Sales and chart success aren't the only signs of the times. Unlike past pop peaks like the one in 2000 -- when Britney Spears, 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys essentially ruled the world -- commercial triumph often results in critical acclaim as well.
Taking a huge leap toward abandoning its stodgy image, the Grammy Awards nominated Swift, Beyoncé and the Black Eyed Peas for album of the year in 2010, with Swift ultimately winning the prize for "Fearless," which was also the top-selling album of 2009.
The shift was even more obvious at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards in September, where Lady Gaga received a record-breaking 13 nominations and the only bands that performed were Florence & the Machine and Linkin Park, leaving many to wonder where all the rock acts had gone. Fast-forward to the American Music Awards in November, and Bieber scooped up four trophies, including artist of the year.
Come February, the 2011 Grammys will once again highlight pop, with album of the year nods going to Gaga and Katy Perry and the record and song of the year categories dominated by mainstream-leaning hip-hop. Bieber and pop-savvy rapper Drake are up for best new artist, and for the first time in his hit-laden career, producer/songwriter Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald is nominated, for producer and album of the year (for Perry's "Teenage Dream," which he executive-produced).
At one point this year, Gottwald helmed 40% of the Hot 100 top 10. "I'm really pleased and thankful," Gottwald says of the Grammy nods, "but I have the recognition from Billboard and that's not a matter of opinion -- that's just what it is, which is what I care mostly about."
Gottwald's stake in this kind of "recognition" -- which is to say, in music fans' listening habits -- suggests another reason why pop has been a bright spot in an otherwise sullen year for the music industry.
Suppose that the goal of any popular artist, songwriter or producer is to try and predict, and then harness, whatever the public wants to hear: the "bubble," as Black Eyed Peas leader Will.i.am prefers to call it. It makes sense, then, that at a time when the ears of music fans are ever more distracted, becoming and staying popular could be viewed not as a vain enterprise, but as a kind of artistic achievement in itself.
"Pop music is going to be totally different four years from now. It doesn't really have a sound," says Will.i.am, who began setting the current trend a year ago with his group's album "The E.N.D.," just as the act's Interscope labelmate Lady Gaga was doing the same with "The Fame."
"We were the only popular group at the time that was trying to blow a bubble, and we blew a pretty big one. But," he warns, "once you blow the bubble, the object is to keep it connected to your mouth so it gets bigger. You don't want it to pop -- it's just got to be popular."