The slow, curious fade of the male pop star
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.”
It’s true that men in pop have always had fewer marketing arrows in their quiver—including sexuality, which can cut both ways. Michael Jackson and Prince completely owned it in the early days of MTV, there’s no doubt. But one of my first road assignments for MTV News was covering New Kids on the Block’s 1990 Step by Step tour, and the talk of the trek’s Milwaukee stop was the fact that heartthrob Jordan Knight was—wait for it—opening his shirt. Knight himself seemed a bit flummoxed by the attention, but that teen-to-adult transition is risky business. Two years later, when New Kids bandmate Donnie Wahlberg’s brother, the Artist Formerly Known as Marky Mark, stripped down and glowered for Calvin Klein, it helped make him a star. (In movies, at least; his music career was short-lived.) A generation after that, Bieber repeated the feat, and even though he was 20 at the time, the images still sent shock waves across the Internet and met with not a little derision. “That turned so many heads,” says Billboard’s Keith Caulfield. “Because it was such a startling thing that Bieber would be in his underwear, sexy and half-naked. It’s like, ‘Whoa, hold on!’ We don’t bat an eye when Britney Spears is in her Intimate line, or if Selena Gomez decides to shoot a sexy music video. But if a pop guy takes off his shirt in a music video? It’s like, ‘Oh my God! Stop the presses!'”
Which is what makes the 2014 rebirth of Nick Jonas all the more impressive. Of the many music-industry professionals I spoke to for this story, there were near-total kudos for what the 22-year-old Jonas has accomplished in the past year: The once painfully buttoned-down Jonas Brother has now found both a star-making television role as a closeted gay ultimate fighter on DirecTV’s Kingdom and chart success as a very straight pop singer in the Timberlake mold, happily embracing audiences of all orientations. Jonas recently performed at Pittsburgh Pride, telling the crowd, “I love you and I thank you. You guys are the best fans.” It’s a refreshingly modern career move, but as his publicist points out, it was also risky. “This next step was not guaranteed for Nick in any way,” says Patrick Confrey of Derris & Company. “He sort of felt like ‘I’m gonna be myself, and I understand that’s taking a huge chance.’ But there was really no other option for him other than to just totally go for it.”
As famously suffocating as the Disney machine can reportedly be, is it any wonder that two of our more disciplined pop males, Jonas and Timberlake, came out of it? Around the turn of the millennium, at the time of *NSYNC’s massive No Strings Attached album, I found myself at their manager Johnny Wright’s Orlando compound, conducting one-on-one interviews with each of the guys for MTV News. My chat with Timberlake happened on a ride in his newly acquired SUV, and I asked him about a small carving hanging from the rearview mirror that said “WWJD?” “What’s that?” (I honestly didn’t know.) “It stands for ‘What Would Jesus Do?'” he replied. “It’s just something to kind of check yourself.” In the 15 years since, Timberlake has never been one to wear faith on his sleeve, but that moment does point to something that may explain his outsize success: He’s a fundamentally professional, grounded guy. “D—in a Box” or not, he’s also a throwback to song-and-dance men of old who, as Confrey puts it, “fires on all cylinders.” Being a ridiculously talented comedian was the great X factor that allowed him to reach a segment of the pop audience that usually proves elusive to male stars: heterosexual dudes. So rarefied is JT’s success that “What Would Justin Do?” might be a better question for the young pop men of today to ask themselves.
Campbell agrees: “I think that right now where male music is leaning is a greater focus on talent.” Bruno Mars certainly embodies that; contrast the conversation around his Super Bowl appearance (the music) with Katy Perry’s (Left Shark).
