With Lady Gaga’s ‘Stupid Love’, Theatrical Pop Is Once Again Taking Over The Charts

Big and ballsy pop music is back with a vengeance - so why did it disappear in the first place?

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When Lady Gaga released ‘Stupid Love’, the lead single off her forthcoming sixth album Chromatica, it was met with elation and relief. Finally, pop Gaga had returned — the cowboy hat has been hung up, and she has returned to the outlandish theatrics that made her such a magnetic popstar in the first place.

While the return of pop Gaga is worth getting excited about, it’s also demonstrative of something wider. Pop, in its purest form, is back. We’re talking big, bold, four-to-the-floor pop music.

Pop has not been absent since Gaga left her post vacant, but it has been very different. For much of last decade, pop has been dominated by relatable ballads and hip-hop-inspired trap-pop. Now, however, we’re seeing a shift back to pop of high tempos and theatrics — from Dua Lipa’s unrelenting, muscular ‘Physical’ to The Weeknd’s pulsating, dramatic ‘Blinding Lights’, we’re at the beginning of a pure pop renaissance.

When Gaga released her last pop album, ARTPOP, it was marked as the first commercial blunder in her career. Lead single ‘Applause’ splashed into the top 10 around the world, but it was the sole hit from the album. For the first time in a long time, it felt like Gaga wasn’t leading the conversation surrounding pop anymore.

Her theatrics, topped off by a vomit-centric performance art piece at SXSW, had grown tired with the general public. But it wasn’t just Gaga, it was outlandish pop in general.

Curtain Time For Theatrics

The early 2010s was a fascinating time for pop music, as every popstar became embroiled in a desperate competition to out-shock their audience.

In 2011, Gaga arrived at the Grammys in an egg, ‘incubating’ before she took to the stage to perform ‘Born This Way’ for the first time. The following year, Nicki Minaj arrived with a fictional pope and performed an exorcism on stage. Meanwhile, Katy Perry dreamt up cotton-candy worlds, Kesha brushed her teeth with Jack while turning the world into a ratchet party, and Beyoncé toured as both herself and her alter-ego Sasha Fierce.

Audiences became so used to the drama that when Lana Del Rey arrived in 2011, people dreamed up a narrative about her, questioning her authenticity. According to listeners, her songs weren’t about her, they were about a character reminiscent of modern Hollywood. Del Rey has since proven herself to be one of the most transparent figures in pop, but in the early 2010s listeners wanted there to be more than just a person making music. There had to be alter-egos, storylines and fictional worlds. The soundtrack to it all was EDM-pop — big choruses, euphoric bridges, and beats that commanded dancing.

When Gaga’s ARTPOP dropped in 2013, the tides were already changing. The shock tactics had become hard to sustain and popstar expectations had shifted. Inspired by the ever-increasing level of transparency between a star and their fans on social media, fans wanted to be friends with their popstars.

The masses were no longer excited by pop that they couldn’t directly relate to, and they could connect to heartache and underdog anthems more than they could a Gaga dress made of meat. A new era had begun.

The Era Of Relatability

When Adele released her second record 21, she was an anomaly. The album, which has since gone on to sell more than 31 million copies, topped charts worldwide and spawned ‘Rolling In The Deep’, which became the highest-selling single in the US that year.

She was joined at the top, however, by dance-pop purveyors LMFAO, The Black Eyed Peas, Minaj and Spears. But as Popjustice creator Peter Robinson told The Guardian, Adele caused a shift in thinking. When she debuted ‘Someone Like You’ at the BRIT Awards, host James Corden said “you can have all the dancers, pyrotechnics, laser shows you want, but if you sound like that all you need is a piano.”

It was an unintentional condemnation of the Gaga brand of pop; Gaga can play the piano and sing like few others, but to be adored in this new era you had to be no-frills.

It was an unintentional condemnation of the Gaga brand of pop; Gaga can play the piano and sing like few others, but to be adored in this new era you had to be no-frills.

By 2014, big dance-pop songs had been almost entirely wiped from the charts. In its place were ballads like John Legend’s ‘All Of Me’, Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’, and Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’ — some of the biggest songs of the year. When popstars weren’t making ballads, they were spreading perceivably relatable messages: Meghan Trainor was trying to promote body positivity with ‘All About That Bass’, Lorde had broken through with her take on celebrity life ‘Royals’, and Pharrell was calling for universal smiles with ‘Happy’.

2014 also marked the lowest year of revenue for the music industry of the millennium, but records by Adele, Sheeran and Smith were selling in an era of piracy. That is, actual physical copies. There was no reason to take a chance on risky pop music when this brand of music was selling in a climate where shifting albums seemed impossible.

