Mariah Carey’s record is safe, phew.
It was touch-and-go for a few weeks, but “One Sweet Day,” her 1995 duet with Boyz II Men, remains tied with “Despacito” for most weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100. Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber probably would’ve secured that record-breaking 17th week had Taylor Swift not rode in like a dark horse and blocked them with “Look What You Made Me Do.” Had they held on another week, the “Despacito” boys would’ve shattered a 21-year old record, and officially confirmed that pop music in 2017 is the ultimate boys club.
While that ended up not happening, the point still stands: this has been a terrible year for women in pop music.
2017 saw 36 weeks pass without a woman leading the Hot 100, the longest stretch of its kind in 12 years. An even more damning anecdote; Billboard noted recently that the week of April 29 was the first in 33 years to not have a woman in the Top 10. Alessia Cara would enter the following week’s top 10, but with “Stay,” her collaboration with DJ Zedd. Four more weeks would pass until another woman reached the top 10 with a solo single, Miley Cyrus’ “Malibu” at #10. It’s not like there’s been a drought of female pop stars releasing this year, either. Lady Gaga, Lorde, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, Pink, Kesha, Camila Cabello, her former bandmates Fifth Harmony, Nicki Minaj, Miley; all of them released singles this year, and they’ve all underperformed.
Then, there is the sad case of Katy Perry. Witness was supposed to be her blockbuster comeback album, but will likely go down as the year’s biggest flop. The album’s #1 debut was immediately dampened by anemic first week sales, the lowest since her 2008 debut One of the Boys. The album would fall out of the top 10 the following week, to #13 (it currently sits at #146). Once a near-constant presence on the Hot 100, Katy would only land one single from Witness in the top 10, “Chained to the Rhythm,” which peaked at #4. Her other two singles, “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish”, wouldn’t even crack the top 40, despite high-profile features from Migos and Nicki Minaj and two semi-viral music videos. Even the revival of her feud with Taylor couldn’t move the needle in her favor.
So, what’s happening to the pop girls, and why are they struggling so much? The music industry’s current obsession with anonymity definitely hasn’t helped. The mad rush to the sound of the moment, whether it be EDM or tropical house or trap, has rewarded the generic. Many pop stars have taken the trend-hopping route, but they risk becoming just another voice on a radio programmer’s jam-packed playlist. For some reason (like latent industry sexism), men have little trouble standing out while blending in, while women who play the same game lose out. It’s hard to drum up streams, downloads, and ticket sales when listeners only know you as the singer on the latest Zedd or DJ Khaled or Calvin Harris track. Factor in the industry’s cruel tendency to punish deviations from the status quo with chart failure, and you’ve got a cycle that’s left many female artists heading back to the drawing board.
It’s no coincidence that Taylor Swift was the one to break the dry spell. She has definitely changed since the more innocent days of “Teardrops on My Guitar,” but listeners know what to expect from Taylor: intimate glimpses into her personal life, tied to irresistible pop hooks. Even when she’s toying with trends, she always makes sure it sounds like something she would do, and no one else could. The same can be said of Adele; her brand of heartbreak ballads is an industry all on its own, with 25 selling more than what most artists today sell in their whole careers. Beyoncé has fought hard to maintain the air of majesty that used to surround pop’s upper echelons, and has largely succeeded, dominating the cultural conversation with last year’s Lemonade. All three women have succeeded by flouting the demands of the industry and doing whatever the hell they want.
To be fair, not everyone can be a Beyoncé, a Taylor, or certainly not an Adele. Their music is, on average, exceptional compared to what’s offered from Top 40 right now. Still, there are lessons to be noted if the current slate of pop ladies are going to make it through 2017, and even beyond. Pop music has always resisted risk, but now it’s practically sterile; look no further than the collapse of the VMAs’ cultural relevance for proof. What the music world needs now is to be shaken out of its complacency, and no one is better suited to do it than female artists. Maybe rolling around in a wedding dress isn’t necessary, but the spirit is welcome. Otherwise, we’ll have to settle for the next Justin Bieber or Ed Sheeran or Drake hit to take us into the future of pop.
The future of pop has never felt so dire.