English is no longer the lingua franca of pop music, and its alpha stars – Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga – are an endangered species
In a recent episode of the New York Times Popcast, the paper’s critic, Jon Caramanica, recalled the week in August where K-pop seven-piece BTS and Puerto Rican star Ozuna’s respective albums debuted inside the US Top 10. “I remember looking at that and being, like, oh, this is it – this is the new pop order. This is not seven sub-genres ascending: this is pop.”
Here were two acts who had vaulted western pop’s language barrier: BTS are currently the world’s biggest boyband; Ozuna sings and raps, tackles reggaeton, bachata, Latin trap and plain old pop with equal ease, and was YouTube’s most streamed artist in the world in 2018. Numbers two and three in YouTube’s list were J Balvin and Bad Bunny, two more singer-rappers who primarily perform in Spanish. And, incidentally, eight of the 10 most viewed songs of 2018 were by Spanish-speaking acts.
What Caramanica noticed was a fundamental change to the idea that English is pop’s lingua franca. This development has been accompanied by a remarkable shift in the pop-star system itself. While bilingual artists surge into charts and playlists, joining the American rappers who have profoundly reshaped popular music in the last 20 years (the five most listened-to tracks on Spotify in 2018 were by US hip-hop acts), it’s a different story for the stars who emerged during the era we might call Pop 1.0. “The massive pop stars of yesteryear – Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake – are fading from the public consciousness,” wrote New Yorker critic Amanda Petrusich in a review of a Taylor Swift concert film, premiered by Netflix on New Year’s Eve.
Though the review is broadly sympathetic toward Swift, Petrusich suggests that despite the singer’s continuing immense popularity as a live act, she’s pushing an aesthetic that is outdated. Moreover, Petrusich seems to imply, so are the other superstars – Perry, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Madonna – who stage similarly alpha tours.