Pop Goes on Hiatus: In a Quiet Year, Music Moves Ever Closer to the Margins

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To talk about the state of pop music in 2014, we must begin by watching a scene from a film released in 1976. So, if you’ll indulge me, let’s pull the curtains and take a seat at this conference table lined with green lampshades.

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The movie is Network. For those who haven’t seen it: The man doing the listening is a disturbed television anchorman named Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), who has just gone on the air and criticized a pending business deal involving the conglomerate that runs his network. The man doing the talking is Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), the company’s chairman. Jensen is articulating a cynical vision of the world that he sees as righteous and that the film’s writer, Paddy Chayefsky, views as a present-day dystopia.

This scene was widely described as trenchant 38 years ago, and it translates today in much the same way. For instance, I think Chayefsky inadvertently predicted what pop music would evolve into more than 30 years after his death.

There are, generally, two ways of looking at popular music. You can decide that the world is only what you and your social circle cares about. If that’s your point of view, every year is basically the same. There will always be great music being made by somebody, somewhere, no matter what is happening on the radio or in the buzziest corners of social media.

I’m sympathetic to this viewpoint. I welcomed a wide range of sounds into my heart in 2014, from synth-driven heartland rock to Compton funk to Swedish breakup balladry to Saharan zone-out blues. I loved a lot of music this year, as I do every year. (I’d be happy to talk to you about it over here!) I’m sure you found plenty to treasure in 2014 as well. If you subscribe to this way of thinking, you might as well stop reading right now.

The other way of looking at pop is as an idea, in the same way that the United States is an idea. It’s not something you can see or touch, but it nevertheless lives and breathes as an entity that binds people together in a shared faith. Pop posits music as the very pulse of culture. Those who view pop in this way believe that it is a prism through which truths about our society can be revealed and discussed.

In 2014, that version of pop was largely absent. Pop, with a small handful of exceptions, simply did not matter at all. TV, movies, sports, even video games inspired national conversations. Where was pop music? Was there a single song or album that truly spoke to the masses in a profound way in 2014? This was the year of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” Magic!’s “Rude,” John Legend’s “All of Me,” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” all of which spent a combined 37 weeks (more than two-thirds of the year) atop Billboard’s Hot 100. What an awesome(ly ineffectual) mixtape. As a cultural construct, pop flatlined.

I never thought I’d be nostalgic for 2013, and yet here we are. Maybe you hated Yeezus or “Blurred Lines” or Miley Cyrus on the VMAs. But at least they provoked moral outrage and impassioned defenses. Nothing resonated like that this year.1 Yes, 2013 was distinguished by lavish promotional campaigns and overlong blockbusters that didn’t land. The most massive of those behemoths — The 20/20 Experience, Magna Carta … Holy Grail, Reflektor — aren’t any more lovable now than they were then. But they were fun to talk about, to deconstruct, to place in a larger context. Pop in 2014, however, largely eschewed a larger context. Pop punted.

Even 2014’s most promising trend — the infusion of compelling female voices in many corners of the pop world — felt more like a continuation of previous years’ gains than like a sea change. Can 2014 really represent the “end of men” when women have already been dominating the pop charts for years? Or when women are still mostly locked out of production and industry management positions? As much as I cheered on upstarts like Charli XCX and Tove Lo this year, they haven’t captured the public’s imagination the way Adele and Lorde did earlier in the decade.

But I’m not going to howl about this on your 21-inch screen. Arthur Jensen has shown me the way: There is no pop music. There is only Taylor Swift. And Beyoncé. And Drake. And Adele, Eminem, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and Lorde. Those are the pop nations of the world today. If those people aren’t doing something important — putting out new music, launching tours, being seen at award shows, getting married, getting divorced, getting arrested, getting embarrassed, or in some other way ginning up talk — pop music ceases to be visible.

That is the lesson of 2014. Pop’s middle class — like anything’s middle class — is now virtually extinct. Whether we’re talking about sales, streams, or tweets, pop’s power center is pinpointed on roughly the same number of people who star in Orange Is the New Black. A lot of those players were busy in 2013, and subsequently took this year off. But they’ll return, and soon. They took money out of pop, and now they must put it back.

What we are dealing with here are primal forces of nature. It is about ecological balance. Ebb and flow. And 2014 was all about ebb.

You want numbers? Here are some numbers. According to a story that ran last month in The Atlantic, the top 1 percent of solo artists and bands now earn 77 percent of the revenue from recorded music. On the radio, still the most effective way to break artists and songs with the pop audience, the 10 most popular songs are played twice as much as they were a decade ago. This naturally translates to better sales for those songs — the top 10 tracks now account for 82 percent more of the digital sales market than they did back in the mid-’00s. There is more music than there has ever been, but pop continues to shrink and rely more heavily on big names and overplayed songs to pump up the juice.

