This year, some of white America’s biggest pop stars went through an identity crisis – and the biggest chart successes were from the underdogs
Long have they ruled. Since the Spice Girls entered the world in an explosion of Lip Smackers, good times and Girl Power, there’s been a set of archetypes for white, chart-topping pop divas. Sometimes they’re saccharine-meets-sexy, sometimes they’re the victim, and maybe once or twice they’re the bad girl too. Sometimes they’re ridiculously costumed. What began with Britney, Christina, Jessica, and Mandy became Katy, Miley, Taylor, and Gaga. From them we have some of the most iconic pop of this generation, from the infectious “Toxic”, to the exquisite fantasy of Teenage Dream to Taylor Swift’s succession of critically acclaimed albums.
But something has happened in 2017, something that was brewing since the lukewarm critical reception of Joanne in 2016, where what were once thought of as pop’s guaranteed punches have been failing to land. With its pared-back guitar, folksy vocals, and Americana aesthetic, Joanne received a mixed response from critics and casual fans, but at least it was an artistic risk. Miley Cyrus, on the other hand, trod well-worn ground with this year’s Younger Now, eschewing her controversially-adopted hip hop persona to revert back to her country roots; it proved to be a monumental critical flop, even with a cameo by ultimate Godmother Dolly Parton. And what should have been the two biggest pop princess releases of 2017 – Katy Perry’s Witness and Taylor Swift’s Reputation – were both strangely regressive, embarrassingly tone deaf, and hopelessly forgettable.
These albums aren’t commercial failures. Reputation moved 925,000 album units in three days and has since sold 1.28 million copies, making it the biggest release of the year. Witness debuted on the Billboard charts at number one. Younger Now, which faced slower sales, still managed to debut in the Top 10 album charts in the US, Australia, UK, and Canada. But sales don’t mean everything in pop culture, and ultimately what’s popular isn’t necessarily what’s good. Swift might be moving units, and chart rankings might be made, but “C’est La Vie” once topped the charts too. (And keep in mind, the Reputation sales pitch has been grossly engineered – fans were encouraged to buy multiple albums in order to better their chances of getting concert tickets, while the album has been embargoed from streaming services to encourage fans to purchase it physically instead.)
Stans will always be stans, and when you’re as big as Katy, Taylor, or Miley, the radio will always play your song. But when it comes to the swing vote, the pop princesses that could once raise an army of screaming teens while simultaneously inspiring critics to muse at length over their artistic merits are failing. Reputation is not 1989, Witness is not Teenage Dream, Joanne is not The Fame Monster, and Younger Now is not Bangerz. Even with apparent commercial success, these new releases have failed to positively define a cultural moment the way they’ve so assuredly done in the past. If anything, despite this popularity, they’re inspiring a moment of cultural cringe.
For Swift and Perry, this probably has a lot to do with the fact that much of their recent output has hinged on their lukewarm locker room beef. Beefs can be fun – in hip hop, they’re (generally) good-humoured, and present the opportunity to get creative with diss tracks and lyrical takedowns – but seeing two rich white women who kind-of-maybe don’t like each other for some abstract reason using vague music video symbolism and on-the-nose lyrics is incredibly boring. Audiences might have revelled in their side-eye equivalent tweets three years ago, but in 2017 it seems particuarly obnoxious. Donald Trump’s presidency has challenged our cultural proclivities as much as it’s changed the political landscape, and whether she likes it or not, Taylor Swift is one of pop culture’s most visible representatives of white America.
“Something has happened in 2017... where what were once thought of as pop’s guaranteed punches have been failing to land”
Indeed, much of the recent criticism levelled at Swift has described her as emblematic of Trump, his supporters, and white supremacy. While her representatives have made statements on her behalf denouncing these links, Swift has personally not spoken out against any of the above – and, whether fairly or not, this has led to the accusation that she is deliberately avoiding this over concern that it might affect sales within her audience demographic. Perry, on the other hand, has used ‘wokeness’ as a marketable commodity, describing her new music as “purposeful pop” without offering anything particularly meaningful to back that up.
Meanwhile, after twerking her way through 2013 while black dancers were used props and punchlines in her music videos, Miley Cyrus reverted back to her pop-country birthright for Younger Now. Having used blackness to capitalise on the cultural zeitgeist on Bangerz – notably by working with producers like Mike WiLL Made-It and rappers like Future – she was now vocally denouncing rap culture.
Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that there’s an increasing fatigue towards ‘white lady problems’. It makes an album like Reputation, with tracks like “Look What You Made Me Do” (where you have to decipher which line is about which beef) and “Gorgeous” (the same, but for some interchangeable blue-eyed heartthrob), an exercise in supreme absurdity. These albums may have been received differently at a different time, but with many of pop’s once teenaged fans now entering adulthood, and doing so in an extremely volatile political environment, there’s clearly a demand for something more adventurous and challenging.
Instead, the songs that have been most well-received this year are also telling of white pop’s failures. Both the charts and the critics have been sticking up for the underdog; “Despacito” was the first Spanish language song to hit number one on the Billboard 100 since “Macarena” in 1995, with the Puerto Rican background of both singer Luis Fonsi and rapper Daddy Yankee feeling particularly important given the Trump administration’s inaction after Hurricane Maria devastated the territory. Nielsen reported that for the first time ever, hip hop/R&B was the most dominant genre of music listened to in the US, driving 24% of consumption. And “Bodak Yellow”, the first song by a solo female rapper since 1998 to hit number one, has dominated the cultural consciousness and earmarked 2017 as the year we collectively got fed up with pop privilege.
