Why pop music is so ‘meh’ right now

Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift have all recently released albums that underperformed relative to their past works. PHOTO: KEVIN MAZUR/MG24/GETTY IMAGES; SEAN ZANNI/PATRICK MCMULLAN/GETTY IMAGES; BUDA MENDES/TAS23/GETTY IMAGES
Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift have all recently released albums that underperformed relative to their past works. PHOTO: KEVIN MAZUR/MG24/GETTY IMAGES; SEAN ZANNI/PATRICK MCMULLAN/GETTY IMAGES; BUDA MENDES/TAS23/GETTY IMAGES


New releases by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa were supposed to be huge. Instead, they have fallen short of past works.

For pop fans, the first half of 2024 was supposed to be the best ever: Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa all came back with much-hyped albums, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé dropped blockbusters in the same window for the first time in 16 years and even Jennifer Lopez welcomed a new addition to her discography.

As it turns out, “Pop Girl Spring"—as some called it—has ended up…kind of meh.

“It all feels forgettable," says Chris Antonacci, a 31-year-old Katy Perry and Rihanna fan. “None of these releases"—including his personal favorite, Grande’s “Eternal Sunshine," which spawned two No. 1 hits—“have been cultural moments."

Pop stars aren’t popping—at least not like they used to.

A striking number of Top-40 artists have fallen flat with tentpole albums this year, either due to lackluster sales, negative reviews or just a diminished capacity for cutting through the noise and shifting the culture, music-industry executives say.

Dua Lipa’s latest album, “Radical Optimism," which was released May 3, didn’t make a splash even though she both hosted and performed on “Saturday Night Live." Not one of her new tracks is currently among the 100 most-streamed songs in the U.S., according to industry data tracker Luminate.

J. Lo and Justin Timberlake haven’t reached the masses—nor have younger performers Girl in Red and Maggie Rogers—judging from their absence from Spotify’s U.S. Top 50 chart. Country-pop artist Kacey Musgraves’s latest LP hasn’t captivated fans like her 2018 album “Golden Hour" did. Even top A-listers like Swift and Beyoncé have underperformed in certain ways relative to their past works, while Eilish—despite scoring a career-best debut week—has received middling reviews from some critics.

The string of pop flops is the latest evidence of how difficult it has become for the music business to generate the kinds of genuine moments that turbocharge sales and move the cultural needle, music executives say. Making pop hits has always been a crapshoot. But today, with the world awash in content, TikTok rewriting labels’ playbooks and listeners burrowing deeper into their own personalized niches, even avid pop fans don’t recognize what’s in the Billboard top 10. In such a decentralized market, pop stars face fierce competition. Disappointing albums, in turn, can hurt concert sales. It all adds up to music executives across genres seeming to wield less power over the star-making machinery than ever.

“It’s harder and harder to, a, get attention and b, maintain that attention," says Benjy Grinberg, chief executive of music company Rostrum Pacific, parent of independent record label Rostrum Records. “Things have come and gone," he says.

This weakness among pop stars is showing up on the Billboard charts. Now that these charts incorporate streaming, it’s normal for huge names to land tons of songs from their albums on the charts and then see most of them fall off. Lately, however, even artists’ anchoring singles—the ones they want us to pay attention to—have lacked staying power, according to an analysis for the Journal by Chris Dalla Riva, senior product manager for data and personalization at the streaming service Audiomack.

“Though many A-list pop stars released new albums over the last few months, it feels like many of those albums haven’t made the same cultural impact of their earlier works," Dalla Riva says.

Dua Lipa’s previous album, 2020’s “Future Nostalgia," had two songs that stayed in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for at least four weeks. “Radical Optimism," her new album, has had zero.

Despite Swift’s “The Tortured Poets Department" being the biggest album of the year, notching seven straight weeks at No. 1 and delivering her largest opening week ever, only one of its 10 top-ten singles has stayed in that realm for at least four weeks. With 2022’s “Midnights," three of her eight top-ten hits managed a four-week stay. “1989," from 2014? Six long-lasting hits.

Even Beyoncé hasn’t been immune. Her recent single “Texas Hold ’Em" lingered in the top 10. But another song, her cover of Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene," hit No. 7 and then promptly dropped to No. 51, and then No. 88—before falling off the chart entirely.

Superstars can’t just blame a crowded marketplace—even if Swift’s full-court press of constant releases generates headwinds.

The hip-hop & R&B genre experienced a jam-packed first half back in 2016—with new albums by Rihanna, Kanye West, Drake and Chance the Rapper (not to mention Beyoncé); these all proved commercially or critically successful despite the heavy traffic.

While there have been bright spots in pop this year—reviews for Charli XCX’s new LP are strong—in many cases, superstars may have simply failed to deliver compelling music, which explains fan complaints about unoriginal and boring tunes. Swift’s bloated 31-track album annoyed even some of her own followers. When the music website Stereogum unveiled its 50 best albums of 2024 so far, neither she nor Eilish were on it. To some extent, Top-40 pop could be witnessing another changing of the guard, with established stars ceding territory to more meme-friendly upstarts like Sabrina Carpenter, whose next-generation savvy and humorous delivery on hits like “Espresso" has her poised to dominate the summer.

Making it worse, major stars aren’t doing full-fledged campaigns like they usually do.

For years, pop acts have thought of themselves in terms of “eras" or “chapters"—ambitious, meticulously crafted promotional cycles that helped them build narratives, demonstrate personal or artistic growth and (of course) sell albums and concert tickets. Ideally, these eras created a colorful imaginative universe for fans and, over time, helped radio turn successful hits into inescapable ones.

But lately, some artists’ promotional activities have seemed clipped.

For all she’s done for “Tortured Poets," Swift has effectively wrapped the album into her ongoing career-retrospective Eras Tour, instead of, say, dedicating a unique tour to it. It’s a natural consequence of releasing music so frequently. But the fact that Swift is behaving like a “current" artist and a “legacy" artist at the same time may be contributing to why “Tortured Poets" doesn’t feel as momentous as 2020’s “Folklore."

Grande, for her part, isn’t touring at all—with much of her focus likely to be on the movie musical “Wicked," which arrives in November. J. Lo recently canceled her own tour. Eilish didn’t release any advance singles ahead of her album. Beyoncé hasn’t followed her initial push behind “Cowboy Carter" with anything dramatic.

For some, it’s starting to feel like the velocity of today’s music-listening culture is shortening the lifespans of pop-star eras themselves.

Pop stars and rock bands once undertook drawn-out promotional cycles, issuing four or seven or even nine singles.

Now pop artists and their teams may increasingly be fine with taking a few shots and then calling it a day.

Then it’s on to the next album.

Write to Neil Shah at Neil.Shah@wsj.com

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