Poleman says that he first noticed the shift in early spring, when a number of long-dormant marquee names returned to the top 40 in quick succession. “I would meet with the labels a few months before the projects were coming out, and they would say, ‘Oh, this is coming out,’ or ‘That’s coming out’ -- it was Jonas Brothers, Taylor Swift, Camila Cabello, Ed Sheeran ... one after another. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. All these big pop artists are coming at the same time.’”
Radio isn’t the only platform where pop music regained ground in 2019. At streaming services, long thought to be the province of hip-hop and dance artists, many of these pop stars were posting their best showings yet. Gomez, the JoBros and Grande all snagged No. 1s on Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart.
Apple Music head of pop programming Arjan Timmermans believes that Grande’s reemergence in late 2018 was the beginning of the mainstream’s pop rebound. “Rapidly after [her fourth studio album] Sweetener, she put out [new single] ‘Thank U, Next,’ ” he says. “She was releasing music at the speed of streaming.”
The so-called “speed of streaming” has been synonymous with the world of rap, where artists have been much more willing to release new songs at faster, less predictable rates, without lengthy promotional pushes or even accompanying albums. “Hip-hop has understood this for years now,” says Timmermans, “that it’s all about keeping fans engaged by releasing content very quickly, instead of having a six-month setup and then working a radio single for another eight months, which really didn’t help pop during the streaming age.”
The poster child for pop thriving in the modern era is 18-year-old Billie Eilish, whose first album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, set streaming records after a three-year trickle of music built anticipation for her full-length debut to a fever pitch. Eight months after the album release, Eilish issued a new single, “Everything I Wanted,” and promptly scored another top 10 hit. “If you take Billie, or [K-pop group] BTS -- they’re artists that grew up in the streaming age, so they know how to release music perfectly for their audience,” says Jeremy Erlich, head of music strategy/interim co-head of music at Spotify.
To recognize Eilish as a defining pop star of 2019, however, is to also understand just how much the definition of “pop” has evolved in the last decade. Grande leaned heavily on hip-hop and R&B production on hits like “7 Rings,” while Halsey’s “Nightmare” is largely indebted to alternative rock and grunge -- yet both still play as “pop” on most radio stations and streaming playlists. Then there’s Eilish: This year’s biggest mainstream breakout artist is all but unclassifiable. “Billie is the biggest pop star in the world, but it doesn’t sound like traditional pop -- it’s definitely alternative and urban-leaning,” says Erlich. “The younger generation doesn’t really think by genre.”