The Rise of Cardi B Proves the Old Pop Music Machine Is Dead
Authenticity and a genuinely great song can get you to the top and artists like Taylor Swift are having a hard time reckoning with this new change.
Immagine di Phil Witmer
Well, here we are: The Chart Wars. Cardi B, as many have long predicted, managed to squeeze Taylor Swift's comeback single "Look What You Made Me Do" out from its number one spot with the anthemic "Bodak Yellow." ("Look" actually dropped two spots, to number three, as Post Malone and 21 Savage's "Rockstar" climbed to number two.) Watching Cardi B outshine Taylor Swift's comeback is compelling because these are two incredible characters. Cardi is a former stripper, Instagram personality, and reality TV show star from the Bronx and authentically herself—funny, loud, tender, telling every single one of us like it is because that is how it is. She began rapping only two years ago and is already fielding the title of Queen of Rap in New York, edging out Nicki Minaj a little, who, by coincidence (or mad charting science) also had a chart battle with Swift back in 2014 with her track "Anaconda," but lost the top spot.
The Taylor versus Cardi narrative that media and online have created, however, is only part of the story. Cardi B's deserved number one marks a certain end for what makes the genre of pop win. Making one size fits all pop that separated an artist from politics was a norm for years. But now, success is determined by a distinct line between your opinions and music. Being apolitical, or jumping on a cause without any real contribution, doesn't guarantee pop victory and why many top billed pop acts fell flat. Authenticity and a genuinely great song can get you to the top, as evident with "Bodak Yellow," and artists like Taylor Swift are having a hard time trying to reckon with this new change in the pop landscape. White female pop stars aren't going to be the ones who make effective change anymore unless it is sincere.
Cardi B's famous (likely to become infamous) catchphrase is the "regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx." And that is inherently true and important in Cardi's rise and why we listen when she speaks. The former Love & Hip-Hop star signed a contract reportedly worth millions with Atlantic earlier this year, though she used different platforms to help propel herself further. Cardi's visibility, particularly as a black woman, in Trump's America is important. She can reckon with themes of racial injustice, such as recounting an upsetting interaction with the police in now deleted tweets. By being in this space at all, Cardi says a lot, much like Lauryn Hill, the last female rapper to hold a number one spot back in 1998. That it took almost 20 years for another black woman with no features on a track to hit number is important. They are genuine and contribute much more in modern context—completely necessary for something to pop off. Whereas, Taylor Swift is a safe pop bet who isn't as palatable in the year of our lord 2017, as her return in mid-August was met with a frigid critical response. "Look What You Made Me Do" is, admittedly, catchy and shows a sort of self-awareness Swift has about her representation in the media. It follows the same pop formula she is used to: working again with Bleachers' Jack Antonoff on production, who helped her pivot to pop on 1989.
Swift is a divisive pop figure because she has completely become an unreliable narrator. Her music has always been a vessel for her internal grievances, and authenticity questioned by those on the opposing ends of her beef. But now, especially with her year old vendetta with Kanye and Kim Kardashian after being exposed as a liar border on trivial now as she tries to self-brand as a snake, taking back control of her image. It's her playing victim, still—a role she unironically inhabits following the long line of Taylors we see in the "Look" video. Swift dabbles in feminist rhetoric, but Swift dabbles in feminist rhetoric, but only only when it is marketable or part of an album narrative that helps record sales. She largely avoids any conversation when it comes to Trump and his dismissive language about women. For example, in the 2016 US election, keeping quiet about who she voted for or what her political leanings were at all. Her apolitical leanings and refusal to upset her vast fanbase show that she has lost the pulse of what's going on. Snide self-awareness—a year too late—really highlights an unwillingness to dig deeper, find something authentic, and bend with the times. Swift doesn't want to lose any potential fans or revenue and, by being silent for that sake, has inadvertently created a rift. Her silence looks like a co-sign.
What is happening to Swift isn't something new but a trend throughout this year. Katy Perry released the socially conscious, "Socrates is bae"- inspired Witness but none of the songs charted high. No one knew what "Chained to the Rhythm" was, really, and her confusing rollout, including the marathon livestreaming over release weekend featuring Deray and The Therapist host, only proved to be more confusing. Witness wasn't critically well received either and looked largely like an attempt to capitalize with a woke-pop record. While Perry did the opposite of Swift—being far more politically open and aligning herself with Hillary Clinton—it didn't pay off. Miley Cyrus, too, confused people after saying that hip-hop is too much about "'Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.' I can't listen to that anymore," while referencing Kendrick Lamar's "Humble" as something fresh, clearly unaware it made some of the same references she is apparently against. More troubling however, is last album cycle, Miley was twerking and working with famed hip-hop producer Mike WiLL Made It. So her whiplash-like return back to her country "roots" feels jarring and stirred many to believe her dalliance with hip-hop was, in line with many pop acts past and present, window dressing to be edgy and cool. That her current single "Malibu" and upcoming album Younger Now have garnered nothing beyond apathy and course correction into her, puzzlingly, saying she is only person to ever listen to both Wiz Khalifa and Leonard Cohen.
Nevertheless, we can't get that ahead of ourselves yet. While Katy Perry and the like have fallen we're still a month and a half out from Swift's release of Reputation and anything can happen. Swift played ball a bit more with the rollout of "Look" in regard to streaming services by allowing all of her songs to be appear on other platforms that Apple. And streaming has proved to be the great equalizer. So in a pure numbers game she still has a clear advantage
and despite criticisms have a number one album and Top 10 single. But Cardi B upending Taylor Swift's reign may, as many have speculated, force country-gone-pop superstar to rethink her strategy as she had with the hastily released and quickly forgotten "...Ready For It."
Still, if Cardi's peak ascension proves anything to us, it is that the Old Taylor—the unwavering chart topper—and the old pop music machine of yore really are dead then.
Sarah is on Twitter, if you must follow her.