes of Charli XCX and 100 Gecs. (Behold Rico Nasty, one potential vision of pop’s future.) Maybe Africa’s pop scene — which has long been a source of inspiration and/or theft — will generate a crossover star in America to rival what BTS has been for K-pop and Bad Bunny for urbano. Or perhaps there’s some other trend percolating in the teenage realms, ready to send pop on an altogether different trajectory. It wasn’t so long ago that Migos and the Chainsmokers were the hottest thing going. We could turn the page at any moment.
And anyhow, the old modes of stardom aren’t exactly ready to die off. If anything, the upper reaches of the Hot 100 have lately reflected various shades of retro. Despite the pandemic closing down most clubs, disco, house, and other forms of throwback dance music were back in a big way thanks to artists ranging from Lady Gaga to Doja Cat to BTS. Leading that charge was Dua Lipa, who somehow continued her Future Nostalgia rollout all year long despite the limitations of lockdown. Even as the hip-hop mainstream continues to morph and cross-pollinate, an old-fashioned hardscrabble rapper like Megan Thee Stallion topped the chart twice in 2020, first when Beyoncé hopped on a remix of her hit “Savage” and later when she teamed up with Cardi B for the salacious “WAP.” Harry Styles did his best to reestablish ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s soft-rock as a Top 40 radio proposition. Taylor Swift scored one of the biggest albums of 2020 — and a second album that seems likely to thrive well into 2021 — by pivoting to singer-songwriter mode. As ever, many of the most refreshing sounds in pop right now are more like well-timed excavations of the past. It seems like Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr was on to something.
While this column was on Christmas break, Taylor Swift’s evermore spent two weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200. This week it’s down to #2 as Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red debuts atop the chart, becoming his first #1 album. Per Billboard, the long-awaited project tallied 100,000 equivalent album units but only 10,000 in actual sales. His previous chart peak was #3 with 2018’s Die Lit.
In its first full week of tracking, Lil Durk’s The Voice shoots up from #46 to #3. After posting 23,000 units in just one day of activity, the album added 66,000 more units in its second frame. The rest of the top 10 comprises Pop Smoke, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift (folklore this time), Megan Thee Stallion, Luke Combs, Bad Bunny, and Eminem.
Over on the Hot 100, 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” gets a seventh week at #1 as it climbs atop the chart for a fourth separate stint. Billboard says it ties Drake’s “Nice For What” as the only songs to have four separate runs at #1. “Mood” was the only non-Christmas song in the top 10 last week, when Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” returned to #1 for a fifth nonconsecutive week (thus surpassing “The Chipmunk Song” as the longest tenured holiday song in the #1 spot). “All I Want For Christmas Is You” falls to #9 this week, but don’t be surprised to see it back at #1 next Christmas.
Ariana Grande’s “Positions” is at #2. The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” is all the way back up to #3 in its record-extending 43rd week in the top 10. After “Holy” at #4 and “Dynamite” at #5 comes Chris Brown and Young Thug’s “Go Crazy” at a new #6 peak. “Laugh Now, Cry Later” is at #7, followed by “I Hope” at #8. Lastly, the DaBaby-assisted version of Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” rises to a new #10 peak, becoming her third top-10 hit and his fifth.
Ed Sheeran – “Afterglow”
Sheeran was due for a return to folksy singer-songwriter fare after the hyper-processed and overblown No.6 Collaborations Project, and it’s no surprise he’s adopted a distinct Bon Iver affectation here. (Don’t be misdirected by that Iron & Wine namecheck!) I don’t love it, but this is probably the best possible path for him right now.
Justin Bieber – “Anyone”
This is the least obnoxious, most stylish Bieber single in a minute, but in keeping with the bulk of his post-Purpose material, it’s still corny as hell.
Dixie D’Amelio – “Roommates”
Here we have a midtempo ballad sung by the sister of a TikTok influencer, cowritten by Demi Lovato, that sounds like a generic pop remix of “Fast Car” — one of those songs that is a lot more fun to think about than listen to.
Why Don’t We – “Slow Down”
Too amused at the “1979” sample to be mad about it. As someone who usually plays that riff within a minute of picking up a guitar, I’m just happy to hear it in any context.
Lauv – “2021”
I don’t mind the fake-Drake-deep-cut vibe here, but I still would have preferred a Vampire Weekend cover.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Harry Styles is reportedly dating Olivia Wilde. [TMZ]
- Ariana Grande got engaged to real estate agent Dalton Gomez. [People]
- The Sun apologized to Adele for writing that Chris Brown was at her house. [Twitter]
- Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, who recently had a political spat, are releasing solo projects but say they’re not breaking up. [Taste Of Country]
- Mike Will Made-It and Swae Lee survived a horrible car accident over the holiday. [The Source]
- Miley Cyrus revealed that she lost three records she had planned for an EP trilogy when her Malibu home was destroyed in the Woolsey wildfires. Her producer had backups, but she took it as a sign not to release them. [Billboard]
- Twenty One Pilots set a Guinness World Record for longest music video ever with a 177-day “Level Of Concern” livestream. [Twitter]
- Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish will appear in an iHeartMedia’s session at CES 2021. [PR Newswire]
- Cardi B settled the multi-million dollar lawsuit from her former manager. [All Hip Hop]
- Aly & AJ released a new, explicit version of their 2007 tune “Potential Breakup Song,” which was a hit on TikTok this year. [EW]
- Avril Lavigne hit the studio with Machine Gun Kelly and Mod Sun. [Instagram]
- Gwen Stefani contends with her past music video avatars in the “Let Me Reintroduce Myself” vid. [YouTube]
- The pro wrestler Booker T stars in Bad Bunny’s new “Booker T” video. [YouTube]
- Halsey launched a direct-to-consumer cosmetics brand called About-Face. [About-Face]