Pop 2.0: how globalised music created a new kind of star

English is no longer the lingua franca of pop music, and its alpha stars – Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga – are an endangered species

In a recent episode of the New York Times Popcast, the paper’s critic, Jon Caramanica, recalled the week in August where K-pop seven-piece BTS and Puerto Rican star Ozuna’s respective albums debuted inside the US Top 10. “I remember looking at that and being, like, oh, this is it – this is the new pop order. This is not seven sub-genres ascending: this is pop.”

Here were two acts who had vaulted western pop’s language barrier: BTS are currently the world’s biggest boyband; Ozuna sings and raps, tackles reggaeton, bachata, Latin trap and plain old pop with equal ease, and was YouTube’s most streamed artist in the world in 2018. Numbers two and three in YouTube’s list were J Balvin and Bad Bunny, two more singer-rappers who primarily perform in Spanish. And, incidentally, eight of the 10 most viewed songs of 2018 were by Spanish-speaking acts.

What Caramanica noticed was a fundamental change to the idea that English is pop’s lingua franca. This development has been accompanied by a remarkable shift in the pop-star system itself. While bilingual artists surge into charts and playlists, joining the American rappers who have profoundly reshaped popular music in the last 20 years (the five most listened-to tracks on Spotify in 2018 were by US hip-hop acts), it’s a different story for the stars who emerged during the era we might call Pop 1.0. “The massive pop stars of yesteryear – Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake – are fading from the public consciousness,” wrote New Yorker critic Amanda Petrusich in a review of a Taylor Swift concert film, premiered by Netflix on New Year’s Eve.

Taylor Swift performing in Sydney, 2 November 2018.
Pushing an outdated aesthetic … Taylor Swift. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Though the review is broadly sympathetic toward Swift, Petrusich suggests that despite the singer’s continuing immense popularity as a live act, she’s pushing an aesthetic that is outdated. Moreover, Petrusich seems to imply, so are the other superstars – Perry, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Madonna – who stage similarly alpha tours.

These “massive pop stars of yesteryear” adhere to a model established in the early 80s. The industry infrastructure – radio, MTV, record shops, press, awards ceremonies – created an unprecedented level of fame for the top artists, especially the trinity of Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson. They were the unassailable pantechnicons around whom the idea of pop stardom revolved, establishing the template for Mariah Carey, Timberlake, Spears and Jennifer Lopez – right up to today’s Perry, Swift, Bieber and Lady Gaga. The latter might be the final Pop 1.0 star to have owned the zeitgeist while at her peak, and it says much about her prescience today that she has dissociated from the aloof figure she cut in her imperial phase.

Lady Gaga performing at Glastonbury 2009.
Making like a shard of Auto-Tunedice … Lady Gaga. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The music was vocally driven, melody prevailing over beats, verses almost always leading to choruses. It could be pensive or euphoric; it might toy with exotica or exhibit social awareness; it was open to advances in technology (Carey’s wholly traditional-sounding All I Want for Christmas Is You, for instance, was made entirely with computers – sleigh bells and all). The main thing, whether it was a frothy Madonna bop, an oily Prince sex romp or Gaga making like a shard of Auto-Tuned ice, was that the artist’s presence was all over it. You knew who you were listening to: the song was in the service of the singer – not, as is often the case today with fluid genres such as trap, the other way around.

As we approach the end of the decade, streaming, which skews heavily toward hip-hop, is the most popular way of hearing music. The average 12-year-old has never known genre boundaries and is likely to be listening to everyone from Cardi B to BTS to platinum-selling American singer Becky G, who has only returned to singing in English after three years of exclusively Spanish releases. Against that, the once omnipresent 1.0 acts represent a mindset that feels outmoded. A bit hubristic and mainly white, that mentality is battling the fluidity of the new guard. Led by rappers and global acts, the 2.0 cohort are oblivious to genre rules: they pop up on each other’s records, singing in Spanish or Korean or French, and they speak directly to fans via social media. Balvin, Drake, BTS and fellow K-pop hunks Monsta X, Cardi B, the currently ubiquitous Post Malone, Bad Bunny – all have their own styles, yet are adaptable; they’re enormously popular, but by the rules of the old music business, ungovernable. The old riot grrrl slogan, “This is happening without your permission”, feels apt.

