What Happens When a Pop Star Isn’t That Popular?

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In many ways, pop itself is shrinking. The Hot 100 is currently populated by country musicians (Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs), purveyors of regional sounds (Rema, Peso Pluma) and rap stars (Travis Scott, Gunna). Aside from a few holdouts like Swift and Miley Cyrus, relics of an era in which mainstream music was dominated by world-beating megawatt pop stars, there are few pop singers on the charts right now.

For other contemporary pop stars, the act of releasing music itself feels incidental to their celebrity status. In recent years, Kesha — one of the dominant commercial forces of the 2010s, securing 10 Top 10s in the first four years of her career — has become known less for her music than for her longtime legal battle with the producer Dr. Luke; still a Twitter (now known as X) and tabloid fixture, her music is often the least-discussed thing about her. “Gag Order,” her latest album, debuted at No. 187 in May, selling the equivalent of 8,300 copies its first week.

And then there is Charli XCX, who spent a large portion of her career making outré, abrasive records with a bevy of collaborators from the worlds of hyperpop and experimental electronic music. Once a true commercial prospect — during the early years of her career, Charli scored a handful of Hot 100 Top 10s, including the No. 1 Iggy Azalea collaboration “Fancy” — it seemed, for a while, as if Charli had willfully recused herself from the pop music Olympics, perhaps as a way of insulating herself against the major-label industry’s callous and often cruel whims.

As it turned out, it was actually far simpler than that: She was just taking an aesthetic detour. Her mainstream-skewing fifth album “Crash,” released last year, was described by Charli herself as her “main pop girl moment” and debuted at No. 7, her highest Billboard 200 position yet. This month, her single “Speed Drive,” written for the “Barbie” soundtrack, became her first Hot 100 entry in nine years. It drove the point home: She can be a big-time pop star, if she so chooses.

This article is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.



POST AUTHOR: Shaad D’Souza

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