Terrestrial radio is struggling. Physical album sales (Taylor Swift notwithstanding, but we’ll get to her in a bit) are on the decline. And pop-life publications like Spin (which now operates as a web-only enterprise) and Rolling Stone (a shell of its former self) are dying. In short, the things that once helped create and elevate pop stars no longer carry the weight or impact they once did.
And yet, particularly in 2017, the standing of the modern-day pop star is perhaps as relevant as ever. Storylines abound. Katy Perry got woke, cut her hair and put out a critical and commercial dud. Rival Taylor Swift released yet another smash, Reputation, though many wonder if the somewhat awkward change in sound will mark the beginning of the end for the biggest pop star in America. Lady Gaga, who plays Toyota Center on Sunday night, went from being pop’s resident weirdo to headlining the Super Bowl halftime show and stripping down her latest album in an attempt to (successfully) showcase her immense vocal chops.
Now, not all pop star transformations in recent months were greeted with critical and commercial love. Swift’s Reputation went platinum in a week, despite relying heavily on physical album sales in doing so, but it’s easily Swift’s worst album to date and only sold as much because, well, it was recorded by Taylor Swift. Perry’s aforementioned dud, Witness, aimed for the stars but ultimately fell to Earth. And Gaga’s latest, last year’s Joanne, was well-received by critics but came up a bit short on the sales end.
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In fact, one could argue that Swift, Perry, Gaga, and Beyoncé are the four biggest American pop stars in the game today. Of those four, only Beyoncé – riding high on the revelation that was Lemonade – is riding unequivocally positive momentum at this point. That said, none of these artists should be punished for trying. If anything, these four women should be lauded for attempting a transformation when settling for the status quo would have further padded their bank accounts and maintained their cultural standing.
Take Gaga, for instance. After bursting onto the scene with her 2008 debut, The Fame, Gaga instantaneously gained a rep as someone who could simultaneously be provocative while releasing singles that were listener-friendly enough to gain widespread appeal. She was, essentially, the modern-day version of Madonna – catchy enough to be a pop star, dangerous enough to be an interesting one.
Gaga could have easily put out two or three more The Fame redux albums before audiences eventually got wise and moved on. Instead, she followed up with Born This Way, a dark, introspective, anthemic record that was viewed as a relative failure because it didn’t feel like The Fame.
Not one to return to the status quo, Gaga followed up with Artpop (an EDM/rock blend) and Joanne, her most personal record to date and one that removed a lot of the backing noise in favor of showcasing Gaga’s vocal talents. Couple this with a turn on FX’s American Horror Story, not to mention her advocacy on behalf of both sexual assault victims and the LGBT community, and Gaga has proven herself one of the most well-versed and all-encompassing pop stars of her time, record sales be damned.
Perry, meanwhile, became a pop star on the strength of the pop classic triumvirate of One of the Boys, Teenage Dream and Prism. So it made sense that, in the interest of commerce and maintaining her place in the pop pantheon, she would simply revisit that well one more time. Instead, we got Witness, a well-intentioned but ultimate fail of a record that showed purposeful pop isn’t really Perry’s strong suit. Truth be told, Witness isn’t nearly the train wreck it was portrayed to be upon its release in June. Rather, it was more of a minor misfire made into a bigger thing because, well, Perry hadn’t really had a misfire of any sort predating it. But, hey, at least she tried.
Speaking of misfires, where to begin with Reputation, the latest from brand/marketing savant/pop star Taylor Swift? In making a local sports analogy, Reputation is basically what would happen if the Rockets decided to become a half-court defensive team, as opposed to what they were successfully designed to be – arguably the best offensive team in the NBA. Reputation doesn't exactly play to its artist's strengths.
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Reputation, as opposed to Swift’s previous efforts, embraces neither pop nor country. Instead, it shifted her sound to that of a more hip-hop/EDM artist, which doesn’t exactly suit Swift’s talents. Swift is not a provocateur; she is a pop star, perhaps the most “pop star” pop star on the planet today. So embracing a risqué persona, Platinum status notwithstanding, wasn’t exactly the best career move. That said, Swift could have made another bubble-gum pop record that embraced her charming-yet-goofy persona. It would have been a hit and won awards for days. Instead, she took a bit of a risk with Reputation that didn’t exactly pay off. Props to Swift for venturing outside her comfort zone.
Pop music often gets chided as safe and predictable. As evidenced by the recent evolutions of artists like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry, this is inaccurate. Each artist could have stayed the course and continued moving millions. Instead, each evolved – or, in some cases, totally overhauled – their respective sounds, to varying results. Some moves hit; other moves didn’t.
But this is why pop stars are pop stars. We watched them emerge. We see them grow. And we can’t wait to see what they do next.