Dirt: Does pop music still exist?

What we define as pop isn't necessarily popular.

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Pete Tosiello’s essay on how streaming platforms have broken down the connection between pop music and actual popularity, which critics struggle to recapture. How many people really listen to Phoebe Bridgers?

The New York Times Magazine Music Issue in early March, which may or may not have been timed to coincide with this year’s Grammy Awards, advances the premise that COVID has fundamentally changed the act of experiencing music. “Music draws us into shared spaces, makes us move and think and feel together,” writes Nitsuh Abebe in his editor’s note. “Music-making is so central to how we experience community that when a pandemic starved us of that feeling, it was music we turned to in hopes of replacing it.” As far as theses go, it’s fairly innocuous — we’ve been robbed of our ability to dance in clubs, to sing along in arenas and basement shows, to cue up old favorites on the jukebox — although I’d argue that the infinite curation of streaming apps has done far more to obliterate the shared canon. Either way, what follows Abebe’s note is a bit perplexing given the presumption of a fractured monoculture: meditations on Drake and Taylor Swift, a Phoebe Bridgers interview, an essay on Sam Hunt — all quite recognizably mainstream.

The death of pop monoculture ought to be liberating for music writers who, in theory, would no longer need to pay lip service to boring corporate artists. But in the absence of pop music as a commodity — an evolving set of chart hits; songs emanating from overhead speakers at supermarkets and between innings at ballgames; hooks internalized by the hoi polloi as if by osmosis — institutions like the Times and the Grammys have internalized pop music as an aesthetic, while still propounding the referents and language of a monoculture. The output often feels self-defeating: these songs aren’t communal or ubiquitous in any traditional sense, but we still talk about them as if they are.

Is Phoebe Bridgers popular? It certainly looks like it, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Over the last year’s insatiable Punisher album cycle, she has graced spreads in Rolling Stone and Variety, and received Pitchfork’s coveted Best New Music badge; she performed on Saturday Night Live and was nominated for four Grammys. Her rise bridged indie cred with (ostensible) mainstream acceptance as successfully as any songwriter since alt-rock’s late-’90s heyday, and she’s been anointed by all the usual institutions. So why doesn’t she feel like a pop star?

Part of it is that her music doesn’t actually sell, and her streaming numbers haven’t juiced her “album-equivalent units” enough to make up for it. Punisher peaked at #43 on Billboard’s albums chart, and none of its five singles charted except on the more obscure Rock and Alternative lists, meaning they failed to establish any foothold on terrestrial radio. Spotify reports 5 million monthly listeners on Bridgers’s artist page — none too shabby for an “independent” musician, but a notable outlier among Grammy performers and SNL guests. (Dua Lipa, for instance, boasts 63 million monthly listeners; Machine Gun Kelly, who is currently Spotify’s #198th-ranked artist, has 18 million.)

If you’re familiar with Bridgers’s music, it’s of your own volition. You may have streamed Punisher after reading its glowing reviews, or upon encountering Bridgers’ viral posts on social media. Perhaps a recommendation algorithm parsed your data and deduced that her songs are similar enough to ones you already like. Being terminally online is almost a prerequisite, because one does not become a Phoebe Bridgers listener by happenstance  — you do not overhear her music in bars, or at parties, or in passing. Of course, nowadays you don’t hear any music in bars or at parties or in passing. I guess one could argue that the difference between Bridgers and, like, Sheryl Crow is that Bridgers’s stardom coincided with an airborne pandemic, but there lies a paradox: COVID has prevented Bridgers from touring on the biggest record of her career, but by most accounts, her renown has grown because of pandemic listening habits.

Punisher is, as they say, a headphone listen, its intimate insularity well-suited for quarantine streaming sessions. “The 25-year-old California native writes songs for those moments when things fall apart,” Sam Sodomsky wrote in his rhapsodic Pitchfork review. “The record glows with this strange self-sufficiency, an instinct to push forward against bad odds.” In a New York Times column, Lindsay Zoladz wrote, “Punisher often feels like it’s taking place on that hazy edge between dreaming and wakefulness, where words stick on the tips of tongues and everyday notions (Halloween, pay phones, stucco) seem suddenly surreal. Maybe that is why it makes a particular kind of sense in this moment, when we’re all immobilized by existential dread and only able to travel in our dreams.”

I buy that — if pop was America’s soundtrack, Punisher’s quiet odes to perseverance meet life on its new terms. But it’s also precisely the sort of unobtrusive folk-fusion that thrives on Spotify, an album you can throw on while you’re drafting invoices, cooking an elaborate meal, or scrolling through a week’s worth of tweets. In a 2018 essay for The Baffler, Liz Pelly defines “Spotify-core” as “muted, mid-tempo, melancholy pop, a sound that has practically become synonymous with the platform.” Dominated by photogenic, Instagram-fluent (mostly white) young artists, Spotify-core occupies a middle ground between “chill” and “emo.” Pelly quotes a pseudonymous songwriter, who says that “Pop music today is less about big, upbeat, going-out-partying anthems, which have been replaced by smaller, more introspective tunes about internal quandaries.” Sound familiar? The notion that Bridgers’s music resonates because of COVID, to me, obscures a simpler phenomenon. She is a pop star for an age without pop stars, which conveniently obviates the imperative of mass listenership.

I don’t believe that Bridgers is herself fully representative of the industry’s direction. Pop was already an uncertain, amorphous commodity, and now it’s an anonymous aesthetic. When I think of pop as an aesthetic, my mind returns to the Moby and Lenny Kravitz records of my childhood: genre-fluid, opaquely poetic songs that were licensed for a million commercials. Their music was frictionless enough that everybody liked it, but slippery enough that no one closely identified with it. They sounded algorithmic before algorithms were really a thing, and the fact that they wrote glorified TV jingles mostly barred these artists from serious critical consideration.

In the age of Spotify, these empty-calorie acts are marketed as legitimate prestige artists. This year Billie Eilish, the poster child of Spotify-core, was nominated for four Grammys and won two. The Times Magazine Music Issue featured an eager write-up on Freddie Gibbs, the most chameleonic gangsta rapper alive, who was nominated for Best Rap Album. An Indiana native who later relocated to Los Angeles, Gibbs dons different personas — blue-collar Rust Belt rapper, California d-boy, g-funk revivalist — to suit his mood, and his appeal is largely contingent upon cozy ‘90s-vintage touchstones. (Bridgers, it bears mentioning, initially drew critical attention in 2017 among a wave of young, female songwriters likened to the Lilith Fair roster.) None of these acts makes the sort of earworm-y singles that dominated pre-Spotify pop. They are various brands of mood music gesturing at untapped depths, music for multi-tasking.

I see little evidence that these acts are culturally significant on a mass scale. Gibbs has been a B- or C-list rapper for fifteen years, with fewer Spotify listeners than Bridgers, and both play small neighborhood venues on tour. But institutions like the Grammys hinge on the supposition of a shared canon, which in the past manifested a lazy, uncurious poptimism. Giving Album of the Year to Ghostface Killah or Raphael Saadiq would have been bad business and bad television, an admission that the monoculture was wrong. Today, that attitude is so thoroughly entrenched that poptimism has been extended to music that isn’t even popular. Without a monoculture, the Times and the Grammys couldn’t claim authority.

But every once in a while, this school of faux-poptimism gives the game away. Around the holidays, you’ll encounter one of those genre-agnostic best-of-the-year listicles in a magazine or on a culture website, the kind of list that slots Taylor Swift albums next to Griselda mixtapes, and you’ll wonder, Who is this even for? Such agnosticism would only make sense for readers with zero preconceived opinions about music, and if those people exist, they aren’t likely to be reading Vulture or Noisey. There’s been a lot of writing lately on the death of genre, which doesn’t interest me — genre is the domain of algorithmic gerrymandering, which is arbitrary at best and racist at worst. But Spotify is democratizing in the sense that record labels and management companies have millions of dollars tied up in marquee artists, with no distribution mechanism to ensure that listeners are ever exposed to them. Luckily for them, music writers are still willing to do their bidding. — By Pete Tosiello

The Dirt: When pop isn’t popular, it’s just middlebrow.