Pop music’s hold on pop culture is undeniable, even with the decade’s decline in album sales. In an era where social media has become the primary platform for promoting new music, Taylor’s adventures with her squad and Beyoncé’s world-stopping performances have become common sights on people’s timelines. Some argue, though, that the pop game is a double-edged sword. While it churns out accolades and records for artists to be had, there are many challenges and bitter truths that face those who choose to enter the pop music scene.
All boxed in
To some listeners, cynical or not, today’s pop music has started to sound the same. Australian producer Kaelyn Baehr, also known as Styalz Fuego, cited in an interview with Music Feeds that some people in the music industry today try to sound different, but also aim to emulate what’s been done before. “They change enough [of it] so it feels new and everyone will love it because it’s familiar,” Baehr states. Due to the rise of social media, and with the emphasis on what’s trending and viral, more and more bigwigs believe that giving the masses more of what they want will keep them coming back.
Sonically, Miley Cyrus is part of this trend. Coming out of her Disney roots, she performed at the 2013 VMAs, and shocked thousands with her antics. Her new artistic direction, though polarizing, hints at a more mature Cyrus, someone more creatively assertive. Her Disney peers, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, have also been doing this, slowly but surely—while the former has been carving her niche as a confident vocalist with the pipes to boot, the latter is coming into her own as a sultry crooner with hints of R&B.
These three artists, especially Cyrus, have been criticized for appearing more daring, specifically because they carried the Disney name. For the better part of their careers, they’ve been dubbed as role models, but their transformations have been intriguing and enraging to some critics. However, should their image and transformations, even their morality, be questioned, when all they’re doing is explore their identities in a shifting industry?
Arguably, their influencers do not seem to be faring well in today’s competitive pop game. Janet Jackson and Madonna, who released new albums this year, have been subjected to media scrutiny and backhanded criticism, even getting some ageist comments. Both artists, who have made indelible marks in pop and music as a whole, are now getting ravaged for trying to keep up with today’s trends by coming back to a more competitive field. Instead of caving in, these two icons prove everyone wrong by breaking rules and taking control of their creative direction. Once again, they prove that some boxes aren’t meant to hold, but to be broken and dismantled.
Autonomy and self-awareness
Coming out of the gates in December of 2013, Beyoncé’s self-titled LP has broken many records while being critically lauded. Of all the observations from the album, it’s clear that Beyoncé wants the world to see her personal, more vulnerable side. Tackling issues like family, love, and fidelity, nothing stands out more than her epic statements on feminism. In a track featuring renowned feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Beyoncé believes that being a feminist means being a person who believes in “The social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” The pop star’s message—that females are equal and powerful in their own ways—is seen loud and clear whenever she performs in front of worldwide audiences.
As the movement for feminism keeps growing in other industries like film and television, more and more artists in the music industry are becoming aware of these biases, seeking to overpower them. One of Beyoncé’s contemporaries, Taylor Swift, who’s having yet another big year, is pushing for feminism that’s all about female friendship.
Many pundits believe that Swift’s songs are predominantly about her exes, which is why she chose to highlight positive friendship in her latest world tour. In a recent interview with GQ Magazine, she admitted to being affected by what people were saying about her art and her life. “If enough people say the same thing about me, it becomes fact in the general public’s mind,” Taylor quips. Self-awareness, which she honestly attributed to, is something the 1989-era Taylor admits to have learned from artists of yesteryear. “That seems to be the first thing to go out the door when people find success,” Taylor says, pertaining to the difficulty of maintaining self-awareness once fame hits. What’s an artist to do when the industry paints her as a ‘serial dater’? Why, write a song about it, with tongue in cheek and a wink to boot!
Bad blood and some wars
When Swift dropped Bad Blood, many speculated it was about Katy Perry; like snow rolling down a hill, more and more opinions have only emerged since. When Nicki Minaj spoke out about being snubbed for Video Of The Year, Swift quickly replied with a rebuttal, before the two made up on the VMA stage. Soon after, when Minaj won for another VMA, she went after Miley Cyrus, who had spoken to The New York Times claiming that Minaj’s opinion on the snub was uncalled for. Unfortunately, the losers in this scenario are the ones who speak up on the issue. Several media outlets have framed Minaj for picking on Swift and Cyrus, effectively framing and tagging them in the stereotypes they’ve long been known for.
Still, it’s impossible to advocate for equality and harmony in pop music when the people who support and patronize it ignite feuds. 2015 served as a noteworthy year for those who like to keep track of celebrity beefs and fights. If you observe closely, the feuds have intensified, but they aren’t all smoke and mirrors.
Often, the ones who start supposed feuds are fans themselves. A certain subculture online helps facilitate ‘stan’ wars. Stan, in this context, is taken from the Eminem song which tells the story of an overly-obsessed fan. These ‘stans’ strongly defend their favorite artists, while savagely bashing artists whom they deem copy their icons. It’s the age-old tale of comparing people, but is it really healthy?
Due to pop music’s scale and influence, it seems almost natural to put pop artists or just about any other figure on a pedestal. Whether it’s talent, charisma, or influence that is up for debate, it becomes easy to expect them to always be the best, to be immune to failure. John Walker of Fusion wrote about the rather sexist and narrow confines for female pop artists, who always need to be recognized as on top, with second best ultimately meaning nothing in the pop game.
At this point, it seems that most people believe that these pop stars are entertainment factories, not meant to crash, burn, or trip. As an artist matures, their statements grow more in tune with who they are and what they believe in. Though relevance is debatable, it’s necessary to remember that they have emotions and thoughts, and they too share them with the world. Although their bodies of work are sprawling and they are larger-than-life, they’re human too, and we’re just spectators.