While they’re as ambitious as any old-guard star (“we want everybody to love the album, even though they don’t understand what I’m saying,” Balvin said (in English) last year), they’re achieving their aims by being relatable. To audiences whose entry-level pop star was Cardi B or Drake, artists are supposed to be relatable, and to meet them halfway by exposing their lives on Instagram and putting out new music as it’s ready rather than sticking to rigid release schedules. The artificial star/fan distinctions that made Madonna and Jackson feel unreachable no longer exist.

K-pop band BTS on the red carpet at the 28th Seoul Music awards in Seoul, 15 January 2019.
Non-anglophone new order … BTS. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Non-anglophone artists can thrive in this ecosystem. I’ve seen it for myself: in 2018, I reviewed London shows by Balvin, pop-reggaeton golden boy Maluma, Monsta X and BTS. The venues heaved with excited young Londoners, who sang along, lofted flags and generally did their nut over being in the same room as their heroes – all of which is par for the course at pop shows. What was different was that almost none of the songs were in English, and most of the fans couldn’t understand the lyrics. And here was the thing: that was absolutely fine, posing no barrier to loving the music. If anything captured this remarkable new order, it was my friend’s BTS-stanning 14-year-old daughter, who spent the show singing every song. After discovering the group via social media a couple of years earlier, she decided to learn Korean and had now mastered enough to understand the songs. Having a grasp of the language is also useful for following K-pop bands on social media, where fresh content is uploaded hourly, much of it solely in Korean.

Bad Bunny.
J-Lo collaborator … Bad Bunny. Photograph: PR Company Handout

The more switched-on 1.0 stars have been clambering over each other to collaborate with the 2.0s: Bieber shoehorned his way on to the Despacito remix (though the Luis Fonsi-Daddy Yankee original is vastly more popular on YouTube, with 6bn streams compared to the Bieber version’s 600m). Perry got trap superstars Migos aboard her current album and Lopez collaborated with Bad Bunny on her 2018 single Te Guste. And you can bet that Madonna’s new album, due this year, will acknowledge 2.0.

Spare a thought for the old guard. How could traditional pop superstars not feel they were singularly special when they’ve spent their careers being treated like emperors? Each new album or tour was the subject of a campaign planned a year in advance, and no promotional gesture was too grandiose. Jackson, to name one glorious example, set out on his 1996 HIStory tour with a nine-metre statue of himself. On the first date, in Prague, it was displayed on a plinth formerly occupied by the Stalin monument.

Compare that to Drake, arguably the Jacko of today in terms of stature and influence: his 2016 single One Dance arrived without an official video and still spent 10 weeks at the top of the US chart, and 15 weeks at No 1 in the UK. Meanwhile, ever since Beyoncé’s surprise 2013 LP, rap and R&B artists have turned the album-release playbook on its head by putting out albums whenever they decide it’s time, even if it means doing so with no warning other than a few judicious leaks. The “surprise” release is now so common that it’s becoming less useful as a strategy, but maybe that doesn’t matter: whenever an album emerges, fans will come, or they won’t.

Drake at 2018 Wireless
The Jacko of today … Drake. Photograph: Jordan Curtis Hughes

The 1.0 stars often outperform the newer ones on the live circuit, where the hubbub about streaming figures and globalism means relatively little. Swift’s 2018 tour was the second highest grossing in the US last year, taking $315m. First place went to her friend Ed Sheeran, on $429m. It’s worth noting that Sheeran is unusual in having staked places in both the 1.0 and 2.0 camps. His traditional songcraft marks him as old school, but long-term alliances with rappers and Afrobeat stars such as Fuse ODG suggest that he could survive any 1.0 clearout.

But the live industry might as well be another galaxy: included in 2018’s 10 top grossers are country singer Kenny Chesney, the Rolling Stones and a Journey-Def Leppard double-header, none of whom stream particularly well or pretend to be any cooler than they are. A flourishing gig market is one of the only reliable holdovers from the golden past. Artists have taken advantage of this market by bundling a copy of their new album with every ticket – not as an inducement to buy tickets, which will be snapped up regardless, but to help their new album achieve a better chart position.

So which of the “massive stars of yesteryear” will stick it out? Most likely, it will be the adaptable ones – artists who don’t just piggyback on to prevailing styles but have an affinity with them. Sheeran is probably safe, as is Grande, whose move toward trap and R&B has been seamless and convincing. The sense that the 1.0 era is over is solidified by the lack of superstars-in-waiting. Bebe Rexha, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello and Dua Lipa, as fine as their efforts might be, aren’t cut from the same lordly cloth as their forebears. The cultural environment in which they find themselves militates against pop gods – just imagine if Michael Jackson had turned up with that statue now.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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