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Taylor Swift 1989(TV) Press Shot_photocredit Beth
Beth Garrabrant

In 2023, pop music is in need of saving

Monopolised by a few select artists, and devoid of excitement and spectacle, pop music is at risk of becoming stagnant

In 2015, Hilary Duff tried to save pop music and y’all let her flop. At least, that’s what the overplayed meme about her dainty single “Sparks” would have you believe.

Duff’s song, while cute and fun, was hardly the megawatt and disruptive comeback required to revive pop. It’s also debatable whether, in 2015, pop really needed saving at all: that year saw Taylor Swift’s 1989 continue to dominate, Selena Gomez’s re-emergence as a whispering seductress with “Good For You”, Demi Lovato’s bisexual banger “Cool for the Summer”, The Weeknd’s pivot to global dominating MJ cosplayer (“Can’t Feel My Face”), Drake’s “Hotline Bling”, and the release of a song now destined to soundtrack wedding parties the world over, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”. Pop was in pretty good shape.

The same can’t necessarily be said now, eight years later. While there have always been major players in pop, today one artist holds the monopoly: Taylor Swift.

Swift’s dominance is unparalleled. She is currently the most listened-to artist on the planet, breaking not only box office records following the release of her concert film, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, but chart records, too. Following the release of her latest album, 1989 (Taylor’s Version), Swift became the first artist in history to secure six number one albums that have sold over one million copies in their first week. At the time of writing, she holds eight of the 10 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 (she actually replaced herself at number one after her song “Cruel Summer”, originally released in 2019, topped the charts), marking only the second time that no male artist has appeared in the top 10 (the only prior time it happened was following the release of Swift’s album Midnights in 2022). As Bloomberg Businessweek prophesied all the way back in 2014: “Taylor Swift is the music industry.”  

Undoubtedly, much of her current ubiquity stems from her re-recording project. After Swift was allegedly denied the chance to buy the masters for her first six albums (they were sold by her former label, Big Machine Records, to Scooter Braun for $330 Million; Braun later sold them to investment firm Shamrock Holdings for $405 million), Swift announced her intention to re-record her old albums in order to create new masters that she owns fully (she already held the publishing rights). So began a long (and lucrative) endeavour. Each new iteration of Swift’s past recordings would be tagged “(Taylor’s Version)”. Not only that, they would include songs “from the vault”: unreleased tracks that were discarded during the original recording process. They would be released with fanfare, multiple vinyl variants, and merch. There would be ‘The Eras Tour’, a three-hour spectacle that would celebrate Swift’s catalogue. As it stands, only 2017’s Reputation and Swift’s 2006 self-titled debut are left to receive the “Taylor’s Version” treatment.

Throughout all this, Swift has continued to share new music, too. In 2020, just before the first re-recording was released, she dropped two albums, the Grammy-winning Folklore and its sister album Evermore. In 2022, she released Midnights; it sold 1.05 million copies in the US in its first week. We might all have the same 24 hours in the day as Beyoncé, but Taylor Swift must have the ability to bend time as she sees fit.

As a Swift fan myself, I admit I have welcomed the success of one of my faves and luxuriated in the deluge of new material; as Swift herself would say, “I’m the problem; it’s me.” Still, before I am a Swiftie, I am a pop music devotee. As such, it’s difficult not to see Swift’s omnipresence, at least in part, as a symptom of a stagnating pop music ecosystem.

It was not so long ago when pop was filled with healthy competition. A decade ago, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Lorde, Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift were all operating concurrently. It was an era of titans, many of whom were willing to take bold creative swings in order to secure their space in the pantheon of pop: Gaga threw everything at the wall with Artpop, vomiting paint during promotional performances, while Beyoncé changed the game with that digital drop, reinventing visual storytelling in music and ripping up the rule book of release schedules.

It's not outlandish to suggest that such innovation (and absurdity) flourished because pop was healthy with competition. Not every aspect landed (see: the short-lived ARTPOP app and Miley Cyrus twerking with Robin Thicke), but there was an element of risk-taking that felt genuinely thrilling. It was a great time to be a pop fan.

Of course, in the decade since, music consumption has changed. Streaming became both an equaliser and barrier to entry; while listeners were better able to discover and curate according to their interests, resulting in a more localised and intimate iteration of pop fandom, it became increasingly harder for artists to transition from popstar to megastar. Those already at the top either sunk or were able to gobble up the market share, propelled forward by algorithms, playlists and record label politicking.

That’s not to say that artists didn’t break through – Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, SZA, Cardi B and Billie Eilish are proof of that. It’s more that growth was slower. In book publishing, the mid-list author (someone who sold well, but not that well) has all but disappeared in the last decade or so; the market is now primarily top-heavy.

In pop, however, the opposite has occurred: artists like Sabrina Carpenter, Victoria Monet, Phoebe Bridgers, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lana Del Rey and Charli XCX may not all be household names, but they are consistently able to tour, will perhaps score hit singles, have devoted fanbases, and may sometimes feel just on the cusp of transitioning to superstardom. This middle ground is where both the most adventurous and anodyne pop exists. It’s the space that gave birth to Charli XCX’s Pop 2 and Ava Max. It’s where Katy Perry now lives. It’s where Dua Lipa would have found herself if it weren’t for the “New Rules” video.

But it can feel, at times, that these artists are waiting on the bleachers. However, the major players aren’t on the pitch, either. Rihanna remains MIA. Lady Gaga prevented the pandemic from becoming a total borefest with Chromatica, but returning to pop appeared to be more of a chore compared to selling cosmetics and starring in the sequel to Joker. Ariana Grande is busy filming Wicked. Nicki Minaj has a cousin in Trinidad whose friend’s testicles allegedly became swollen after having the COVID-19 vaccine. And Miley Cyrus gave us “Flowers” but failed to truly follow through. Only Beyoncé has shown up for us (albeit with no visuals).

Instead, only a select few tread pop’s playing field, which has become overgrown with weeds. And as they continue to dominate, the ground becomes littered with the detritus of viral TikTok sounds, tired collaborations reliant on interpolations of hooks from better songs, and Ed Sheeran. Every so often artists like SZA, Olivia Rodrigo or Lil Nas X might bulldoze through, sowing disruption in their wake, but they are the outliers now, their ascension to pop’s Mt. Olympus a rarity. 

In the case of Taylor Swift, she might be developing artistically, but her dominating presence is a sign that others aren’t able to do the same – monopolies, after all, can destroy creativity; without competition, there’s no necessity to innovate. This is not Swift’s fault, necessarily: as they say, don’t hate the player; hate the game. While she is hardly shy when it comes to commodification, it’s the industry more broadly who are to blame. Slashed budgets, a lack of investment in new artists, no time for artistic development, anxieties over the rise of streaming, and fears about the influence of social platforms like TikTok have created an environment where blockbuster pop is becoming a thing of the past.

Naturally, some might consider this a good thing. While pop might lack spectacle, at least more people get a look in with such a modest ecosystem. And, of course, if you’re hungry for bombast, K-Pop serves it up bigger and better than Western pop could ever hope to.

Still, as someone who lives for pop music, it’s tragic to look at a once flourishing landscape and see it barren of competing superstars. In my opinion, when it comes to pop music, sometimes bigger is, actually, better. The world needs someone soaring through a crowd wearing a flying dress. There ought to be huge choreographed TV performances, complete with 20 backing dancers. Rihanna should absolutely kidnap 150 journalists again and hold them prisoner on a plane while she parties in first class. These are the things pop culture is made of. These are the things pop fans crave. These are the things pop should keep alive. Hilary Duff won’t be the one to do it, but pop music in 2023 is in dire need saving.

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