Music Notes is a Pi Arts & Culture column, curated by resident writers Livvie Hall and Martha Wright, focusing on a variety of subjects covering the past, present and future of music. In this article, Livvie documents the decline of pop music, and asks what’s behind it.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of ‘charts music’. Recently, I’ve started to wonder whether my ambivalence to the pop genre is no longer individual but reflects a wider youth trend. Pop doesn’t dominate today like it used to, and this poses a problem for a genre defined by its popularity.
Is pop less popular?
One reason for the demise of pop is competition. The rise of the hip-hop, grime and R&B genres has cast a shadow over pop music. The six biggest debut album sales of 2018 all came from rappers and DJ Louie XIV has even declared that “Hip Hop is Pop Music”. Perhaps we should start thinking of Drake as the model of a new type of ‘pop star’: not necessarily a showman like Prince, Freddie Mercury or the ‘King of Pop’, Michael Jackson, but just a chill guy (whose dancing is meme-worthy).
This shift in popular genres also correlates with a shift towards more socially-conscious music. In a youth culture that increasingly challenges prejudice and celebrates equality and diversity, progressive music is more popular than ever. Childish Gambino’s masterfully crafted ‘This is America’, protesting gun violence and racial prejudice, won Grammy’s for best record and best song last year. Hip-hop is simply more ‘woke’ and relevant than pop.
The decline of pop is also collateral of a wider rejection of commercialisation. Last year The X Factor, a pop reality TV show that used to captivate the nation, suffered its lowest ratings in fourteen years. The pop crisis reflects a general exhaustion with the mass-produced repetitive formula and a craving for authenticity. Taylor Swift recently wrote for Elle magazine that “we do not want pop to be generic”. The pop artists that thrive today have cult followings that interpret their music as unique, original and meaningful. Troye Sivan is a great example of this as a YouTube-born, LGBT+ champion of alt-pop.
Another recent change is that, unlike in the 90s and 00s, popular music is no longer dominated by the hetero male gaze. For example, ‘Blurred Lines’ has a great beat to dance to, but its lyrics are unacceptable in today’s #MeToo era – Students’ Union UCL even banned this song in 2013 (Editor’s note: The ban has recently been lifted.) Sex, especially through this chauvinistic lad culture lens, doesn’t sell as much as it used to. Instead, a social shift towards feminism has given rise to the ‘girl power’-branded hits of groups like Little Mix and Fifth Harmony. Kinzah Kahn’s article for Pi ‘The Dangers of #Feminism’ enlightens us to reconsider whether pop music has simply transitioned into a new type of commercialisation. Successful pop artists today have crafted an illusion of authenticity and commodified social movements to sell to an increasingly progressive music market.
Where are the pop stars?
In this changing climate, there is a new culture of ‘sink or swim’ for the old patrons of pop. Some artists spotted the oncoming pop crisis soon enough to adapt. Ed Sheeran has emphasized his small-town singer-songwriter roots, rejecting superficiality for authenticity in songs like ‘Castle on the Hill’. Shawn Mendes’ 2018 album similarly featured more acoustic-based heartfelt tracks such as ‘Like To Be You’, as well as a funkier, R&B style in ‘Lost in Japan’. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift has modified to a darker, dramatic sound in her latest electro-pop album ‘Reputation’. Her track ‘…Ready For It?’, in particular, reminds me of more alternative artists like Lorde and specifically Billie Eilish’s recent album release ‘WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?’. Clever inter-genre experimentation with R&B and consumable feminism in songs like ‘God Is A Woman’ have also allowed Ariana Grande to thrive as a pop artist in a hip-hop, ‘woke’ world.
Other 00s and 10s pop stars have been less successful. Justin Timberlake’s album, ‘Man of the Woods’, was released in 2018 to a wave of cringe and criticism. JT left it too late to adjust and this attempt to modernise his sound is just too forced. Queen Bee herself has also suffered in this pop crisis. Her collaborative hip-hop/pop album with Jay-Z ‘Everything is Love’ fell sadly on a silent audience. Surely something has gone wrong here! Beyonce has always sat between the pop and hip-hop genres and this new album beautifully crafts a message of black resilience, love and pride – so why hasn’t it been more successful? Even those artists like Ariana Grande, George Ezra and Years & Years who enjoyed hit singles over the last year, see far less dominance as ‘pop stars’ than should be expected from the trends of the 00s.
The ‘Spotify effect’
Ultimately, streaming is to be held accountable for what we may call the ‘post-pop era’. Streaming has greatly diversified our individual music catalogues through the immense range of music available. We are no longer confined to investment in a select few albums and the music preferences of radio hosts. The wealth of personalised and genre-specific playlists on streaming services like Spotify have exposed music listeners to so many new artists and styles that it is almost impossible for a few artists to dominate like they did in the 90s and 00s. Much like ‘fast fashion’, there is also a trend for ‘fast music’ today. On ‘Everything is Love’ Beyonce herself raps in backlash to ‘Spotify effect’ pressures:
“Patiently waiting for my demise
‘Cause my success can’t be quantified
If I gave two fucks, two fucks about streaming numbers
Would have put Lemonade up on Spotify”
Personally, I don’t think that the ‘Spotify effect’ is all bad. Finding our own individual music taste is so important and, thanks to streaming, we don’t listen to music like sheep anymore. Pop is definitely changing alongside a progressive, streaming society and I’m fascinated to see whether this is the start of its evolution or extinction.
If, like me, you are tired of generic pop music, then check out the ‘New pop’ playlist on Pi’s Spotify for my guide to the best, fresh pop tracks out there today.