Imagine it’s Jan. 1, 2010, and a psychic has laid out the following music predictions for the year: –Ke$ha, the self-proclaimed “sick and sexified” singer of “TiK ToK,” will not fade into obscurity. Instead, she’ll release two albums and rack up three more Billboard Hot 100 top 10s before the year is up, the last of which will debut at No. 1.
Lady Gaga will wear a meat dress, flip the bird at Yankee Stadium and pull rosary beads out of her mouth, but none of this will be as entertaining or successful as her music. –”Biebermania” will not only show no sign of letting up, it will also afflict the Recording Academy, which will nominate the teen phenom for a best new artist Grammy Award. –The cast of Fox’s hit musical series “Glee” will surpass the Beatles’ record for most appearances by a non-solo act on the Hot 100. –B.o.B, a rapper who sings and plays guitar, and Bruno Mars, a Hawaiian who specializes in modern-day doo-wop, will help each other become famous with a tenderhearted duet.
–A 12-year-old Oklahoma boy will sign with Lady Gaga’s management after performing “Paparazzi” at his school’s talent show. Meanwhile, a 10-year-old “America’s Got Talent” finalist will take her operatic seasonal EP to No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and another 10-year-old will have grown women whipping their hair back and forth. –A song about a mythical private jet will hit No. 1 and gift us with the year’s best new party terminology: slizzard. –Only one rock band will reach the Hot 100 top 10 — Train, with “Hey, Soul Sister.” In a year when some of the music industry’s few remaining presumptions, such as “digital sales will keep growing” and “tours can withstand a weak economy,” were subverted, no one can be blamed for not foreseeing all the ways in which pop music would take over the marketplace. But a takeover it was. Seven of the year’s 20 best-selling albums were by pop artists — that is, in Billboard parlance, acts without significant success on our genre-based charts, such as Country, R&B/Hip-Hop, Modern Rock, etc. This compares with four in 2009 and two in 2005. The 2010 top 10 includes Susan Boyle’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” Lady Gaga’s “The Fame,” Justin Bieber’s “My World” and “My World 2.0? and the Black Eyed Peas’ “The E.N.D.” If you expand the definition of pop to include Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, whose mainstream-leaning country hits were embraced at pop radio, and Eminem, whose “Recovery” featured some of his most unabashedly crossover songs to date, you could argue that nine of the top 10 albums speak to pop’s dominance (all but Andrea Bocelli’s “My Christmas”).
The fact that Billboard’s top two artists of the year, Gaga and Swift, didn’t chart on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums is also telling. It’s the first time that neither of the year’s top two artists has graced that chart since 1997, when LeAnn Rimes and Spice Girls came in at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. But perhaps most striking is the way in which synth-driven, Auto-Tuned, four-on-the floor-influenced pop dominated the Hot 100. Of the 15 songs to reach No. 1 on the chart this year, just six fall outside of this descriptive: Eminem’s “Not Afraid” and “Love the Way You Lie,” Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” and “What’s My Name?”, B.o.B featuring Bruno Mars’ “Nothin’ on You” and Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.” When these are the four artists delivering the closest thing to a slow jam, it’s safe to say we’ve entered a new era.
“When you listen to radio now, it’s all so much about tempo,” says Barry Weiss, outgoing chairman/CEO of RCA/Jive Label Group, which can count Ke$ha, Usher and P!nk among this year’s biggest success stories. “We’re in a golden spot for pop music, for sure,” adds Antonio “L.A.” Reid, chairman/CEO of Island Def Jam Music Group (IDJMG), whose artists Bieber, Rihanna and even Kanye West helped solidify pop’s current boom. “I don’t see it moving any time soon.”
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.”
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.”
THE LONG HAUL
Where does the pop boom leave other genres? According to Weiss, rock could be in further jeopardy as labels trying to make their bottom line find that pop acts can deliver the most revenue streams in the shortest amount of time.
“Bands require a different kind of development — it’s a longer gestation period,” he says. “Kings of Leon and Phoenix took four albums to develop, so it’s different from an artist like Ke$ha, who can have a hit almost instantly.”
Braun cautions, however, that this quick success could also spell trouble for pop acts’ long-term prospects. “If the single becomes bigger than the artist, you’ll never build a touring career out of that.”
