2016 has been another odd, difficult year. Problems from years past – wealth inequality, police brutality against black bodies, lack of progress in trans visibility and laws against transgender people – have all popped up again this year. Couple those issues with the unrest from an upcoming shitshow of a general election, and it’s hard to take the time to digest the year’s musical output. Perhaps that’s why most of the year’s biggest hits have been relatively quiet affairs rather than massive pop moments. 2016 began as the dawn of pop music’s faceless era. Who knows how long it will play out.
Two of the biggest current hits – Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and P!nk’s “Just Like Fire” – come attached to well-defined commercial enterprises. The EDM bubble has yet to burst, and Calvin Harris and the Chainsmokers have scored some of the genre’s big hits with “This Is What You Came For” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” “Panda” came and went quicker than you can say panda, panda, panda, panda, panda, panda, panda.
No artist better signifies this era than the only one who is as faceless as a pop music artist has ever been: Sia. Since she’s gone from indie-pop singer-songwriter to A-list songwriter for Beyoncé, Rihanna, and herself, she has refused to show her face in any public setting. Her album This Is Acting has already scored two hits, with “Alive” being a much more minor hit compared to what “Cheap Thrills” has become.
All of these minor strokes come together to form a big picture: pop music in its current state is an accessory, for better or worse. It’s only there to accompany whatever is the big event. In these challenging times, pop music is at its safest, least objectionable in recent memory. There’s no need to rock the boat when you’re already in choppy waters.
It’s true that most pop music since the dawn of Top 40 radio has fit that mold, but we are accustomed to having at least one face at the forefront of pop music. And it’s not for a lack of trying. Some of the year’s biggest albums have come from A-listers Rihanna, Beyoncé, Radiohead, and Kanye West, while only one of the year’s biggest hits – “Work” – comes from those albums. Every artist reaches a pop radio saturation point, but most see the decline in their power on the airwaves as a decline in their recognition.
The internet and rise of streaming has all but made that notion antiquated. “Sorry” and “Needed Me” aren’t getting played at the rate of the year’s biggest pop radio hits, but the impact of those songs is felt throughout our culture much more than the newest Chainsmokers or twenty one pilots singles. Artists don’t need radio hits to stay relevant anymore, and it’s created a landscape where new artists emerge and fall back at record clips, songs years in existence get noticed in the U.S. well after their dominance overseas.
Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, P!nk, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Adele, and Drake have all reigned in the past – and in Drake’s case, the present. That Drake – an artist coming close to ten years in the game (and this isn’t a knock on Drake, more of a testament to his stunning run) is at the top just goes to show that Pop music is at a crossroads.
There will be a next big act to join that group of untouchable stars. We might already be familiar with their music. Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Nick Jonas, Demi Lovato, Shawn Mendes and ZAYN are all capable, and have shown various degrees of success, yet none have pushed through with zeitgeist-capturing eras. Or, like most of the biggest music of 2016, they could be part of the faceless crowd, ready to make their’s known.