If you could affix a sound to the current state of pop music, it would be a blaring red siren indicating the impending drop of a nuclear bomb.
To be fair, pop has been in crisis mode for some time, but the last few months have been particularly alarming. In a spring awakening of sorts, many of music’s biggest stars dropped new singles: Sam Smith (with help from Normani), Ed Sheeran (with help from Justin Bieber), Shawn Mendes, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift have all jam packed radio and streaming playlists. They all, however, have struggled to leave a lasting impression on the pop charts. Despite direct challenges from Sheeran & Bieber, Swift, Perry, and Mendes, Lil Nas X’s explosive viral hit “Old Town Road” has reigned atop the Hot 100 for 11 weeks, with no signs of slowing down (Mariah Carey’s 16-week #1 record may be up for grabs again). Speculation about why these artists, especially Perry and Swift, haven’t connected with listeners abounds across the Internet, and generally boils down to risk aversion in a landscape where risk is increasingly rewarded. Take “Old Town Road”: a portion of its massive success stems from Billboard banning the song from the country charts and Billy Ray Cyrus hopping on the remix in a show of solidarity. The risk may have been Billboard’s to claim, but it’s paying dividends for both Lil Nas X and Cyrus, who’s been revived as a forward-thinking champion of Gen Z.
Another pop star who’s struggled to land a real moment is Billy Ray’s daughter Miley. 2013’s Bangerz was a zeitgeist-grabbing success, but it hasn’t held, and Cyrus has long since abandoned (and renounced) that album’s hip-hop influences to hop from one sound and persona to another, like the raucous house party vibe of her latest EP SHE IS COMING. A week after she dropped that record, Netflix released the new season of Black Mirror, in which Cyrus stars as Ashley O, a candy-coated pop star with a ruthless stage aunt who resorts to overmedication and other dubious methods to keep her in line and the music coming. Ashley O is an avatar for Black Mirror’s assessment of pop music: manufactured, inauthentic, empty, and illegitimate. Cyrus as Ashley O isn’t just stunt casting: it’s an indictment of pop as a dead-eyed endeavor that deserves its waning relevance in the larger landscape.
“On a Roll”, Ashley O’s biggest hit, is supposed to represent the sale of her soul to the whims of record label whims and streaming playlists. It’s by-the-book electropop, with thumping beats and lyrics – switching between brazen come-on and girl-power positivity – that don’t mean much to anyone besides her rapid tween fan base. The song was made to be mocked for its creative bankruptcy, but it also happens to be key to its charm. “On a Roll” lures you in with its slinky verses and Cyrus’ sultry vocal, and then unleases the sugar rush with that killer opening hook (the lyric sounding like “hey, I’m a hoe” adds to the campy delight). The song knows it sounds ridiculous touting the powers of “ambition and verve”, but it balances that silliness with enough effort to make for a track that transcends “guilty pleasure”, without taking itself too seriously. It also helps that Cyrus – mixing Hannah Montana with dashes of Bangerz energy – is fully committed to her pop plant role. Ironically, it might be one of her most authentic performances yet.
“On a Roll”, for all its stereotypical badness, is a fun, frothy trifle that has the conscience not to overstay its welcome. The winking humor and light-hearted approach is a nice break from the anxious, intense, disaffected, or just plain overwhelming air that many artists are breathing out these days. It should trouble us that a TV show effectively bashing pop songs could make such an effective, potentially successful one, but “On a Roll” makes it easy to forget the existential crisis and bop along, with ambition and verve.
There have been weirder saviors than Miley Cyrus in a pink wig and Charlie Brooker.