At the turn of the decade, women with big personalities ruled pop. The wide-eyed country ingénue Taylor Swift, the club-dwelling weirdo Lady Gaga, the slickly brooding Rihanna, the attention-seeking missile Katy Perry, the party-hungry Kesha, the shape-shifting diva Beyoncé, the wisely pugilistic Pink — all had carved out major presences with killer hooks and meticulous character-building, fronting huge songs that were all over radio playlists.
But 2017 presented a very different landscape for pop — at least at first. The first Hot 100 No. 1 of the year came from the louche Canadian singer the Weeknd, who painstakingly wrestled with the trials of fame over glitchy beats on the Daft Punk-assisted “Starboy.” (Hey, he’s not the only one irritated by his ubiquity.) From then on, the top spot of the charts was a parade of men like Atlanta hip-hop trio Migos, brotherly MCs Rae Sremmurd, Los Angeles master rhymer Kendrick Lamar, and pop stylist Bruno Mars. Two singles this year had a stranglehold on the top spot: Ed Sheeran’s skeletal, yet cheesy come-on “Shape of You” led the Hot 100 for 12 non-consecutive weeks, while the feather-light pop-reggaeton track “Despacito,” on which Puerto Rican popster Luis Fonsi and reggaeton king Daddy Yankee received an assist from teen-idol-gone-cool Justin Bieber, not only became the first mostly-sung-in-Spanish track to hit No. 1 since Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” pulled off the feat in 1996, it hung on to the top spot for a record-tying 16 weeks, sewing up its summer-song status.
The rest of that genre-spanning chart’s top 20 wasn’t much more friendly to women for most of that time. Those who did break through to the Hot 100’s upper reaches, like Rihanna on DJ Khaled’s giddily Santana-sampling “Wild Thoughts” or outcast-pop belter Alessia Cara on Logic’s anti-suicide anthem “1-800-273-8255,” were relegated to supporting status and sometimes mixed in a way that made their vocals blend into the mix semi-anonymously. Rihanna, thankfully, avoided this fate. But it’s pretty telling that “Closer,” the limp breakup bounce by the bro-EDM duo the Chainsmokers and featuring the alt-pop upstart Halsey as lead Chainsmoker Drew Taggart’s glum mirror, hung around the top 10 until July.
And most of the women mentioned above (with one notable exception, who we’ll get to in a second) put out music this year that, even if they were hit or miss, received far less notice from the pop mainstream than one might have expected. In June, Halsey kicked off a three-week run of female solo singers having chart-topping albums when she released the sprawling “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom.” The week after, Perry hit No. 1 with the confused, trend-chasing “Witness,” which tried to glom her onto the semi-anonymous female singer trend by cloaking her brassy voice in electronic effects. And one week later, Lorde’s claustrophobic party chronicle “Melodrama” led the chart.
For Sheeran and Drake, topping the Billboard 200 albums chart led to a slew of their songs landing on the Hot 100 because of their streaming tallies being high; the March launch of Sheeran’s “÷” brought 10 songs onto that chart, while the release of Drake’s “More Life” later that month led to all 22 of its tracks being on the Hot 100. This type of dominance didn’t happen for Halsey, Perry, or Lorde — or for the perpetually wounded Lana Del Rey or the revitalized Kesha, who also had No. 1 albums during the reign of “Despacito.”
This divide could be chalked up in part to the way streaming breaks heavily toward hip-hop, which remains a largely male-dominated genre at its highest levels; physical and digital album sales, which helped propel all the women mentioned above to the top, don’t result in the repeatedly trackable consumption offered by streaming. It also reflects an increasing conservatism in radio, which has often been skittish about playing women-led acts back to back (just ask any artist from the Lilith Fair, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017) and which is facing threats from the rise of streaming as well as from its own precarious corporate positioning. As a result, playlists are tighter while attention spans become even more so, and even those women who can leap octaves with a single yelp get relegated to heavy vocal processing and “featuring” status.
The reign of “Despacito” finally broke in September, when Swift, in advance of November’s “Reputation,” vaulted to the summit of the Hot 100 with “Look What You Made Me Do,” a Right Said Fred-nodding sneer at those who may have wronged the newly gimlet-eyed singer. Behind her, at No. 3, was “Bodak Yellow” by the reality star turned MC Cardi B, a similarly take-no-prisoners track that bumped Swift’s song three weeks later. This double-dip seemed to break the logjam a bit; the current Hot 100 has near-gender parity in its top 20, with top-tier 2017 singles like laid-back British singer Dua Lipa’s punchy “New Rules” and solo spitfire Camila Cabello’s wistful island breeze “Havana” ranking high. And sitting atop it: Beyoncé, who notched her first No. 1 single since she got everyone dancing with “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” in 2009. She did, however, achieve this milestone by hopping on Ed Sheeran’s wedding-ready ballad “Perfect” — a sign that pop, much like the culture it spawns and reflects, still has a ways to go.
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.