It was symptomatic of pop in 2018 that one of its more burning issues was whether A Star Is Born’s “Why Did You Do That?” (the “ass like that” number) was meant to be good, bad or, like pop at its campy best, so bad it was good. Many observers questioned why Lady Gaga, the fame monster, was fronting a film that seemed ambivalent or even hostile to the pop she once epitomized, in the name of singer-songwriter authenticity.
This Gaga perplex echoes the identity crisis of pop in the streaming age, when hip-hop and downtempo, trap beat-infused genre hybrids are pushing what some would consider 21st-century pop proper down the charts, reducing the once-dominant sound of the decade to more of a specialized taste. In 2017, these trends came into view in sales-equivalent stats and the troubled comebacks of former pop queens Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. The pattern was reinforced in 2018 by the mixed reception of Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods, which many fans and critics seemed happy to turn into kindling. And the fact that no Max Martin-masterminded single hit No. 1 for a second straight year, after a streak unbroken since 2008, solidified this new normal.
Pop-as-genre loyalists turned for succor to records that made only minor dents on the charts. There was the return of Nordic pop deity Robyn with her first full-length in eight years, Honey, and, with new single “Party for One” in November, of Carly Rae Jepsen, whose post-“Call Me Maybe” arc has made her name a byword for loving pop that’s not actually popular. The faithful also celebrated such left-field pop risers as Troye Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko and producer-performer Sophie, who, like Robyn and Jepsen, represent and draw upon the fierce pop fealties of LGBTQ communities.
Listeners with a more expansive definition of pop — as an umbrella format rather than a distinct genre — would point out that hits by Drake, Post Malone and other (predominantly male) commercial champions of 2018 were not without hooks and earworm markers, even if they didn’t put them together in recognizably conventional “pop” arrangements. These musical divides partly mirror social schisms of race, gender and sexuality that were all too evident in 2018. They may also speak to a growing gap between digital-native listeners and slightly older ones: The expansive expression of conventional chart pop might feel out of sync with the compact style of social media, while Post Malone’s mumbles may ring out more like bangers at the scale of phone-to-face proximity.
There were a few points of unity among all pop camps, with Ariana Grande in the role of grande dame to the new generation, earning her first No. 1 with “thank u, next” and more top 10s from her album Sweetener — and also playing out the many real-life dramas that pop fans often look for from superstars. There were a few relative newcomers who did attain chart success, like 23-year-old U.K. star Dua Lipa with “New Rules.” In an interview early this year with GQ, Lipa noted that “artists have a lot more creative leeway, and the No. 1 this week is gonna sound nothing like the No. 1 next week. I think that’s what’s so magical about what’s happening.”
Alongside Lipa and Grande, there was the triumph of former Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello with “Havana” (featuring Young Thug, who — speaking of tearing up rulebooks — teamed with Elton John in 2018). Her song highlighted how Latinx styles continued their mainstream embrace through figures like J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Nicky Jam and Luis Fonsi (on his recent single with Clean Bandit). Not to mention two No. 1 albums for K-pop superstars BTS, another non-Anglo milestone.
Cabello also played a role in a separate major crossover phenomenon, between pop and country, with her Kane Brown collaboration on the remix to her single “Never Be the Same.” Add it to the 808s-and-heartlands meetings of Timberlake and Chris Stapleton, Keith Urban and Julia Michaels, The Chainsmokers featuring Kelsea Ballerini and the year’s two mammoth stories: Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be” and “The Middle” by Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey. (Plus Kacey Musgraves, the crossover critical/cult artist, with Golden Hour.) Not counting Swift, this is more intermingling with Nashville than the pop sphere has sanctioned in over a decade — perhaps testimony to the uncertain directions of pop and post-“bro” country in 2018, parallel to the country-pop periods of the early 1960s or early ’80s.
Migrating to country is a commonplace stage for fading pop styles — witness the fate of mainstream guitar rock — but like everything in 2018, this version seems messier, mixed up and unfinished. Under the aegis of streaming, niches can multiply without colliding, and what unit-shifting really means is up for grabs. Beyoncé is proving that stars don’t need chart hits to thrive. Those yearning for chart-pop’s reanimation might have been heartened by the year’s mini-trend of nostalgic tunes — Charli XCX and Sivan’s “1999,” Anne-Marie’s “2002” and Lauren Alaina’s country take, “Ladies in the 90s.” But no matter how often a jean-jacket graybeard pines for “old-time rock’n’roll” or a hat act genuflects to “real country,” style revivals in actually popular pop music only come as the kinds of transformations that would provoke holdouts to chant along with Gaga, “This is not, not like me.”