Sunday, November 17, 2013

Two Thoughts on (the rise and fall of) Female Pop Stars


Two years ago, at the height of Born This Way furore, I identified the problem with Lady Gaga's pop trajectory: after Bad Romance Gaga took as her model the more conceptual, overexposing 1989-1992 Madonna, the Madonna whose music feels secondary to exhibitionism, cultural provocation and domination for its own sake. That was a problem for Gaga because Madonna had all the cultural political capital gained from her first three albums to spend down during that period, while Gaga's obnoxious and exhausting phase had to be 'funded' out of only the handful of broadly appealing singles up to Bad Romance.

Fast-forward two years and Gaga's OK-ish (and certainly better than BTW) next album, Artpop, arrives together with all sorts of extra-musical, antic and excessive promotional stunts, but only the hard core of fans are paying any sort of positive attention: Gaga's selling a few hundred thousand records not millions. The sort of good will you need to have to get the casual fan to buy your stuff no longer exists for Gaga - it's all been spent. Maybe Gaga will enjoy being a more cult figure, albeit one's that's possibly about as big as Bowie was for much of the 1970s:

"As of June 1983, Bowie’s total global album sales were as follows (according to Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust, figures rounded up/down):

Three top sellers: Ziggy Stardust (1.38 million units moved), ChangesOneBowie (1.33 million), Young Americans (923,000). A few gold records: Diamond Dogs (745,000), David Live (598,000), Station to Station (552,800), Aladdin Sane (533,000); a few mid-list sellers: Space Oddity (455,600), Hunky Dory (445,600), Pin Ups (421,250), Scary Monsters (347,400). With the “Berlin” records, a complete cratering: “Heroes” (279,000), Low (265,900), Lodger (153,360), Stage (127,350). Between 1977 and 1983, one of every two new Bowie LPs was returned unsold by retailers. By contrast, Michael Jackson sold over a million copies of Off the Wall between August and December 1979 alone." (Pushing After The Dame)

Here's hoping she can come up with some 'Berlin'-worthy music once she realizes her new status.


2013 has seen the rise of the exciting, brilliantly precocious Lorde. This was a genuinely unexpected development; 2013 was supposed to be the year of the 'Baby Robyns': Frida Sundemo, Faye, MØ, and the like:



I'm not sure that it quite makes sense for all these Scandi-gals to sell nothing while Lorde sells millions! Indeed Robyn herself has never had quite the global success (esp. in North America) that Lorde is having. Thus, while Lorde is a fantastic development for the charts, the flukiness and winner-take-all-ness of pop chart success remains troubling. Incredible luck is involved in becoming a 'chosen one'. Lorde shows signs of understanding this, and of appreciating her good fortune more generally. Let's hope she never forgets the point (it's probably one of the keys, along with staying a little bit 'alternative' to the mainstream, to Lorde's preserving good will and having a long career).

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