In this week's edition of Your Absolute Favourite Pop Column, writer Douglas Greenwood dissects the nuances of 'flopping', and how the streaming age has forced stars to choose between integrity and the top spot
The pop echo chamber is a strange place. It’s populated by fans screeching their praises for an artist they assume the world knows about, haters who’ll do anything to bring their star’s mortal enemy down, and fun, accessible music for the masses, existing somewhere in between it all.
It’s also the place where rational stances on the creme-de-la-creme of mainstream music go to die.
The giddiness of pop music makes it the perfect sugary fuel for fantasists, and more often than not, pop fans are left dumbfounded by the fact that our favourite artists’ records aren’t smashing the charts and winning the hearts of the wider public. Herein lies the ‘flop’: the ultimate slur, thrown around all too liberally, for a pop star with their heart set on dominating the charts, but who falls when they reach the final hurdle.
A decade ago, the definition of a flop was simple. It was a pop record that failed to shift the number of copies the label had anticipated; one for which a lukewarm reaction from fans and critics alike led to it being swept under the rug – as if hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of hard work never even happened.
“In an industry that favours caucasian, cookie-cutter, hetero-normative stars, the chances of hitting the big time are stacked against you”
But nowadays, the unpredictable and fickle nature of modern musical success – shaped so strongly by the fact that nobody really buys pop albums anymore – means that it’s unfair for us to throw shade on artists who’ve failed to match the success of their peers.
It couldn’t be harder to make it as a pop star than it is these days – unless, of course, you’re one of the few who possesses that strange alchemy that allows millions of men, women and children, gay and straight, young and old, to fall in love with your work. But for the rest of them, particularly those who’ve had to face hardship already by being persecuted in an industry that favours caucasian, cookie-cutter, hetero-normative stars, the journey isn’t so simple, and the chances of hitting the big time are stacked against you.
MNEK‘s ‘Language’ dropped nearly a fortnight ago to a sea of critical acclaim, including some from our very own Hannah Mylrea, who called it “moving, important and fun” , giving it a deserved four stars. It’s a killer pop album, stuffed with potential hits, tracks that delve deftly into the psyche of a queer man playing with his sexuality, and songs that radio stations criminally slept on; perhaps due to the fact that they weren’t entirely sure if mainstream audiences were ready to hear a young artist of colour who proudly flaunts his homosexuality on record. Fans on Twitter professed their love for it, highlighting how progressive it felt, but when it came to the numbers, the man behind it all was, understandably, disappointed.
‘Language’, a major label pop record written and performed by a man who’s penned some of the biggest songs of the past decade for artists like Dua Lipa and Beyoncé, didn’t break the Top 40. But MNEK, though his tweets suggest he feels responsible, isn’t the one to blame for that. It’s so easy to call Language a ‘flop’, but is anybody who isn’t fucking Drake at this point destined for chart success when the route to it is now so algorithmic and shady?
Ariana Grande, arguably the biggest pop star in the world right now, dropped her Nicki Minaj collaboration ‘The Light Is Coming’ earlier in the year; it peaked at Number 57. Troye Sivan’s ‘Bloom’, a critically lauded record that fans fawned over, entered the charts at a respectable Number 10. Two weeks later, it’s dropped out of the top 40. Cardi B’s knockout debut ‘Invasion of Privacy’ barely scraped into the Top Five in the UK earlier in the year – weird, considering her wild success with singles.
Then you have Lady Gaga‘s ‘Joanne’ and Katy Perry‘s ‘Witness’: the pop queens’ infamous ‘flop’ albums, landed in the UK charts at Number Three and Number Six respectively. A few years earlier, anything other than a chart-topping record would’ve felt alien to either of them, but in today’s climate, we’ve come to realise that fans just don’t engage with music in the same way; we’re more selective with our streaming habits than ever before. If we don’t have to pay for a whole record, we’ll seek out the few worth listening to and rinse those ones instead, and the art of the behemoth album, listened to from start to finish, suffers as a consequence.
It’s also intensely demoralising that these so-called ‘flops’ are often the product of our favourite artists laying their emotions on the line, refusing to submit to the pop game and opting to expose their most vulnerable side instead. The traditional pop route demands that artists throw out all of that baggage, or at least euphemise it slightly to impact with a fairly general audience. In all of these instances, particularly MNEK’s, refusing to compromise has lead them to create music that resonates with their closest fans more than ever before.
Perhaps a flop record in 2018 can’t be defined by sales, but rather creating work that fails to form a legacy the artist is proud of. If MNEK had to compromise in order to crack the top 10, suppressing his queerness and following the crowd, who would have won there? Would it have been the hundreds of thousands of people bopping along to a musician who had to sacrifice part of himself in order to please others? Would he have been happy with that? I don’t know.
But what I do know is this: the ‘flop’ argument is so painfully dated, and in the age of lacklustre album sales across the board, the numbers should never be used as an indicator of a record’s genuine success. Instead, look at the people it did touch. Look at the fans who listen to your music and are genuinely moved by it, and find parts of themselves in it. MNEK: your record is the fucking bomb. You created something important, and in time, it’ll be looked back upon as a trailblazing piece of pop. Keep making what you do. We want it. We need it.