If you’re familiar with music stans, specifically pop music stans, you’ve probably noticed their obsession with “saving pop music.” Any time their pop stars aren’t topping the Billboard Hot 100 or dominating various streaming platforms there is a call for their favorite woman pop star to come back and “save pop music.” The phrase may seem innocent and in line with Stan Twitter’s brand of hyperbole, but it is actually deeply rooted in antiblackness.
Let’s examine when the call to “save pop music” is issued. Anytime an R&B or rap song starts to climb Billboard and block traditional pop songs from higher peaks, pop music needs to be “saved.” This year, Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” spent a staggering eleven weeks at #1 and blocked songs like Dua Lipa‘s “Don’t Start Now” and Lady Gaga‘s “Stupid Love” from the top spot and higher peaks on the chart. During the release week of “Stupid Love,” stans claimed that pop music need to be saved. Why? Because a rap song was experiencing the success that they wanted for their favorite pop stars and songs? As streaming has grown over the past half decade or so, hip-hop and R&B have seen a resurgence in success on the Billboard Hot 100. We’ve come a long way from 2013, a year that saw no black artists top the Hot 100 as a lead performer. Whether it was Drake dominating with “God’s Plan,” Travis Scott breaking records with “SICKO MODE,” or Migos, Rae Sremmurd, Lil Uzi Vert, and Gucci Mane scoring #1 singles with hip-hop tracks and viral memes, the sentiment was the same: pop music needed to be saved. Interestingly, the state of pop music in 2020 so far proves that genre is faring just fine. In fact, 57% of the tracks that reached the Hot 100’s Top 10 this year were pop songs; hip-hop accounted for just 35%. Last year 12 of the 16 tracks that topped the chart were pop songs. Singles from Ariana Grande, Halsey, Lewis Capaldi, Selena Gomez, Lizzo, and more led the chart for weeks on end. This year, Post Malone‘s “Circles,” a pop song, broke the record for longest stay in the Top 10 on the Hot 100 — 34 weeks and counting. Clearly, the stats are saying one thing and the stans are saying another. The real disconnect isn’t between stans and Billboard, it lies in who stans allow to be “saviors” of pop music and when the genre needs to be “saved.”
In the same way that stans find issue with the continued success of hip-hop singles, they find no issue when rock acts (as deemed by Billboard) experience chart success. When Imagine Dragons scored hit after hit from their Evolve album there were no calls to “save pop music.” When Panic! At the Disco scored smash single after smash single from their Pray for the Wicked record, again there were no calls to “save pop music.” Granted, the music that these two specific acts made are very pop-leaning, but they’re not in the vein of traditional pop power anthems like “Stupid Love” or “Shake It Off.” These sentiments only seem to appear when rap is the successful genre in question. This in and of itself exposes the issue with many people’s understanding of what pop music is. Yes, pop music has evolved to describe easily digestible mainstream songs with traditional sonic and lyrical structures. However, pop music also means popular music. In the year 2020, hip-hop is pop, and this has been the case for the past few years. Hip-hop is the genre that is dominating our collective culture whether it’s by soundtracking Tik Tok videos (Doja Cat’s “Say So” and Megan Thee Stallion‘s “Savage“), memorable production choices (the flute in Future’s “Mask Off”), or catchy ad-libs (Roddy’s “ee-err”). The disconnect in this understanding is rooted in the historical “othering” of Black music genres. For example, although the Motown era brought a new sound to the mainstream, their commercial success undeniably made them popular music titans. In this vein, the idea that many stans have of pop music “queens” specifically excludes and ignores black women and their contributions to music. They’ll remember Madonna, Cher, and Barbra Streisand, but leave out Janet Jackson, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and more. Although these women have comparable cultural and musical impact and commercial success, they are routinely excluded from conversations about the giants of pop music.
A similar sentiment can be felt in discussions of current music artists, Khalid has been dominating with pure pop songs like “Talk,” Halsey broke records with “Closer” and “Without Me,” The Weeknd is currently topping the charts with “Blinding Lights,” and yet they don’t get to be “saviors” of pop music. Why? Drake has been making pop songs for a while, “Hotline Bling,” “One Dance,” and even “Toosie Slide” are all very pop-leaning and experienced record-breaking commercial success, why doesn’t he get to be a “savior” of pop music. The answer is simply that for a lot of pop music stans only white woman pop stars can save the genre. Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, etc. — those are their saviors of the genre, and this conclusion is drawn from the historic whitewashing of popular music (and let’s not mince words, the majority of stans who perpetuate this are white themselves and “music quality” is the argument they hide behind.). For decades, the erasure of black artists across musical genres have resulted in a very specific whitewashed image of what musical genres are. White European DJs became the face of dance and electronic music despite the deep history of black LGBTQ+ artists pioneering the genre. Country and rock have become defined by white cowboys and groups like The Beatles despite the rich lineage of black cowboys, country legends like DeFord Bailey and Charley Pride, and rock icons like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Hip-hop is a comparatively younger genre, so there hasn’t been as much time to completely whitewash it despite futile attempts to tout rappers like Eminem as the best to ever do it while ignoring the black rap legends that informed his sound and style.
Even non-black pop artists who draw from black music don’t get to be “saviors.” Ariana Grande released three consecutive monster hits with “thank u, next,” “7 rings,” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” All three songs were heavily influenced by trap music tropes and “7 rings” included a rap verse spit by Ariana herself. With a combined 15 combined weeks at #1, 35 weeks in the Top 10, and more than 2.5 billion streams, why wasn’t she included in “saving pop music” discourse for the thank u, next era? Post Malone’s biggest hits were pop radio candy; “Better Now,” “Sunflower,” and “Circles” amassed billions of streams, but because he also draws from hip-hop influences he is never included in the list of people who can “save” pop music. Justin Bieber scored two strong hits from his Changes album with “Yummy” and “Intentions,” but again, his trap&b influences prevent him from being placed in the “saving pop music” discussion. Every comment has an unspoken flipside, what or who exactly does pop music need saving from?
Pop music does not need to be saved and it has never needed to be saved. This was a phrase created to uplift pop stars and subgenres that the general public had moved on from, not to actually support the multitude of pop artists killing the game right now. The idea of “saving pop music” is exclusive to white women in pop music and the phrase is routinely weaponized against Black artists and Black music genres. It can be used ironically, but more often than not, people are serious when they employ this clearly anti-black term. This may seem trivial in the context of Stan Twitter discourse, but it is indicative of the impact that whitewashing has had on general understandings of pop music and popular culture.