What It Takes: Crossover Hits Are Just the Buy-In for Long, Acclaimed Pop Careers

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for SiriusXM
Lorde performs onstage in celebration of the release of her new album Melodrama for SiriusXM at Bowery Ballroom on June 16, 2017 in New York City. 

Twenty years ago this week, the then-teenage Swedish pop maven Robyn released her debut album Robyn Is Here in the U.S. The album was a considerable but not historic success, going Platinum and spawning two Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits in "Do You Know (What It Takes)" and "Show Me Love."

After that, Robyn was lost to the TRL era, as even younger, poppier stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera came to supplant her, and her next two albums were almost entirely ignored Stateside. But then a strange thing happened: About 10 years after her U.S. breakout, Robyn slowly started to trickle back into the country's mainstream, thanks to a number of clever and emotionally overpowering pop singles and a handful of smartly chosen collaborations. Today, she's among the most beloved and respected figures in pop and one of the few artists who could still headline a festival in the U.S. despite not having had a top 40 hit in two decades.

In 2017, we're seeing a more compact version of this career arc played out increasingly often. For this sales week (period ending June 22), Lorde is projected to score the No. 1 album in the country with her sophomore LP Melodrama, moving somewhere between 80,000 and 90,000 equivalent units of the album. Yet despite the strong chart opening for lead single "Green Light," which hit No. 19 on the Hot 100 in its first full week of sales, none of the album's songs have taken off on radio: "Light" is the only one of the set's advance tracks to appear on Billboard's Radio Songs chart, and then only at No. 48 -- which, unsurprisingly, is 47 spots lower than the peak of Lorde's inescapable 2013 breakout hit, "Royals."

For Lorde and other pop artists of her fan-beloved, critically acclaimed caliber, such stats may not matter so much anymore. Carly Rae Jepsen's top 40 success has been increasingly muted in the years following her globe-conquering 2012 smash "Call Me Maybe," but given the breathless response to her recent performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra -- which seemingly the entirety of the pop music media trekked north of the border to cover -- it's unlikely she really feels much of a smart from the slight. Charli XCX has barely grazed the Hot 100 since her first top 10 hit as a lead artist, 2014's "Boom Clap," but she's still playing seemingly every festival from Glastonbury to Lollapalooza this summer and opening on a major stadium tour this fall.

On that trek, she'll be supporting Halsey, another artist who just scored her first Billboard 200 No. 1 (with this month's hopeless fountain kingdom), partially on the back of an earlier Hot 100 No. 1 -- in Halsey's case, that'd be her Chainsmokers duet "Closer," which topped Billboard's marquee songs chart for 12 weeks in 2016 and ensured that even pop fans who totally missed her success with No. 2-peaking debut LP Badlands knew who she was. Whether Halsey can achieve solo hits to match the success of "Closer" with hopeless fountain kingdom remains to be seen -- lead single "Now or Never" just creeped into the Hot 100's top 20 -- but both her fanbase and her national profile are now firmly established.

And that's really what it comes down to for most of these pop artists in 2017. None of them are major stars, exactly; at least not in the traditional sense, of having huge radio hits and stratospheric sales numbers. (Even if Melodrama follows hopeless fountain kingdom to No. 1 this week, it'll be projected to do so with lower first-week numbers than Lorde's previous set, Pure Heroine, which peaked at No. 3; Halsey's sophomore LP also bowed with softer numbers than her first.) But as much as we bellyache about how they all should be bigger -- which Billboard is certainly as guilty of as anyone -- the fact remains that these artists are well on their way to long, sustainable careers, almost totally independent of their radio success. And considering the increasingly shrinking space for female pop stars in the mainstream's center to begin with, having a consistent fanbase and media adulation may be the preferred option anyway.

The key in most if not all these cases, though, remains those first early hits. Would Robyn have been able to make her long-delayed U.S. underground breakout in the late '00s if not for "Do You Know (What It Takes)" and "Show Me Love"? Maybe -- you'd like to think that a talent as immense and singular as Robyn's would eventually be heard regardless. But there's no way to quantify just how much easier it was for her to ingratiate herself into the hearts of college kids and 20-somethings who can say, "Wait, THAT Robyn? The one I saw performing on All That back in '97? And she's doing what now?" It gave listeners context and an open ear toward whatever she has done -- and the fact that it happened to be amazing, original pop music sealed the deal.

The case applies to artists like Carly, Charli and Lorde, all of whom were able to bank omnipresent and (more or less) universally adored pop smashes that ensure that anyone who would be a fan of theirs is already well aware of their existence. It's the edge they might have over artists like Betty Who, Marina and the Diamonds or Years & Years -- other pop artists with major fanbases in the U.S. and a consistent stream of excellent music who are nonetheless kept a tier below these other musicians in terms of national presence, because they never had that one hit that everyone simply has to know them from.

And in 2017, no pop artist has to worry about being thought of as Less Than by musical tastemakers by virtue of having top 40 hits, as someone like Robyn might have in 1997. Within the click economy and shifting critical landscape of 2017, crossover success has become its own form of artistic credibility, and any rockist ideas of pop stars being inherently inferior entities to underground artists have been rightly vilified. Carly Rae Jepsen can be nearly as critically adored now as a band like Radiohead was 20 years ago, and it doesn't even seem all that surprising.

In Robyn's earliest days, continued chart success and radio domination may have been the only way for a pop purveyor like her to become a career artist -- there simply weren't the other career paths for musicians like her to sustain public interest for a decade or longer. Luckily, in 2017, there are plenty of other avenues for such pop artists to take once they make that strong radio opening. These days, the hits can be more than the means to an end -- simply the buy-in needed to get a seat at the table, rather than the pop-game entire.