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From Dua Lipa to Camila Cabello, why are so many pop stars flopping?

Female pop stars have been throwing new personas at the wall: Eight years after her iconic CMAs performance, Beyoncé made a hard, star-spangled turn to country. Ariana Grande traded in her usual R&B bangers for an Imogen Heap-inspired album. Dua Lipa left the dance floor for some chill, vacation bops. And Camila Cabello is determined to be the next princess of hyperpop, taking an uncomfortable amount of inspiration from Charli XCX.

Recently, the pop landscape has been unusually crowded. In addition to the aforementioned artists, Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, Charli XCX, Billie Eilish, and Normani have all released new albums in the span of just four months. However, you wouldn’t necessarily know it looking at the most steady songs on the Billboard Hot 100 this year.

This is not to ignore the accomplishments of Sabrina Carpenter, whose latest single “Please Please Please” sat at No. 1 last week. (More on that later.) However, it’s hard not to notice what kind of music seems to be making the biggest impression right now — rap and country — and who’s experiencing success in these genres: men.

The demand for these beloved genres isn’t surprising, especially after Billboard’s country takeover last year, and given that Kendrick Lamar has been embroiled in a compelling feud with Drake. Still, this male-dominated moment feels glaring as so many established female singers compete for attention in the pop space.

Are listeners exhausted by the current state of female pop, with all its rigorous demands and obsession with “eras”? Is the predictability of someone like country singer Morgan Wallen what it takes to chart?

Rap and (male) country artists have seized the charts

In a post-streaming world, it’s never been harder to tell what music is actually popular versus what’s just being consumed in our own algorithmic bubbles. The disparity between what’s talked about in pop music-interested sectors of the internet (i.e., queer people and straight women) and what the “masses” are consuming feels especially pronounced looking at the Billboard Hot 100 chart this year.

For instance, a list of Billboard’s top 10 songs for the week of June 15 earned surprised reactions from users on X for how starkly male it was. Alongside songs by Morgan Wallen and Post Malone, Shaboozey, Teddy Swims, Kendrick Lamar, Hozier, and Zach Bryan, Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso” was the only female entry. Despite being truly unavoidable and seemingly overplayed, it had only occupied No. 6 on the chart.

“I’m definitely not hearing something like Post Malone and Morgan Wallen’s “I Had Some Help” on a daily basis,” says music blogger Molly Mary O’Brien, who also co-hosts the And Introducing podcast. “But I do feel like streaming and our perceived lack of musical monoculture mean a No. 1 does not hit the way it used to hit, where it comes at you from every angle.”

“Streaming and our perceived lack of musical monoculture mean a No. 1 does not hit the way it used to hit”

One of the rare monocultural moments of the year, however, involved Kendrick Lamar, who elevated a years-long feud with Drake on the Future and Metro Boomin song “Like That” back in March. After weeks of sparring and interference from other rappers, Lamar was declared the winner by fans who supported his diss tracks. Even for folks who weren’t hip-hop heads, the scale of the beef made it hard not to tune in. It was equally hard to avoid Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hiss,” which went to No. 1 and incited a feud with Nicki Minaj, as well as Tommy Richman’s viral hit “Million Dollar Baby,” which continues to rise in the top 10. And after plenty of controversy surrounding Ye and Ty Dolla Sign’s joint album, the eponymous song “Vultures” debuted at No. 1 this year. Although, at this point in Ye’s career, it seems like more people are paying more attention to his antics than his musical output.

If you’re not tuned into the world of country, however, the rise of Morgan Wallen or Post Malone’s pivot to the genre might catch you off guard. However, the popularity of Wallen, Malone, Zach Bryan, and Jelly Roll over the past two years have signaled country going, once again, in a mainstream direction.“We’re in a moment where country music is incredibly popular,” says Phoebe Hughes, a musicology lecturer at Binghamton University. “It’s, dare I say, cool for younger folks to like country music. Or at least, it seems that way in comparison to 10 years ago.”

However, this moment has raised more complicated questions about who’s allowed to represent the genre to a wide audience. Malone’s transformation from rapper to eagerly embraced country star has generated criticism about his ability to shuffle between racialized genres as a white man. Meanwhile, Wallen’s heightened popularity, following a racism scandal, has been uncomfortable to observe. The rise of Shaboozey, a rare prominent Black country artist, adds a level of excitement to this lineup. Still, a broader question looming over all of their successes, particularly in the year of Cowboy Carter, is, where are the women?

Hughes says that country, like rap, has “always been male-dominated,” despite the indelible contributions of women. In regards to chart performance, a big factor is that women have historically (and presently) struggled to receive the same amount of radio play as men. It’s an issue that’s been discussed by female country singers, from Carrie Underwood to Kacey Musgraves, ad nauseam. At this point, though, it doesn’t show signs of changing.

“From the early 2000s onward, we can see a dramatic decrease in female artists present on country radio,” Hughes says. “The ratio of male-to-female airplay between 2010 and 2019 was 8.7 to 1. And that stat has only gotten worse around the last 5 years.”

