As a devout Christian, Justin Bieber is used to praying, and so he began 2020 with a plea: not for forgiveness, but for his fans to continuously stream his new single, “Yummy,” at low volume while they slept. He was trying to ensure that “Yummy,” his first new solo song in over four years, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100; we know now that this valiant attempt at faking history was for naught. But what was most notable about Bieber’s instructions—which included calls for non-American fans to download VPNs—was not the idea that a pop star and their fans might try to openly game the charts, but instead who such tactics were deployed against: Roddy Ricch, a relatively new rapper who had never had a Top 10 single, let alone challenged for No. 1.
Ricch’s defeat over Bieber—while slyly taunting him (and then Selena Gomez)—is a tidy encapsulation of where the music industry stands at the turn of the new decade. Streaming services have created a path for rappers to become pop stars, even when they’re not attempting to make pop music. Barriers separating rap music and the mainstream (musically and culturally) have been obliterated. Billboard’s charts are not omniscient, but they do adjudicate history, and one story that will be told by the 2019 year-end Hot 100 is of the sun beginning to set on the cultural relevance of a certain generation of pop star.
Taylor Swift, for instance, rolled out her new album with full bombast, but her biggest song of the year, “You Need to Calm Down,” barely snuck into the year-end Top 40. “ME!,” the album’s lead single, placed directly behind songs by 21 Savage and A Boogie Wit da Hoodie. (I heard it most often in a credit card commercial aired during college football games.) You may or may not remember Katy Perry releasing three singles last year; none of them placed on the year-end Hot 100. Instead, her lone appearance came via the remix of a Daddy Yankee song that landed between singles from Young Thug and YNW Melly. The cultural cache that Swift and Perry had built up by being two of the most acutely famous musicians in the world meant little in 2019, at least when it came to facing down hordes of kids with Lil Tecca playing in their earbuds. Pop stars may have stan armies, but rappers have the silent majority.
Still, it would be reductive to think of the current state of the music industry as being such a simple binary. Halsey, Ariana Grande, and the Jonas Brothers all had one of the 10 biggest songs of the year—we are not lacking for pure pop stars. Instead, streaming is accelerating a natural generational shift, putting immense power in the hands of a new wave of teenagers to immediately reshape the pop music canon. Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube have opened up an information superhighway that flows rapidly and without pause in two directions. It’s never been easier to access music; it’s also never been easier to access data on the consumption habits of the listener, which, when it comes to pop music, is what determines the very definition of the thing.
For people who care about what the pop charts tell us about cultural tastes, 2020 provides an interesting litmus test. Last year was dominated by artists like Billie Eilish, Lizzo, and Lil Nas X, who all notched the first major Billboard hits of their careers. Millennial-era pop stars fit in where, and how, they could. Ariana Grande bridged the gap by redirecting the attention gathered by her celebrity towards her music. Sam Smith duetted with Normani, Ed Sheeran with Khalid, and Chris Brown with Drake, to whom no rules apply. Lady Gaga sang a song from a hit movie that became a meme. Some were canny, others were desperate, and others were lucky; none provided an exact blueprint for how to move among the shifting tides.
Take Gaga, who flourished as millennials took hold of pop culture. “Shallow”—the 19th biggest song of 2019, according to Billboard—provided her with the sort of beloved smash hit that has eluded her for several albums. Her last solo single before A Star Is Born was “The Cure,” a mild success that was most noteworthy for how generic it sounded at the time. For Gaga, to whom the avant-garde was once a lifestyle, this was akin to a white flag, an acknowledgment that she could no longer locate the pulse of the zeitgeist and had given up on trying. Where does a Lady Gaga album, which is coming this year, fit into pop’s new landscape? What does it sound like? She would probably answer that these questions don’t matter to her creative process, but she is an artist whose work is measured in relation to the audience it is able to reach. She will be playing the same game as always, but now the rules are rigged against her.
If there is one millennial-era artist who has reacted most appropriately to Gen Z having taken the wheel, it would be Rihanna, who has essentially removed herself from the situation entirely. She spent 2019 selling clothes and makeup, not music, which seemed to suit her just fine. Her next album has been rumored in detail since 2018, its circuitous path to the marketplace mirroring that of 2016’s ANTI, which gestated for years. Since its release, no pop album has confounded like ANTI, which at first blush felt aimless, stuck in some weird static place between the mainstream and underground. But it eventually revealed itself to be genius, an idiosyncratic and tuneful album that understood how important the concepts of “mood” and “vibe” would soon be to pop culture consumers. It would turn out that being stuck between the mainstream and underground didn’t matter if the barriers between those two things were collapsing entirely. The album birthed three top 10 hits, including a No. 1; it was, in the end, familiar territory for Rihanna, but it felt like she had gotten there, for the first time, entirely on her own terms.
As for 2020, Rihanna’s new album is probably—maybe?—coming out. For the time being, she is content with teasing her fans and the world-at-large, posting memes about listening to her new album by herself. When one fan interrogated her directly about the status of the new record in the Instagram comments of a post about her makeup line, urging her to release it, she replied by saying, “Well this is bronzer”—one of the great celebrity quotes in recent memory. She is stepping outside of time, outside of the generational tug of war that her peers are losing.
It’s hard to blame her. She probably doesn’t even care if you have a VPN.