jordan pulse -
You can't turn on the radio without hearing Taylor, Katy, Gaga, or Beyoncé. It's official: Women rule the pop roost in 2015. So how did the ladies come out on top? And will we ever see the likes of Michael again?
Women didn’t always rule pop.
In 2011, the still-ascendant Beyoncé, en route to global romination, posed a question: “Who run the world?” Four years later, at least if we’re talking about the pop music world, her answer has never rung more true: girls.
For the better part of two decades, I’ve had a front-row seat to the mercurial circus of pop music. And never in those years can I remember a time when that world was so dominated by female artists, nor a time when men felt so on the sidelines.
In a matter of months, the wheels seem to have come off the pop juggernaut that is (was?) One Direction. Zayn Malik made headlines when he abruptly split in March, talk surfaced this month that the group would “take a break” in 2016, and alpha member Harry Styles appears to have one foot out the door; a fifth record—if it happens—will surely be their last. Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake, the platinum standard for 21st-century male pop artists, has effectively exited the stage. (After winning an iHeartRadio Innovator Award this spring, he announced that he was heading home to “learn how to change a poopy diaper.”) JT’s newborn son could well be in kindergarten before Dad turns out another record. As for that other Justin, the 21-year-old Mr. Bieber? After months of bad behavior that crashed and nearly burned his career, he’s still making penance rounds in the press, and has lately been in charm overdrive, gingerly laying the groundwork for a comeback try.
“I think it’s pretty clear that when we say ‘pop star’ in the 2010s, we mean a woman,” says NPR Music critic Ann Powers. “Even if Ed Sheeran is selling as many records as his friend Taylor Swift, we’re not gonna think of him before we think of Taylor.” Partly, she says, that has to do with demographics: “What’s become eminently clear in the age of social media is that women dominate the pop audience. They define that conversation.” Adam Leber, who along with his business partner, Larry Rudolph, manages Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and other high-powered ladies, agrees. “Females are sort of the new rock stars of this generation,” he says. “I think women are feeling more comfortable with themselves and more empowered than ever, and it’s exciting for the culture to see them doing what they want.” Miley is part of the current pantheon of performers who hardly need introduction (or a last name): Beyoncé, Rihanna, Taylor, Gaga, Katy, Nicki, and the eternal, if lately embattled, Madonna. But there are also innumerable second-tier emerging females, one a month it seems. They’re unabashedly mainstream (Meghan Trainor, Ellie Goulding), indie but accessible (Lana Del Rey, Sky Ferreira), intriguingly European (Marina and the Diamonds, Robyn, Tove Lo), brainy (Lorde), enigmatic (Sia), big-voiced and pint-size (Ariana Grande), funky and folkie (Haim), and sweet and sultry (Tinashe). Current pop is a colorful canvas of women of different shapes, sizes, sounds, styles, and abilities.
It’s not that the guys aren’t still in the game. Sam Smith is easily the most honored new artist in recent memory, with a fistful of Grammys for his breakout debut, In the Lonely Hour (it was also one of the top-selling albums of 2014, bested only by Taylor and the Frozen soundtrack). Platinum singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran continues to crank out hits, and the longest-running No. 1 on the Hot 100 this year so far, “Uptown Funk!,” came courtesy of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.
And yet, no one seems all that interested in the dudes behind the songs. One Taylor tweet, one Miley Instagram, one teaser of a Rihanna single—they all appear more attention-worthy than a thousand spins of “Uptown.” What’s gotten people talking in recent weeks? Selena Gomez Instagramming herself in the shower. Bey’s vegan conversion. Miley’s #Instapride transgender-activism campaign. Mariah Carey’s new Vegas residency. The long-absent Janet Jackson’s announcement of an upcoming fall tour. And of course, the ass-kicking women of Taylor Swift’s superhero-noir “Bad Blood” video, and Madonna’s equally lady-cameo-packed “Bitch I’m Madonna” clip.
Men in pop, on the other hand, are a bit personality-challenged, as Rudolph sees it. “Take someone like Adam Levine. He’s good-looking, he’s a good singer, good songwriter, and he’s on The Voice,” Rudolph says. “And that’s it—I don’t see the edge in men, that sense of danger or mystery, that sense of ‘Oh, s—, what are they gonna do next?’ I just don’t think there’s any real personalities among our guys.”
There are numbers and then there are numbers. While the tops of the Billboard album and singles charts are actually male-dominated right now by artists including Sheeran, Maroon 5, Wiz Khalifa, and Charlie Puth, its “Social 50” chart, which measures online activity and chatter, tells a very different story. There, it’s the usual female suspects who rule: Ariana, Taylor, Miley, Nicki. Among males, only Bieber has search numbers comparable to the leading ladies. Says Sharon Dastur, iHeartMedia’s SVP of programming integration, “If you look at what these women are doing on social media, a lot of the female pop audience loves living in that world. They love knowing what they’re wearing, who they’re dating, if they’re at Coachella and watching this band or that. I think that makes all the difference in the world. If we had had this talk maybe five years ago, it would have been completely different. Now people are looking every hour at what Taylor is up to, or every few minutes what Katy is tweeting. It’s changed the game.”
Bobby Campbell has seen this phenomenon firsthand. Twenty months ago, Campbell took over as Lady Gaga’s manager and proceeded to shepherd the artist through an extraordinarily varied re-org that included a raucous barbecue-spit entrance at Austin’s SXSW festival and a sublime performance of classic songs from The Sound of Music at the Oscars. “From my perspective,” says Campbell, “the overall perception of a pop star is so much more than just the music or the charts or their touring numbers. It’s such a fashion- and spectacle-dominated world right now that I don’t think that men have as much that they can really do to stay at the forefront of the conversation. I just think there’s a bigger set of tools that women have to go out and sell their product.”