The wildness and beauty which pop produced for so long are now more likely to be found in hip hop, which dominates the charts. Pop star after pop star is toppled; will pop suffer the same fate as rock? Our newest stars, devoid of charm, nod sadly in answer. “New Rules” singer Dua Lipa’s current persona seems smug and soulless when compared to Cardi B’s offering; Ariana Grande’s look – the most petit and spotless since Kylie Minogue – certainly suggests an artist, but her bland songs let her down, and the screeching Sia, with her pretend elusiveness, offers us little hope. The high sales of Taylor Swift’s tedious, lifeless ventures into pop attest only to her opportunism, and while the “Look What You Made Me Do” video is an interesting if transparent exercise in mythology-building and intertextuality, the alacrity with which journalists analysed it and theorised reveals the excesses of an undiscerning poptimism.
Disney’s pop stars seem little more than prototypes. The unrelenting Demi Lovato edges towards decent pop, but lacks a message. Most of Selena Gomez’s work is run-of-the-mill – although “Love You like a Love Song”, with its most significant lines ‘It’s been said and done / Every beautiful thought’s been already sung’ acknowledging pop’s twilight, was a moment of greatness. Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz era (2013) is a confident, weird declaration of independence from Disney, notable in its presentation of sex as innocuous and unsexy. She reminds us of the centrality of sexuality to any kind of authentic expression of individuality, while introducing us to a post-sexual revolution age. The Bangerz Tour seems to me a triumph, but Cyrus – inured to fame since her teenage years – couldn’t maintain that motivation for her already-forgotten Younger Now era (2017). Moreover Cyrus’ Bangerz image, like so much recent female pop, simply brings us back full circle to Madonna:
Given projected demographic shifts in the United States, if any pop is to counteract the proliferation of hip hop in the near future, it will be Latin-inspired. The two major female Latin pop stars of this century are of course Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. At first the exotic Shakira was every bit as convincing as Rihanna or Beyoncé – with her mononym, signature dance and irresistible, resplendent songs from 2001-7, she seemed destined for a place on pop’s highest pantheon. But with 2009’s forgettable “She Wolf”, a period of few ideas and stunted artistic growth began from which the artist has never really recovered.
Jennifer Lopez never shared Shakira’s light, but I don’t believe her career is as negligible on the artistic front as is often thought. Its first six years might be characterised by a self-indulgent preoccupation with her own celebrity which limits her creativity; for instance, the effectiveness of the introduction to the “Jenny from the Block” video relies on her pre-eminence at the time and today simply jolts us away from any pop sublimities. But the piece as a whole exemplifies Lopez’s clever dialogue with the public. Its universalist opening line: ‘Children grow and women produce ‘em / Men go work and some do steal ‘em / Everyone’s got to make a living’ creates a bridge between listeners and the star, while the presence of rappers then teasingly shrouds Lopez in a mystery which contradicts her insistence that she’s still an ordinary woman. Her emphasis on her ‘rocks’, and the abundance of expensive jewellery and clothes throughout her videos, invite people to idealise Lopez’s lifestyle in a way that manufactures closeness (and which Beyoncé could learn from). The public are equal to Lopez save her privilege. The “Get Right” video develops and parodies the same formula, with a playfulness that Shakira never managed.
“Do It Well” and “Hold It Don’t Drop It” from Lopez’s Brave era (2007) are two of her most infectious songs, but performed catastrophically on the charts because she embraces a hardness which alienated the public and undermined her earlier strategy. Lopez then underwent a reinvention and re-emerged with a string of hits. Despite an unhealthy reliance on Pitbull (who looks and sounds as bad as his namesake), these later songs are often dreamy expressions of lust or hedonism, which just about work alongside their enticingly glamourous videos. But we mustn’t forget that Lopez is chiefly a businesswoman: see how 2012’s “Dance Again” video ruthlessly steals from Kylie Minogue’s “All the Lovers”. And now further reinvention, rather than the desperate “Booty” video (which could have been a witty reclamation of the body part that won her so much fame but is instead strangely insipid) is required of JLo if she wants to extend her career.
The chart success of Camila Cabello’s playful “Havana” (2017) points to a future crowded with Latin-inspired acts, for whom Lopez and Shakira will be useful models. A child of pop, in her debut single “Crying in the Club” a heartbroken Cabello is lifted up by a sample of “Genie in a Bottle” (1999) by Christina Aguilera, who also released Latin albums. A touching and innovative recognition of pop as both a balm for individuals and a unifying, transcendent force in the club setting, Cabello might preserve pop a little longer. In another audacious act of canon creation her “Never Be the Same” video references Britney Spears’ “Oops… I Did It Again”, and with its gorgeous rawness the song is auspicious and in my view among 2018’s best.
The stars we’ve looked at count among the most followed individuals on social media, yet those technologies create the illusion of a cosy world which has led people to demand relatability of celebrities, threatening pop’s ideals. In a century of connectedness stars are more friends than idols – slightly prettier, funnier, smarter versions of their fans, without the godlike glamour that makes an artist. So while oversaturation has always been a problem in pop, it’s very possible that the age of Madonna pop we’ve explored is being overthrown by a new zeitgeist. The internet has also enabled everyone to cultivate niche tastes in music, so popular music in general – with the inevitable negotiation of styles needed to make something with universal appeal – might become obsolete.
Now that we’ve some distance from pop’s story perhaps we can reflect on it and appreciate its wonder and import in a spiritually impoverished Western world. For a long time sensual pop worlds have helped the West to regulate a collective consciousness that is on the whole suffocatingly cerebral and technology-orientated. Now, frustrated by celebrities’ inability to fulfil our spiritual needs many look to politics for their creed, presidential candidates for their gods… they translate unprocessed feelings into political statements and believe that the resurgence of dated ideologies like socialism or Fascism give them a purpose in life… they gauge the validity of a view by its intensity, not its coherence. When this doesn’t remove their inner emptiness they despair, and project their despair on to the world, remaining ignorant of the spiritual dimension. But attempts to revive the spiritual won’t succeed for as long as we’re committed to archaic conceptions of spirituality which cannot speak to modern society. I believe we should look to new manifestations of the spiritual – often in great pop music – and extract and develop these into a spiritual framework for the twenty-first century. We know that female singers are especially important due to the healing power of the feminine voice, which can even help trauma victims. Blindly lionising pop stars obviously doesn’t work (although the ramifications are less serious than when we lionise politicians), but the best pop stars transcend their celebrity and personify soulful qualities including consciousness, mystery, kindness and self-actualisation, and thus play a crucial role in people’s spiritual growth. Walt Whitman said:
There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. They may wait awhile … perhaps a generation or two … dropping off by degrees. A superior breed shall take their place … the gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches of men and women. Through the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things. They shall find their inspiration in real objects to-day, symptoms of the past and future. . . . They shall not deign to defend immortality or God or the perfection of things or liberty or the exquisite beauty and reality of the soul. They shall arise in America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth.
Well my eye roves across these decades of modernity to locate Whitman’s new prophets, and really it can only settle, tentatively, in one place. As they watch Tina Turner or Prince or Michael Jackson or Beyoncé women and men writhe in ecstasy, with the cosmos in their eye, in the temples that are arenas and music festivals… and so pop stars’ achievements must be lauded and their position at the centre of our culture defended and celebrated. As the millions of people who watch Vevo videos each day know, pop changes lives – and we need it more than ever.