According to the Chinese zodiac, 2021 was the year of the ox. But after the trials and tribulations of 2020, many vowed to make it the phoenix – a year of rebirth. Things would be better this time around. Lost time would be made up for. And then, four days into our shiny new second chance, Boris Johnson announced that a third lockdown would be taking place. This lasted for six months, and in some ways was a befitting start to 2021 – the year of the flop.
You don’t have to look far on social media to see declarations en-masse from users who have entered their “flop era”. The term, initially used by stan Twitter when referring to (more often than not female) artists whose star power was floundering in comparison to their heyday or had received a lacklustre reception to an album. Famous flops include Mariah Carey’s Glitter (the album and film of same name) in 2001, Christina Aguilera’s Bionic in 2010, Britney Spears’ Britney Jean in 2013 and Katy Perry’s Witness in 2017.
This year has seen the accusation levelled at many a musician. In August, Lorde’s long-awaited third LP Solar Power left some fans wondering if her best days were behind her. Meanwhile, on TikTok, Billie Eilish fought off claims that she “fell off”, reposting a comment from someone who said she was in her flop era alongside a clip of herself trying not to laugh at the observation. “Literally all I see on this app,” she wrote in her caption, “eat my dust my tits are bigger than yours.” In what was quite the feat, the dawn of Jesy Nelson’s leap into solo artist territory immediately doubled up as her flop era, with the Independent describing the launch as “one of the most disastrous in recent memory”.
But flop eras are not just the preserve of the rich and famous. Civilians are constantly using the phrase in reference to themselves. Search Twitter and you’ll see people in their droves bemoaning their flop era; whether in relation to their job (or lack thereof), the woes of modern dating or just generally feeling like they’ve had a recent bad run. Users on social media platforms of all kinds fret over the lack of engagement and beg followers not to let their posts “flop”.
In particular, one now-deleted tweet from user @okclaire captured the internet's imagination: “oomf is in her flop era and I feel really bad bc she’s super cool and fun and i feel So Bad for her” it read. It could have been any one of us. The bottom line is, most people have felt like they underperformed in something this year. Who can blame us? It’s hard to feel like you’re reaching your full potential in the throes of a pandemic.
And it’s not just people. The Oscars are in its flop era. Jeans are. Vogue’s 73 questions. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, thanks to the universal panning of Eternals. Even summer TV staple Love Island has succumbed: this year's launch was watched by the smallest overnight launch viewership since 2017.
Summer itself was a bust too, with tepid weather and only snatches of sun. The roaring 20s-style comeback and long-awaited reunions post lockdown were marred by demolished social skills. “Conversations felt forced - dare I say awkward.” wrote George Civeris over at Gawker. “Everyone had (understandably) developed their own unique neuroses over the past 18 months, and it was hard to keep up. In internet parlance, the “vibes” were ‘off’.”
The hot girl summer we had surely earned morphed into a flop girl summer, which culminated in us embracing the melancholy of “sad girl autumn” with open arms. Is it any wonder that this year was also the year the term “down bad” entered the wider internet lexicon? Though the top definition on Urban Dictionary simply reads “when someone is depressingly horny”, it's also mostly used to refer to feeling, well, depressed.
There is however, undoubtedly a silver lining in this communal feeling of floppage. People have always posted their L’s online, but the fact that almost everybody feels like some form of flop makes it feel easier to be honest about – or maybe even relish – it.
“Why am I enjoying my flop era so much?” actress Jameela Jamil posted on Twitter in July. “Has anyone else found an odd relief in not having to live up to expectations anymore? ...You make better choices when you succumb to your own floppery and roll with it.” “Flop era incoming,” tweeted indie darling Caroline Polachek without apology. It is true that there is freedom in not fighting the flop, but instead letting it wash over you. Owning your flop era makes it lose its power somewhat; it is only truly devastating if you don’t know you’re in it.
And plus, the very nature of it being an “era” lends itself to a certain transience, as perfectly put by St Vincent: “If you are in a ‘flop era’, it means that you have eras!” she said in an interview. “It means that you’ve been around long enough, and are making things that are relevant enough to still be part of the conversation, to where people can call them flops, or whatever. And there’s also sort of a presupposition in there that there will be a next era... I think it’s – in a roundabout way – a compliment.”
The beauty of the flop era is what it precedes. It is filled with hope. What comes after the flop? Why, the comeback, of course. The Mariah Carey renaissance that was spurred on by Grammy-winning The Emancipation of Mimi in 2005 was only more powerful because of Glitter bombing. And then in November 2018, the #JusticeforGlitter hashtag and campaign lead to the Glitter soundtrack charting at No. 1 on the iTunes albums chart, as well as returning to the Billboard soundtracks chart. Lady Gaga’s Artpop, which was hailed a flop by fans and critics alike has been similarly reconsidered, landing at No. 2 on iTunes’ album chart after #buyARTPOPoniTunes went viral on social media this year.
It's hard to think of a great who hasn’t flopped at some point or another. If flopping was potentially part of Mariah Carey’s journey to blessing us with “It’s Like That”, then call me Flopiana. And if life is to be understood through the prism of popstars, then what goes up must come down and then go back up again. Who doesn’t love a comeback kid?
2022 can only be the year of the Phoenix if 2021 was the year of the flop; we need ashes to rise from. Speaking of which, lest we forget that Ben Affleck – owner of a sprawling non-ironic phoenix back tattoo – began 2021 as a meme, after being papped looking defeated post-break up and balancing Dunkin’ Donuts on too many parcels. Now he’s back with Jennifer Lopez. Perhaps there is truth in the near-incomprehensible stan Twitter adage: “Your flop era is lowkey serving”.