And that speaks to a persistent double standard at work in pop: Despite a new cultural conversation around feminism—artists including Swift, Beyoncé, and Grande have proudly reclaimed the word; others have been more reluctant—women are by and large expected to deliver fantasy and spectacle. And they’re still subject, of course, to certain judgments (looks, clothes, hair, weight, age) far more than most male artists. Oddly, though, the problem can be the opposite for men; there’s a burden of proving you’ve got the musical goods, and that you’re no pretty boy coasting on your looks. The rise of Sheeran—an affable but unlikely star who plays acoustic-guitar-based songs, hardly the kind of stuff a young pop audience traditionally goes for—seems to have opened the door for other like-minded aspirants to make the transatlantic crossing: Ireland’s Hozier, who had a major left-field hit last year with the song “Take Me to Church” and recently played his first Coachella to a sizable crowd, and England’s James Bay and George Ezra—the latter of whom, like Sam Smith before him, managed to land a coveted spot on Saturday Night Live months before wider American audiences were even aware of his music. The thing they share is that they’ve all been presented from the get-go as thoughtful, self-determined artists, not pop flashes in the pan.
None of them has exactly been positioned as the next Hot 100 superstar, but if there is an heir to the Justin Timberlake throne waiting in the wings, it’s likely he’ll have to have unassailable musical bona fides. NPR’s Powers remembers seeing Timberlake perform years ago and “being very excited that he was playing his own instruments. I was thinking, ‘Look! He is a “real” musician!’ I was falling into that trap of defining ‘real’ in a certain way. He had to prove that he wasn’t just a puppet, and we do ask that of our male stars. I think that’s one reason people have issues with Bruno Mars, even though Bruno is so clearly an amazing talent. He has all the chops. But because he’s emphasized those showman elements, people say, ‘Oh, he’s nothing but an Elvis impersonator.’ So yeah, I do think that guys are in fear of being called inauthentic and in fear of somehow being thought of as disposable.”
Authenticity. Conventional wisdom holds that there is no greater imperative for pop stars in the millennial age. And while I do believe we demand it—or the appearance of it—from our men, do we really require authenticity from our women? Sure, to me, Miley Cyrus feels authentic; 100 percent. Same goes for Lorde. But is “authentic” a word that’s ever been used to describe Beyoncé? We also like our males to have a sense of humor, even to laugh at themselves. But has Rihanna ever demonstrated anything approaching a sense of humor? “Bitch Better Have My Money” is camp fun, but it’s not Ri laughing at herself. She doesn’t do self-deprecation. Then again, we don’t seem to be turning to her for that. Women: fabulous and fantastical. Men: legit, “real,” and down-to-earth. As I see it, that’s a textbook double standard, and not what I would call liberation.
Who, if anyone, is a serious contender to become the next major male pop star? There are certainly challengers (see sidebar above), but let’s end on the guy who has taken more shots than anyone in recent pop history and yet could mount a comeback that would rank among the stories of the year: Justin Bieber. He may have acted the entitled fool at times, but his recent antics pale in comparison with what countless rock and hip-hop stars have gotten away with throughout history—behavior that went on to become the stuff of music legend. Peeing in a bucket, stepping on a flag, and egging a house? Please. (Google this: Shark Zeppelin Seattle. You’re welcome.)
Yet Bieber’s wild-child nonsense was enough to get him pilloried on comment boards and comedy shows around the globe, and throw a major pop career off the tracks before it even had the chance to transition from tween pop into something more grown-up.
Still, maybe that’s what he needed. Maybe, like Miley, Bieber needed to blow up the old model and start anew. Very few can transition from boy to man as smoothly as Timberlake did, and as Powers observes, “For all of our fluidity and our ability to absorb different ideas, we need those clear transitions. If they don’t make those, it makes our consumers uncomfortable. And I think that’s what’s happening with Bieber.” But that doesn’t mean that despite some epic bumps in the road, he won’t evolve and return stronger. His collaboration with Diplo and Skrillex on Jack Ü’s “Where Are Ü Now” is one of the year’s unexpected triumphs. And reports that his next record will feature collaborations with two of our most forward-thinking musical visionaries, Kanye West and Rick Rubin, are encouraging.
I’d like to see him get on with that and dispense with the endless Instagram and Snapchat teases of possible collaborations with one pal after another. If Bieber’s natural talents can win out, if he can just get more comfortable in his own skin, if he can take the advice of one of pop’s leading ladies and “shake off” the hate, not feeling pressured to do anything but make the best record he can, I wouldn’t bet against him. Second acts are possible, especially when you’re 21. He just may make a Belieber out of you yet.