“These albums may have been received differently at a different time, but with many of pop’s once teenaged fans now entering adulthood, and doing so in an extremely volatile political environment, there’s clearly a demand for something more adventurous”
Spanish language music and female rap obviously aren’t new, but these songs arrived as many sought to reject the status quo of the hyper-individualised whiteness of pop and embracing those voices that the far-right movement would otherwise seek to silence. Speaking about “Despacito”, Rocio Guerrero, Spotify’s Head of Latin Culture, told NPR, “The timing is quite perfect, you know, in this environment we live in... I don’t want to turn this song into a political environment, because it’s not. It’s a great song to make us feel good. But in the times that we live, where some people want to divide and want to build walls – we’re going through a lot of change, so it's quite lovely that a Spanish song is No. 1 right now.”
As far as Cardi B is concerned, her success is a reflection of a concerted and deliberate rejection of cultural privilege in pop and, more importantly, the imbalance of power in America’s race relations. Cardi B, as a woman of colour and former stripper, embodies a glorious antithesis to the Trump administration, her mere presence is an affront to conservative whiteness, as she raps about her wealth, her Louboutins, her persevering and fighting to take a seat at a table that no one offered to her. She’s also been voiced solidarity with Colin Kaepernick in her VMAs speech and threatened to boycott the NFL, and she’s championed black and Latin artists on social media where Taylor Swift deleted her entire past, essentially erasing the women she once used to boost her own profile to focus attention on herself alone.
Andre Torres, vice president of urban catalogue at Universal Music Enterprises, recently said that rather than sincerely adapting to a new cultural climate, these white female pop stars are “unsure about who they are and who they want to be”, and that this identity crisis has led to difficulty fitting into the market and a year of failed rebranding. The things that pop princesses usually do best have been lost to what ultimately seems like fear of falling into irrelevance.
The proof is there in the album titles. Swift’s Reputation for instance, is a self-obsessed conceit for a woman who used other women to bolster her image, but who has subsequently stayed mute on the deluge of actual shit currently being rained down on women in her country. Younger Now seeks to erase the years Cyrus spent exploiting black culture, a time machine to her virtuous country youth. Witness, on the other hand, suggests Perry has some celestial all-seeing, all-knowing capability.
“Obviously it’s possible to be a white woman in pop and still have thoughts and ideas and songs that are inspiring and interesting and wonderful... but it must speak to shared experiences – or offer that endorphin rush of jubilant celebration – if it is to survive”
With the release of “Chained to the Rhythm”, Perry heralded the coming of the new, woke Katy. Yet aside from some dubious lyrics about “stumbling around like a wasted zombie” in that single and a Brit Awards performance featuring giant skeletons that seemed to represent Donald Trump and Theresa May, it was hard to see what was ‘purposeful’ about Witness given lyrics like “got me spread like a buffet” and an entire track dedicated to her beef with Swift. The proclamations felt hollow, the wokeness turned to marketing dust.
This is not a missive against white female pop artists. Obviously it’s possible to be a white woman in pop and still have thoughts and ideas and songs that are inspiring and interesting and wonderful. Kesha’s “Praying”, for instance, was not only one of the year’s best pop songs, it proved to be a deeply haunting revelation for women dealing with sexual trauma. The entirety of Lorde’s Melodrama was likewise relatable with its musings on personal autonomy and growing up. On the other hand, purely decadent releases like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut To The Feeling” and Dua Lipa’s stunning eponymous debut album provided feel-good anthems in a year when sometimes all there was to do was dance to buoyant pop.
Likewise, Lana Del Rey has managed to maintain a level of both popularity and critical success this year. Having built her entire career around a distinctive aesthetic, Del Rey seems immune from the foibles of ostentatious displays of white self-absorption – despite being white, and her output mostly self-absorbed. The pivotal difference is that Del Rey is performing self-absorption, and it’s a performance that doesn’t insist you decrypt passive-aggressive messages in her music. And even she couldn’t ignore the world around her with this year’s Lust For Life: “As the climate kept on getting more heated politically, I found, like, lyrically, everything was just directed towards that,” she told BBC Radio 2’s Jo Whiley.
Conversely, Taylor Swift’s album rests on the notion that people care about her personal business the way they might have done when trying to work out if “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was about Harry Styles or not in 2012. The mistake some of the biggest white female pop stars have made this year is the belief that they’re monolithic, that they exist as cultural icons to the exclusion of all other culture. But context is king. It’s not that the white pop princess is necessarily doomed in today’s climate (they’re still laughing all the way to the bank, regardless), but that this degree of self-involvement certainly is.
Pop doesn’t need to be political, but it must speak to shared experiences – or offer that endorphin rush of jubilant celebration – if it is to survive. Beyoncé once told People she didn’t want to be a “pop star”, but “iconic”. Ultimately, it takes more than sales and number ones to create an icon, and this cultural moment certainly does not favour petty mall Beckys and their vapid problems.