It’s fashionable to be making ambitious resolutions around this time every year, so here’s mine for 2014: I resolve to cease using the word “flop” when it comes to musical projects. That word is ready to be retired, for our collective sanity.
To some extent, we all ride the roller-coaster narrative of pop music. We monitor the various movements of a pop artist’s career — their singles, albums, tours, noteworthy performances and extracurricular activities — as if their lives were amusement rides, ratcheting up a few clicks at a time, spiraling downward every so often, and only growing dull whenever standing still. The practice of anticipating a spectacular fall from an unsustainable peak feels like a cocktail of danger and excitement… and is followed by the inevitable climb upward that feels equally invigorating. It’s a fun ride! But it’s also a fake one. The velocity of the storytelling always works against the friction of fact, as we collectively declare that one artist is “flopping” when they’re doing no such thing.
Sensationalism swallowed up 2013 in especially disconcerting ways. Justin Bieber, a veteran artist but also a 19-year-old, was perceived to be cratering, thanks to some dizzying tabloid stories from his international tour, the lack of a hit single to follow a handful of Top 10 songs in 2012, and a new documentary, “Believe,” that became an also-ran at the box office last month. “The Downfall of Justin Bieber” was a tidy story to tell, and after his pre-adulthood upward trajectory spanned multiple years, some even welcomed, or trumpeted, the thrillingly depicted slide.
But such storytelling also unfairly omits important details for the sake of structure. Yes, Bieber collected lawsuits, was chastised for reckless driving, had his tour bus raided and was caught peeing in a mop bucket; there were missteps, and they were unsightly. There was also an international tour that grossed a staggering $77 million in 2013, according to Billboard Boxscore, and that was extended for a trip to the Philippines, to help victims of Typhoon Haiyan. Although Bieber’s 10-week ‘Music Mondays’ run didn’t produce any radio hits, the series instead featured some of the most compelling music of his young career — unorthodox, introspective R&B songs that slinked away from straightforward songwriting and (hopefully) signal more interesting musical choices to come. And “Believe” only grossed $3.1 million in its first three days of release compared to $29.5 million for 2011’s “Never Say Never,” but it also opened during the intensely busy Christmas season at the multiplex (“Never Say Never” came out in mid-February), and will still turn a profit, having only cost a reported $5 million to make. Bieber’s career was always bound to endure growing pains, but to color his past year as a panoptic failure is a short-sighted dismissal of real creative and commercial victories. Worried Beliebers: take a deep breath.
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While artists need to use social media to form and communicate with fan bases, Twitter and Facebook also amplify hits and misses. Part of the fun of tweeting an opinion about a song or album is that you become part of a musical discussion, and calling something a “train wreck” will always get more replies than describing it as “just okay” (see also: trolling as a general concept). One can picture that vitriolic sounding board getting under Bieber’s skin enough to the point where he frustratedly tweeted that he was “retiring” on Christmas Eve. And the sentiment was conveyed even more pointedly by Lady Gaga following the release of her latest album, “ARTPOP,” last November.
“I put so much love into my music, into my shows, I make it all for you,” Gaga wrote. “I’ll never understand the overflow of hate sent my way.”
At the time of that post, Gaga had just scored the second No. 1 album of her career, and “ARTPOP’s” first single, “Applause,” had spent over three months in the Top 10 of the Hot 100 chart. But because “ARTPOP” debuted with 258,000 copies sold according to Nielsen SoundScan after 2011’s “Born This Way” started with 1.1 million sold — and because “Applause” did not reach No. 1 on the Hot 100, like the “Born This Way” title track did — onlookers presumed that the challenging full-length was an embarrassing step downward for Gaga. Never mind that “Applause” contains the most sumptuous Gaga hook since “Bad Romance,” or that “ARTPOP’s” debut was exactly in line with the debuts of Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, or that Gaga will once again delight millions of fans on tour in 2014; enough people (and a few fact-free tabloids) decided that “ARTPOP” did not live up to expectations, and gave it a public execution.
Gaga is one of many artists with an online fan army — dedicated entities that promote a group’s favorite artist, but too often have a nasty tendency to wage war with whichever artists are “competing” with their idol. The casualties of the 2013 stan wars were countless: how many Little Monsters and KatyCats sacrificed their composure when “Applause” and “Roar” were being pitted against each other back in August? How about the fact that, in the months before Beyonce’s album arrived in spectacular fashion on Dec. 13, non-BeyHive members claimed that she had “fallen off” since she had failed to hitch a proper single to her Super Bowl performance and subsequent world tour? And what to make of the members of Rihanna’s Navy that had to defend their prolific leader for not releasing an album in 2013 — a perfectly understandable thing to do, after releasing seven albums in eight years? In 2013, everyone flopped, and no one flopped.
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This isn’t a call for self-delusion: celebrated pop artists will release projects that don’t work and deserve to be critiqued. Sometimes a negative reaction will even lead to a positive reinvention, which has happened to Miley Cyrus over the past year and to Madonna on about three separate occasions in her career. But acknowledging an artistic misstep is not the same as spewing bile at a musician after asking for the impossible and not receiving it. In the past two months, I’ve seen multiple Twitter users (some whom I know and respect) pummel Katy Perry’s choice of “Unconditionally” as the second single from her “PRISM” album, and gleefully declare the song to be a “flop.” Admittedly, “Unconditionally” is not quite as strong as Perry’s blockbuster “Teenage Dream” cuts, but can anyone seriously discredit Perry, an artist with eight No. 1 singles in a little over five years, for “only” sending a mid-tempo ballad to No. 14 on the Hot 100 chart? Our expectations are always high for our favorite pop artists’ output, sometimes absurdly so. So when something like “Unconditionally” becomes a hit but not a smash, it is denounced as a “flop,” because that’s a more arresting storyline than a superstar remaining a superstar.
I love following the plot lines of music’s biggest stars as they move between genres and personas, and discussing those moves with fellow pop junkies. This resolution is not about ignoring backstories or stifling passion, but rather, about adding context to the overall debate and seeing the forest for the trees. In other words: chilling out a little bit. Real, complex people pour their creative hearts into our favorite pieces of music, not fairytale characters that deserve to fall and rise because those stories are more enjoyable to recount. As we begin a new year, let’s try to get off the roller coaster as much as possible, stop the “flop” talk and tweak our expectations so that everyone, including fans, can win.