The Old Pop Music Is Over. Introducing a Playbook for Pop 2.0.
What pop means changes depending on what angle you’re looking from. It can be a descriptor of audience size, indicating something that’s popular, or it can be a genre tag, specifying a sound. But for much of the past three decades, these two definitions have effectively been one and the same.
You know the sort: Katy Perry’s confetti cheer, Justin Timberlake’s feather-light chirps, Lady Gaga’s exorbitant theater, Taylor Swift’s guileless guile. Music that strives for gloss, pep, ecstasy, spectacle. Often an expression of whiteness, too. A one-size-fits-all solution.
For a time, in the 1980s, this kind of pop music — think of Michael Jackson and Madonna — was effectively monoculture, which is why the two meanings of pop have been so tightly tethered and so difficult to disentangle.
But in the past couple of years, this framework has been almost completely dismantled, owing in large part to the widespread adoption of streaming. What were once regarded merely as pop subgenres — K-pop, Latin trap, melodic hip-hop and more — have become the center of the conversation.
This is not an arbitrary agglomeration of styles. This is Pop 2.0 — music that comes from several different scenes but works with its own distinct set of rules. It is the first time in decades that the playbook for pop success has been updated, and it has profoundly reshaped the sound of America.
Previously, when artists from hip-hop, country or hard rock were said to be going pop, that implied they were sacrificing something essential about themselves in exchange for something plastic and transitory. Pop was a softening. A compromise.
Now, thanks to the largely frictionless internet, and the evolution in how Billboard calculates its charts — accounting for streaming data in addition to sales and radio play — these styles top the charts in unfiltered fashion. Hip-hop almost completely dominates streaming. Latin trap and reggaeton thrive on YouTube.
K-pop, the dominant sound of young South Korea, has become a live-concert blockbuster and outrageously popular online worldwide.
All of that has made for Billboard charts that look vastly different than they did a decade ago and sets the template for how all of pop music will sound moving forward.