THEN AND NOW
Market saturation aside, there are some key differences between the Spears and boy band-led pop boom and this one. For starters, if you listen to top 40 radio but aren't into club music, you're basically out of luck. Bruno Mars, B.o.B, Eminem and Train were the only acts this year that enjoyed any kind of heavy top 40 radio rotation outside of dance-pop artists. As dominant as Spears, Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync were in 2000, most fans who listened to them were also hearing Blink-182, Limp Bizkit, Korn and shock-era Eminem on the same playlist, at least on MTV's all-important video countdown show, "TRL."
"It makes it difficult for other music to break through now," says RCA/Jive Label Group's Weiss, who cites Daughtry's "September" as a single that could've done well a few years ago but was simply not embraced by top 40 radio this year.
Of course, the radio landscape has become more consolidated, too. In the last two-and-a-half years, CBS Radio has flipped stations in New York (WXRK), Los Angeles (KAMP), Detroit (formerly WVMV, now WDZH) and Houston (formerly KHJZ, now KKHH) to the top 40 format, with an eye toward expanding its female audience. Meanwhile, there are 56 monitored alternative-chart reporters, down from 86 in January 2003, according to Nielsen BDS (Billboard, Oct. 23).
"I remember when [WXRK] was meaningful," Gottwald recalls, "but then it got too heavy with the guitars, and the dude's voice that kept saying, 'You're listening to K-Rock.' People started tuning out and stations started closing, and it's moved to pop and rhythmic. You can't lose the girls."
Artists also widely agree that while radio is still important for pop success, it's not the trendsetter that it once was. "The new bubble is all the collective clubs around the world," Will.i.am says. "Radio is just doing its best to keep up."
"My manager has a great baseball analogy," Train frontman Pat Monahan says. "He said that radio used to be the starting pitcher, and now it's the closer. You'd better have all your other stuff dialed in -- your online fan base, your touring -- if you think radio is going to come together."
As radio's role in pop culture has shifted and online music consumption has flourished, the boundaries between mainstream pop and other genres have grown far more fluid.
"There's an interesting blend right now between dance music, pop music and urban music," Justin Bieber's manager Scooter Braun says. "Back in 2000, when 'NSync did a song with Nelly ["Girlfriend"] it was like, 'Oh, my goodness.' But now, it wouldn't be such a huge surprise to see Justin do a song with Lil Wayne or David Guetta... it's a smaller world because of the Internet, and these musicians all appreciate each other."
Producer/songwriter Alex Da Kid, who helmed Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie" and B.o.B's "Airplanes," agrees. "B.o.B's music is a combination of so many different styles. It works because kids today are not into just one kind of music," he says.
A pop music-driven TV show like "Glee" taps into this mix-and-match appeal by ensuring that each episode samples guilty-pleasure classics as well as current hits.
"It speaks to a huge part of what's going on in the culture now," says Adam Anders, the show's executive producer of music. "It's cool to see my parents digging Florence & the Machine and then my niece digging Queen. If we can be a small part of re-energizing music in an industry that's had a tough go for a few years, then that's really exciting."
Another common explanation for the appeal of "Glee" is its constant championing of earnestness over cynicism, coupled with the fact that the cast consists of diverse, relatively unknown faces. It's no coincidence that some of the year's most embraced talents, from Bieber to Susan Boyle to Greyson Chance, have equally wholesome back stories, as viral video sensations who constantly stay on message about their remarkable rise to fame. Even the always-costumed Gaga talks often of her pre-fame days, and a quick Google search lets fans see her in full struggling-artist glory.
Horatio Algers for the YouTube age, these new pop stars are the realization of a dream that perhaps resonates more than ever for a logged-on, recession-addled public.
"Paul Anka said it best in terms of Justin," Braun says. "He said, 'Once you get past the smirk, you realize that he's pretty damn good.' I think that's what's going on with music in general -- that more and more people are getting past the smirk."
Even the most outwardly cynical pop songs champion the underdog these days. When Bruno Mars fantasizes about wealth on Travie McCoy's "Billionaire," he doesn't aspire to own a Benz and wear shiny suits, but instead to "pull an Angelina and Brad Pitt and adopt a bunch of babies that ain't never had shit." On Ke$ha's "We R Who We R," her Auto-Tuned voice sings, "We runnin' this town just like a club, and no you don't wanna mess with us, got Jesus on my necklace."
"I've been very broke multiple times in my life," Ke$ha says, "and instead of feeling sorry for myself, I find it's an opportunity to get a little more crafty and and celebrate things that aren't necessarily monetarily related. All I want to do is make people feel good."