Have We Reached The End Of The Eccentric Pop Era?

Carl Williott | September 21, 2016 11:00 am

Carly Rae Jepsen could’ve put up Drake numbers last year. In a just world, she’d be Queen of Smash Hits. Alas. But this isn’t just some fantasy music crit elitism here. It’s a rational appraisal of how the pop landscape has shifted over the last several months: After years in the eccentric pop era, stars are swinging in the opposite direction, to the side of normalization.

Look no further than Lady Gaga‘s recent trajectory to see how the top of the pops has been reshaped. She was a driving force behind the mainstream’s embrace of theatrical absurdism and surrealism in commercial pop. The Kermit dress, the bloody “Paparazzi” spectacle, the meat dress, the alien egg…these things were legitimately wild and thrilling back in 2008, ’09, ’10. When she came up out of nowhere with this outrageous image, it was a jolt to the system which was at that point being ruled by the likes of Flo RidaColdplay, Leona LewisPitbull, and Kings Of Leon.

Gaga’s rise felt like some new path opening up, and in the wake of her rise to pop’s upper echelon, other major stars’ images and sounds became brasher and more self-consciously over-the-top. Kesha was a neon party monster, Katy Perry shot confections out of her chest, Nicki Minaj had more wig colors than rap voices. Even Kanye West joined in, donning masks during his manic artiste episode in 2012-13.

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But then it started feeling rote. Subsequent stunts — Gaga’s vomit spectacle at SXSW in 2014, Kanye prowling around the SNL stage like a wolf last year, Sia still sticking with this giant wig thing — seemed like overwrought antics standing in for actual expression. They seemed less about making an artistic statement and more about monopolizing the Twitter conversation afterwards. The constant game of one-upmanship was leaving the creators exhausted and the consumers desensitized.

Maybe Katy Perry burning her wig was the beginning of the end of this “weird” phase. Or maybe it was Miley’s Dead Petz debacle. But what’s clear is performative strangeness is on the wane. (Don’t get me wrong, we still have plenty of oddballs doing unconventional stuff — FKA twigsMelanie Martinez, Young Thug, Grimes — they’re just not at the superstar tier, and they seem to be riding their own waves rather than just offering histrionics.) So Nicki ditched the garish wardrobe and dropped a string of lean rap tracks ahead of The Pinkprint. Kanye bailed on underground EDM producers and started dressing like a haute grunge star. And even Mother Monster herself, that first and last vestige of the era, got the handwritten memo, swapping her art-pop aspirations for arena rock, denim, and a tasteful portrait.

In this new lowkey landscape, our leaders are Rihanna with her aloof coolness, Taylor Swift with her manufactured regularness, Beyoncé with her identity politics and quasi-autobiographical music, Ariana Grande with her diva voice and plain donut persona. A couple of the year’s biggest albums are also a couple of the year’s least daring ones: Drake’s VIEWS and Adele‘s 25. Dance bros like Calvin Harris, Major Lazer, and The Chainsmokers stormed the charts with a bunch of understated twee-DM pool party music. Justin Timberlake lands a No. 1 hit with the safest song of his career. The bizarro energy that drove blockbuster pop for the past eight years has dissipated, and in its place we’re seeing a triumph of professionalism, a triumph of the personal. A return to what’s simple and straightforward.

So it stands to reason that if relatable rules the day, Carly should reign, since that’s the exact space she has been mastering for the last four years. Alas, Queen of Spotting Trends will have to suffice.