Male artists have a level of predictability, for better or worse

In many ways, this current moment feels like the extension of another controversial period in the genre labeled “bro country.” The name described a type of country pop in the early 2010s, represented by Nashville-bred artists like Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Blake Shelton. These men sang — and continue to sing, in many cases — about partaking in stereotypically masculine hobbies like drinking beer and driving pickup trucks. Often, these songs objectified women. At the time, critics and even other male musicians slammed these artists and their songs for the banality of their lyrics and sonic repetitiveness.

“To me, ‘I Had Some Help’ doesn’t sound super different from 2010s mainstream country music,” O’Brien said. “This type of music is very popular in America, partially because it doesn’t change much in sound and is a more consistent and conservative genre of music.”

Hughes notes that the pop and hip-hop influences in many “bro-country” songs, like the popular Nelly-assisted remix of the Florida Georgia Line song “Cruise” in 2013 made the sort of genre-fusing we’re currently hearing from Wallen and Jelly Roll explode.

Singers Post Malone and Morgan Wallen performing at the 2023 CMA Awards.
Frank Micelotta/Disney via Getty Images

Rap has a similar consistency, with beef being a classic form people are always ready and excited to engage with. In the case of Lamar and Drake, the explosion of a long-standing feud between two of the biggest rappers on the planet, who also make ideal enemies, was hard to resist. But it also offered Lamar, a fairly conservative rapper, a platform to step into new territory. With “Not Like Us,” he made the sort of danceable party music Drake is known for — and failed to do in this beef — and showed a more humorous, petty side of himself.

But the broader music landscape seems to allow men to thrive in a way that doesn’t involve the sort of evolution and constant transforming consumers have learned to expect from women. In response to Billie Eilish’s hyper-feminine transformation of her sophomore album Happier Than Ever, journalist Cheyenne Roundtree wrote, “it seems that more frequently, female pop artists are not only being pushed to challenge themselves artistically, but to transform everything about themselves with each new release.”

O’Brien agrees, saying, “Men, as a whole, do not seem to need to put nearly as much effort into the packaging of their aesthetics to accompany their music.” Ed Sheeran is maybe the most notable (and criticized) example of an A-list act, whose visual presentation, in terms of both himself and his albums, has been completely irrelevant to his success.

In 2018, a viral photo of the British singer dressed casually next to a glammed-up Beyoncé wearing a gown seemed to represent the effort female and male artists are expected to put into their looks. When Sheeran did attempt a visual transformation, parading as a glam-rock vampire in the “Bad Habits” video, he was immediately accused of copying The Weeknd, notably one of the few male pop singers who seems interested in “eras” and visual transformations in the tradition of modern pop divas.

Still, someone like Post Malone has proven that these grand, artistic statements are hardly ever demanded from men, even when they make drastic changes to their sound.

“Post Malone’s musical approach has shifted quite a bit from when he first started, from hip-hop to more rock and country,” says O’Brien. “He gets to basically show-not-tell, letting the music speak for itself and not worrying so much about what ‘era’ he’s in.”

Fans are yearning for a more fun, simpler time in pop

One has to wonder if music fans are partly exhausted by the big artistic gestures we frequently demand from female pop musicians. Given the lack of excitement around the actual music recently, are these extracurricular requirements creating good songs?

Long before Swift had embarked on her enormous Eras tour last year, female artists have been tasked with not just reinventing themselves visually and sonically, but offering compelling personal narratives to go along with their albums. Madonna is often credited with this phenomenon, as someone who constantly evolved her sound while telegraphing where she was in her personal life. However, Beyoncé and Swift, through their expansive rollouts and confessional albums, have expertly modeled this for their peers and a generation of online fans.

Beyoncé has also come to exemplify the merging of personal and political narratives, creating pop music that speaks to moments related to and outside of herself. In the case of Cowboy Carter, though, it does feel like her aims to educate listeners on the Black origins of country music got in the way of a fun, easy-listening summer album.

By contrast, an extremely non-intellectual ditty, Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso,” has emerged as the song of the summer. And Charli XCX’s album of pure club bangers, Brat, has seen a longer-lasting cultural footprint on the internet with the “Brat summer” memes and tracks like “Apple” and “360” becoming TikTok faves.

Musical artist Chappell Roan performing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Thursday, June 20, 2024.

Chappell Roan performing on The Tonight Show on June 20, 2024.
Todd Owyoung/NBC via Getty Images

Chappell Roan is another already beloved, up-and-coming pop singer, whose drag-queen aesthetic and big, infectious melodies feel reminiscent of the 2010s, the Katy Perry era of pop. Her ravenous fanbase has already earned her the title of Gen Z’s Madonna. Unironically, this year’s deluge of okay-ish pop albums has also made way for a highly anticipated Perry comeback.

“The 2010s were an extremely long decade of millennial pop dominance by women who are all daughters of Madonna in one way or another,” O’Brien says.“I think we’re all ready for some breaths of fresh air.”

While Carpenter and Roan are different in sound and look, they’re filling an obvious void this year. With all the labor involved in creating a new “era,” you’d be forgiven for forgetting that, as a pop diva, you also have to deliver good songs.

“What maybe gets forgotten in the quest for ‘moments’ is that you have to have good songs,” O’Brien says. “We’re human beings and we need melody and color and fun, we’re practically screaming out for it, and I think that’s what this new crop of pop stars has to offer most of all at this moment.”

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