What Happens When a Pop Star Isn’t That Popular?

On certain corners of the internet, “The Loveliest Time,” the Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen’s seventh album, could be confused for the biggest album of the year. But the average Top 40 radio listener probably hasn’t heard it. And when the Billboard 200 chart posted the week after its arrival last month, “The Loveliest Time” was nowhere to be found.

Jepsen’s very active online fan base is part of the ecosystem known as stan Twitter. A spin through obsessively curated social media “update accounts” like @PopCrave and @chartdata leads to the impression that we’re living through a golden age of pure pop, akin to the period of the 2010s in which Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Rihanna reached commercial dominance with songs constructed from monster hooks and pounding synths.

Online, conversation constantly bubbles about a set of singers — Kim Petras, Ava Max, Sabrina Carpenter, Bebe Rexha, Rina Sawayama, Rita Ora, Troye Sivan and others — who are debated and adored, often becoming trending topics. To their loyal fans, many of whom are women and queer men (who have always worked hard to valorize underappreciated divas), they are, in the parlance of the internet, pop stars.

They are undoubtedly celebrities, with considerable social media followings. They may have tasted a version of popularity — a Hot 100 hit, a moment of TikTok virality or simply a very faithful (though modest) collection of devotees that allows them to sell out concerts at midsize venues around the world. But they have yet to make the leap to, or have failed to remain at, music’s mainstream center.

Instead, they build careers off hooky, vividly toned meta-pop — songs that seem to actively address and play with the tropes of pop history — and with the help of fan bases that treat them as if they were as big as Taylor Swift. For these artists, pop stardom isn’t a commercial category, but a sound, an aesthetic and an attitude.

The streaming economy has essentially created a swath of pop stars who may never muster the virality or the major-label support required to reach the upper echelons of the charts or sell out stadiums, but nonetheless have devoted fan bases and consistent income from touring and licensing — essentially, the kind of model that indie musicians have relied upon for years. It may be miles away from the spectacle and flash usually associated with pop music, but it does provide a path toward something that, for decades, has proved elusive for a lot of aspirant pop stars: career sustainability.

Some of these musicians, like Jepsen and Charli XCX, minted a hit (or a handful) early in their careers before settling into pop’s middle class; others, like Rexha and Max, consistently net genre hits, often in dance music, but have as yet failed to cement themselves as household names. Ora, a genuine chart success in the United Kingdom, has built a cultish fan base based on the fact that she seems unable to get a foothold in the United States. (Her most recent album, “You & I,” didn’t chart after its release in July.) As with many of these stars, Ora’s fans love her precisely because she is unsuccessful — a niche concern who operates with all of the pomp and pageantry of an A-lister.

Artists like Sawayama and Caroline Polachek make music that has little commercial impact, but they have manipulated a pop-leaning sound that allows them to mount pop-style live shows and toy with pop aesthetics, while artists like Sivan and Carpenter always seem as if they’re teetering right on the edge of genuine megastardom, occasionally getting a hit to the lower echelons of the Hot 100, but rarely any higher.

Petras, in particular, presents her work as a kind of meta-commentary on the nature of pop stardom itself. Her debut album, “Feed the Beast,” released in June, is built around crackling EDM beats, sledgehammer hooks and a genuine success: “Unholy,” a No. 1 hit with Sam Smith that won a Grammy in February. Did this success make her a true pop star? Not exactly. “Feed the Beast” debuted at No. 44 on the Billboard 200, selling the equivalent of 17,000 albums; it fell off the chart after just two weeks. “Alone,” a single featuring Nicki Minaj, spent one week on the Hot 100 in May.

Max’s debut single, the synthy stomp “Sweet But Psycho,” hit No. 10 in 2019. Since then, she has followed a similar formula with diminishing returns; her latest album, “Diamonds & Dancefloors,” spent one week on the albums chart. Carpenter rose to fame as a Disney Channel star and has settled into solid midrange pop success: “Emails I Can’t Send” is her fifth, and so far most successful, LP, released last year and spawning “Nonsense,” a single that was briefly ubiquitous on the radio, but mustered a peak of No. 56 on the Hot 100. Rexha has 11 million Instagram followers, a swath of devoted “Rexhars” online and a recent Top 5 single, the David Guetta collaboration “I’m Good (Blue).” But as with so many other pop stars currently working — including Sivan, who starred on the buzzy HBO series “The Idol” — her celebrity seems to exist entirely separate from her commercial performance.

The common thread linking these musicians is that they don’t treat “pop music” as a commercial category, but as a discrete musical lineage with its own codes and conventions to be plundered and reinterpreted. It’s a point of view made possible by the kind of fame the internet has built and fostered: the idea that the term “pop star” is a measure of clout or name recognition, not a badge that directly correlates to commercial success.

These pop stars essentially make genre records. Unlike those of bygone eras, who pillaged the underground in search of new sounds to bring to the mainstream, this brand of musician is fixated on pop’s own history. In many ways, it makes sense that they would read as capital-P Pop Stars to the denizens of a world as reference-obsessed as stan Twitter; much of this music feels as if it were made by and for a hard-core fan.

Sivan’s recent single “Rush,” which peaked at No. 76 on the Hot 100 last month, weaves together heady ’00s-style house with a winking, Village People-esque chorus. Petras’s three full-length records each play like surveys of dance pop through the ages, less concerned with cutting-edge sounds than with loving tributes. Sawayama’s pop bricolage nods to Shania Twain, Lady Gaga, Linkin Park and the J-pop legend Utada Hikaru.

In many ways, pop itself is shrinking. The Hot 100 is currently populated by country musicians (Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs), purveyors of regional sounds (Rema, Peso Pluma) and rap stars (Travis Scott, Gunna). Aside from a few holdouts like Swift and Miley Cyrus, relics of an era in which mainstream music was dominated by world-beating megawatt pop stars, there are few pop singers on the charts right now.

For other contemporary pop stars, the act of releasing music itself feels incidental to their celebrity status. In recent years, Kesha — one of the dominant commercial forces of the 2010s, securing 10 Top 10s in the first four years of her career — has become known less for her music than for her longtime legal battle with the producer Dr. Luke; still a Twitter (now known as X) and tabloid fixture, her music is often the least-discussed thing about her. “Gag Order,” her latest album, debuted at No. 187 in May, selling the equivalent of 8,300 copies its first week.

And then there is Charli XCX, who spent a large portion of her career making outré, abrasive records with a bevy of collaborators from the worlds of hyperpop and experimental electronic music. Once a true commercial prospect — during the early years of her career, Charli scored a handful of Hot 100 Top 10s, including the No. 1 Iggy Azalea collaboration “Fancy” — it seemed, for a while, as if Charli had willfully recused herself from the pop music Olympics, perhaps as a way of insulating herself against the major-label industry’s callous and often cruel whims.

As it turned out, it was actually far simpler than that: She was just taking an aesthetic detour. Her mainstream-skewing fifth album “Crash,” released last year, was described by Charli herself as her “main pop girl moment” and debuted at No. 7, her highest Billboard 200 position yet. This month, her single “Speed Drive,” written for the “Barbie” soundtrack, became her first Hot 100 entry in nine years. It drove the point home: She can be a big-time pop star, if she so chooses.

This article is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

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