In my year-end pop roundup last year, I invented a baseline for plummeting album sales, snarkily dubbed the Scarecrow Strata,2 that measured when cumulative LP sales for the week fell below 5 million. Going sub–5 million in total weekly sales was still a big deal in 2013, but in 2014 it was routine. By summer’s end, the record industry was relying on the warmed-over ’70s oldies of the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack to rescue it from falling below 4 million before the album chart inevitably slipped into the dregs of the 3 million sales range in late August.

It pains me to say this, but I think the time has finally come to stop using “the no. 1 album in the country” like it’s still a consequential term.3 Exactly how meaningless was this once-proud distinction in 2014? A Christian rapper was no. 1 on the album charts for one week. Barbra Streisand topped the album charts one time this year, too, and then handed off the pole position the following week to a Tony Bennett–Lady Gaga duets record. And it just gets stranger after that. The run of wacky chart toppers could be fun at times (“Weird Al has the no. 1 album in the country!”), but mostly it was just confounding (“Slipknot has the no. 1 album in the country?”). Who in the hell was buying this stuff? Album sales in 2014 were essentially a statistical aberration, a deviation from the mean of listeners getting much of their latest music from YouTube, still the reigning champ of streaming music. Caring about album sales in 2014 is like basing the Nielsen ratings on the habits of stalwart Mama’s Family viewers.4

Z100's Jingle Ball 2014 Presented By Goldfish Puffs - ShowJamie McCarthy/Getty Images

The person who argued loudest for album sales still being a meaningful rubric for measuring popularity was Taylor Swift, though the fourth-quarter dominance of 1989 might end up being the most definitive rejoinder to her case. 1989 not only immediately became the best-selling album released in 2014 after its first week, and the first to sell more than 1 million units, it spotlighted just how pitifully the competition had performed until then. As Slate reported, the 28 no. 1 albums that preceded 1989 sold a total of just 5.7 million copies, with a weekly median of about 164,000. Taylor Swift did that number more than seven times over. She was a one-woman 1 percent.

1989’s enormous footprint appeared all the more outsize due to Swift being one of only two true pop nations to make an impact this year.5 She came in at the end of 2014, and Beyoncé arrived at the start. Queen Bey unsurprisingly dominated Twitter this year — her self-titled 2013 album was 2014’s most tweeted-about LP, followed by the debut by pop-punk boy band 5 Seconds of Summer and, of course, 1989.

I’m prone to the occasional eye roll over unchecked Beyoncé worship, but credit where credit is due: No other pop star better understands that playing the part is sometimes more important than numbers. Not one of Beyoncé’s post–“Drunk in Love” singles released in 2014 entered the Hot 100’s top 10, but that album still towered over nearly every pop record released this year in terms of prestige. The public is fully invested in the “Beyoncé is greater than the sum total of the rest of us” narrative. We have long since talked ourselves into unquestioned belief in Beyoncé’s eminence.

In contrast, so many of this year’s hot young things seemed to signify little beyond their own possibly fleeting chart success. There were classy Brits (Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran), classy Irish (Hozier), and classy Australians (Sia), but no matter from whence they hailed, they were all equally just OK. Meanwhile, looking for deeper meaning in Ariana Grande was as pointless as trying to understand her enunciation-bereft vocals. As for the most polarizing of 2014’s freshman pop stars, Iggy Azalea, the endless conversation about cultural appropriation started decades before her and will continue long after she is shown the door.

It’s no wonder that Beyoncé was granted a whopping 16 minutes of airtime at this year’s VMAs. She might have come out as a FEMINIST that night, but the power on display was wielded solely by one woman in a room full of pretenders.

The Atlantic’s story about the so-called “Shazam Effect,” describing the phenomenon of record companies using consumer data to predict future hits and replicate past smashes, hit upon a basic truth about music listening that has been overlooked by the barons of streaming media. In a New Yorker profile from last month, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek spoke at length about a “frictionless” music experience guiding listeners through a never-ending abundance of songs. Spotify’s focus, as is that of other streaming services, is curation, which is achieved via algorithms and “GANGSTA RAP for when you’re SURFING with YOUR MOM”–style playlists intended to accompany specific moments of the day.

But while streaming services keep promising us discovery, pop listeners keep wanting what’s already familiar. The most popular songs — on the radio, on the sales charts, on your celestial jukebox of choice — tend to be songs that people perceive to be popular with other listeners. Our brains are wired to seek out new songs that sound like songs we already like. But perhaps there’s also a need to feel like we’re not listening alone, that the songs on our playlists are moving others just as they move us. With so many options at our disposal, many listeners still instinctively grasp for some semblance of a center, even if it means buying the new Taylor Swift album on CD because she won’t let us play it for free on the Internet. The public doesn’t need more curators. It is blocking out 99 percent of the noise just fine on its own.

Filed Under: Music, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Pop Music, Network, 1989, Ariana Grande, 2014 Year in Review, Year in pop

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden