It’s easy to look at the pop music landscape in the defining eras of their respective reigning pop queens: Britney Spears and her Max Martin pop dominance, Beyonce’s continual reign over the culture, Taylor Swift’s country crossover that just doubled her fanbase, but will pop queens continue to dominate or are we moving into a completely different music structure.
How we consume music has changed so drastically that it feels odd to even name who dominates music in the 2020s. At what point do pop stars reach the transcendence these juggernauts have? Where they can drop a surprise album and have it immediately hit number one, or not release music for seven years and still play at the Super Bowl Halftime show. When it comes to Gen Z pop stars, is it simply about not having the same effect on the masses?
Who are the new pop stars?
When I think of the new generation of pop stars, I immediately think of Billie Eilish’s dominance over 2016. Her style of pop was darker and edgier. It embodied cool-girl energy that encapsulated what the next trend of music would be. Her whispery vocals and haunting production set the stage for the new wave of music. It felt like one of those defining moments in pop.
The second example would be Olivia Rodrigo, who came up on TikTok, and “Driver’s License” seemed to be a prime example of that old-school rise to fame. She had mainstream success and is not set up for whatever she releases next, and the pressure for her next release is palpable, but it shows that it’s possible for an artist to break through to the center of culture.
What has changed?
The music ecosystem right now is more about setting out small sparks until you get a big one. It takes a long time to have a global hit. It feels like fewer artists are breaking into the household name bracket of pop stars. We see music subcultures bubbling into the mainstream, but the amount of music and influx of constant new artists makes it hard for them to latch on permanently. We see so many songs blow up on TikTok that have such a short lifespan. They trend for a month and then are lost to the latest song to go viral. It’s hard to have an evergreen hit.
On top of that, the Top 40 radio play has mainly been songs from artists who are already established and even feel dated at this point. More artists are seeking out those subcultures and niches that will devour their music without ever making what people would call a hit song. Look at Chali XCX and even Lana Del Rey. They’re making music that’s being gobbled up by their fans without seeming close to making a radio hit.
Niche Pop Girls
I think we’re moving into a world where we have more niche pop domination. The way we’ve seen artists like Ethel Cain and Lizzy McAlpine develop a cult-like fanbase on TikTok just leans into the idea of those internet subcultures. They have a devout following but by no means are they household names yet, but maybe if those fanbases continue to gain traction we’ll see them breakthrough, but maybe it’s nice that we all have our niche pop girlies, it’s diversifying the pop space with something for everyone.