It’s especially a challenge for male acts like Taio Cruz and Far*East Movement, which have racked up massive digital track sales, but haven’t yet sold many albums or concert tickets. “I would love to find a male artist that I could work with, but it just so happens that they don’t sell records,” Gottwald says. “It’s just really hard. Taio is an incredible writer, but he’s not moving the units that Ke$ha or Katy are.”
In the case of Train, one of the year’s few bands that broke through the clutter, frontman Pat Monahan says that an “attitude change” was crucial. For “Hey, Soul Sister,” the band decided to work with outside songwriters-Norwegian team Espen Lind and Amund Bjørklundon, known as Espionage. The decision reaped huge rewards.
“We made a conscious decision to stop saying ‘no’ and start saying ‘yes,’ ” Monahan says, adding that “constant communication with your fans is necessary… if you don’t have a Twitter account, you’re not going to do as well as you think.”
The Twitter and TMZ-driven culture of celebrity oversharing clearly favors pop stars, who are far more willing thank their rock counterparts to be photographed frolicking on the beach with Kim Kardashian or changing outfits five times in one awards show, if it furthers their brand.
The biggest pop stars delivered a virtually uninterrupted flow of content this year, with Gaga churning out press-worthy spectacles with regularity and unveiling new material at strategic points on her Monster Ball tour. Bieber, meanwhile, also toured year-round and released an acoustic album in November, while Ke$ha released two albums this year and joined Rihanna on tour before mounting her own European trek.
It worked on a smaller scale too, as independent Swedish pop star Robyn proved by releasing three sets of music in 2010 and launching a successful club tour, resulting in a breakthrough year.
“It used to be enough to release an album every third or fourth year,” she says. “What I’ve done is figure out a way to keep myself up to speed, to stay inspired and be liked in this kind of new landscape. Most labels realize that you have nothing to lose by trying new things at this point.”
As for hip-hop, many of those interviewed suggest that it’s the most volatile genre right now, but also the most exciting from a creative standpoint.
“Artists like myself and B.o.B, we definitely understand the power of song,” says Drake, whose debut album “Thank Me Later” sold more than 400,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Having the world connect to a melody is more powerful than anything, and when you can incorporate that with rap music you really have a winning formula… People that don’t necessarily love hip-hop love [B.o.B’s] ‘Nothin’ on You,’ and that’s great because it opens our genre to new ears.”
“When pop music becomes the genre of choice, it is usually a signal that there’s something coming,” IDJMG’s Reid says. “I don’t know where it’s going to go, but this mix of singing and rapping that we’re hearing from artists like Drake, and Lil Wayne and Kanye West before them might be a sign of that.”
NKOTBSB’S BACK, ALRIGHT
A common criticism lobbied against pop booms is that they’re dangerous for the music industry because its artists are not legacy acts-in other words, you won’t find Bieber selling out arenas in 10, 20 or 30 years. But those interviewed vehemently objected to this idea.
“That’s a load of crap,” Gottwald says. “First of all, how many artists of any genre are touring 40 years later? You’re talking about very few. And heritage rock acts came out of a different time, when there wasn’t really much to do aside from listening to records.”
“It’s a mixture of having huge hit songs and being proven entertainers,” says New Kids on the Block manager Jared Paul, who along with Backstreet Boys managers Peter Katsis and Jeff Kwatinetz came up with the NKOTBSB joint tour, produced by Live Nation, set to take place next summer. The idea arose after Backstreet Boys made a surprise appearance during the New Kids’ three-night sold-out stand at New York’s Radio City Music Hall during its 2008 reunion tour (on which Lady Gaga was an opener).
“With Rihanna, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Gaga, we’re seeing pop artists figuring out how to be more well-rounded,” Paul says, “because if you can’t figure out how to tour, you’re in trouble. And after what happened with touring this summer, we’ve worked hard to adjust our deal structure so that our tickets would be at the right price.”
The NKOTBSB tour has since added 18 new dates to its original run, including second nights in cities like Chicago and Toronto.
“People said that pop was dangerous during the Backstreet and ‘N Sync era, too, but I think any time an artist puts asses in seats and sells units, that can only be good for the music industry,” Weiss says. He cites P!nk as an example of an artist who was once written off and is still thriving. “When L.A. [Reid] first signed her, people thought she was an urban wannabe,” Weiss says, “and look where she is now.”
If Ke$ha releases her own “Greatest Hits” album in 2020, don’t say you weren’t warned.