It’s easy to understand why Gaga’s next move after ARTPOP was Joanne — an album that traded dance-pop for country-tinged tunes. Its biggest single was ‘Million Reasons’, a stirring ballad that could be traced more closely to the emotive cinema of A Star Is Born than her previous pop endeavours. Speaking on the album, she told NME, “Who I really and truly am is a little girl who loved to play the piano.” A statement far more relatable than when she described ARTPOP as a, “reverse Warholian expedition.”

Hip-Hop Meets Pop

While dance-pop had faded from the frontier of commercial pop, the genre itself hadn’t completely disappeared. It had simply mutated. In 2017, hip-hop surpassed rock to become the most popular genre and its presence was felt in a wave of trap-inspired pop that still has a stranglehold on the charts.

Pop songs inspired by rap or pop songs featuring rappers spiked in 2018 as songs like Maroon 5’s ‘Girls Like You’ featuring Cardi B and Camila Cabello’s ‘Havana’ featuring Young Thug topped charts globally.

Meanwhile, Ariana Grande had arguably become the biggest popstar in the world by pairing relatability and fan visibility with trap-inspired music. Her dance-pop records, from ‘Break Free’ to ‘Into You’, made her a star, but 2019’s Thank U, Next transformed her into the voice of a generation — a generation that documents their lives to the camera and broadcasts it, often in real-time, to the world. We may have exited ballad territory, but perceived transparency was still key.

The new generation of popstars from Billie Eilish to Halsey are all making music intrinsically linked to modern hip-hop. Eilish’s ‘bad guy’ and Halsey’s ‘Without Me’, for example, share a BPM with more hip-hop songs than they do pop songs. Even Max Martin, who has produced some of the biggest dance-pop songs of the last decade (Katy Perry’s ‘Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)’, Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’), embraced hip-hop, introducing Swift to trap on reputation and producing Perry and Migos’ misjudged collaboration ‘Bon Appétit’.

A Dance-Pop Renaissance

It’s worth noting that dance-pop in its most joyous form didn’t completely disappear. It’s been bubbling along away from the mainstream for the last few years courtesy of artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, Kim Petras, and Robyn.

These careers have largely been driven by queer fanbases — the same fans that have stuck with Madonna as she’s fallen in and out of favour with the mainstream public. These communities have given dance-pop visibility even when the charts were ignoring it. The pop underground often sets the commercial agenda for the years to come and it’s a large reason why, a decade after it began to fade, dance-pop is making a glorious return.

Swift and Perry aren’t the hallmarks of popular music they once were, but their 2019 moves both signalled the changing face of pop. Swift ditched the dark trap sound of reputation on Lover in favour of straight-up, often very danceable, pop. Perry, who spectacularly misjudged the climate with her experimental flop Witness, gave us ‘Never Really Over’. The pulsating, camp anthem produced by Zedd didn’t fare well on the charts, but it heralded a return to pop music that was upbeat, energetic, and emotional.

Dua Lipa has been one of the major champions, prepping the release of her disco-infused sophomore album Future Nostalgia with liberating, full-bodied pop songs ‘Don’t Start Now’ and ‘Physical’. Despite the trends, Lipa has stuck with pure pop for the majority of her young career, citing Madonna, Gwen Stefani and P!NK as major influences. ‘Don’t Start Now’ is her highest-charting single in the US, suggesting that her continued dedication to the genre is clearly paying off.

The pop underground often sets the commercial agenda for the years to come and it’s a large reason why, a decade after it began to fade, dance-pop is making a glorious return.

She’s not the only one riding high on the charts right now with big pop moments. The Weeknd’s high-octane single ‘Blinding Lights’ has been number one in Australia for seven weeks, Harry Styles is clocking his biggest hit to date with the bubbly ‘Adore You’, and Doja Cat has nabbed a viral hit with disco tune ‘Say So’. And, of course, there’s also Gaga’s ‘Stupid Love’. The track marks her first collaboration with Martin, and his first detour back towards big pop in years. A sure sign the tides are turning.

The boldness of a dance-pop record owes itself to theatrics too. Lipa is channelling Madonna’s Confessions On A Dancefloor with her Future Nostalgia visuals, The Weeknd has invented a Las Vegas alter-ego in the music videos for his forthcoming record After Hours, and Gaga is once again talking about her albums with wild ambiguity. She’s described Chromatica as, “a frame of mind,” which means it’s surely only a matter of time until the popstar turns up to the Grammys in an incubation egg once again.

Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter