This post follows my review of Sabrina’s latest excellent album, ‘emails I can’t send’.
I have a theory about music, as a balance between art and technique. I don’t think many people strike that balance. Those who do tend not to stand out from the crowd of extremes. There is a third type of pop star, of course — the Kanye West era-defining genius, in the shadow of Michael Jackson’s renewal of the Elvis Presley tradition of ruling feminine masculinity. But there aren’t many male pop stars of note these days. To be a male pop star is necessarily to sacrifice the traditions of masculinity in order to acquire a certain universal appeal that masculine aggression sacrifices. Men are afraid to face the spectre of emasculation, and therefore emasculate themselves by refusing to concede anything to the femininity that seems to dominate the pop industry. But pop is not really an extreme — it is necessarily a balance, which has to appeal to everyone’s appetites, of every gender and sexuality on the spectrum. Paradoxically, it has to do this while retaining a degree of individuality that distinguishes the individual pop star from competitors. It has to be both indistinguishably vague and, in the words of Sabrina Carpenter’s R&B double album, ‘Singular’.
Let’s consider the current contenders for the next Michael Jackson, Madonna, Britney, or Ariana. There is Taylor Swift, who has returned from pop to country, via a brief flirtation with hip hop. Then there is Beyoncé, whose pop/R&B synthesis on songs like ‘Run the World (Girls)’ is long since forgotten in whatever music Renaissance is meant to represent. Then there is Rihanna, whose ‘Only Girl In the World’ has got to be a contender for the best pop chorus of this century, along with Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’. These figures were dominant in the spectacular 2007-2011 moment, which is now shadowed by imitators like Ariana. The real future of pop seems to lie with Billie Eilish’s brand of nightmarish pop music with harsh baselines and riddles of lyrics. But even Billie is ‘Happier Than Ever’. Who will represent the darkness when the darkness itself has gone on holiday?
Sabrina Carpenter, in the Miley Cyrus tradition of Disney princesses turned pop stars, seems to be in a crowded environment. There is Dove Cameron from the musical scene, whose singing style is more classical than pop-oriented. Then there is the whole crowd of Billie Eilish imitators, who are legion — akin to the imitators of Michael Jackson and Kanye West in recent decades. Many of the imitators are very good, and indeed much better than the supposedly ‘original’ art out there. But true originality is evidenced by how many people try to copy it. Sometimes, however, when everyone seems to be imitating something, the true successor to the old leaders like Kanye West and Taylor Swift is someone who draws exquisitely on the old, to make way for the new. Sabrina’s musical range is outstanding — like her acting range, for that matter. The distinction between performance and composition is collapsed on ‘emails i can’t send’, which involves collaborations with some of the best songwriters and producers in pop to create an album that balances acoustic and electronic styles almost perfectly. If anyone is the next pop star, it has got to be Sabrina.
There are male pop stars, but they aren’t all that notable. I don’t think most of them count as pop stars; they tend to become producers for female pop stars, the real heroines of our story. In today’s fractious identity politics, some balanced masculinity to counterbalance the hyper-masculine culture warriors and the emasculated servile producers wouldn’t go amiss. Alas, I cannot speak for such a need, when I myself am a shadow of the man I used to be. I wonder what light will shine in these dark times. Perhaps it will get us out of this discussion altogether. But if there is an answer to the question, where are the men?, then perhaps it lies in the answer to the question: who is the next pop star? The answer might not end there, but it certainly begins here.