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We Must Be Superstars

And if you want to talk about pop music between 1980 and now, that issue—the question of who’s singing and who’s being sung to—is an important one. The study assumes that hit singles in the eighties and hit singles in the new millennium play the same role in our culture. But over the past 30 years, the weekly charts have seen changes a lot more significant than any surge of ego. It’s not just that pop’s audience has changed; it’s that its whole purpose has.

Here, for instance, is a chilling fact about the nineties: In any given week of the decade, there was a 10 percent chance the No.1 song was by Boyz II Men. Add Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Bryan ­Adams, and chances hit 24 percent. Americans spent a quarter of a decade listening to this sort of thing: big, lavish ballads, built to charm middle-aged and middle-school listeners alike. Try to picture an environment or purpose for these songs, and the mind drifts to graduations, school-gym talent shows, Olympics montages.

In the aughts, there was still a one-in- four chance that any given week’s chart-topper came from one of four artists. But those artists were Usher, Beyoncé, the Black Eyed Peas, and Nelly, and their hits were pointed at a very different kind of public environment: They were club songs. The old-school, all-ages ballad spent much of the decade reduced to a tiny corner of the charts, populated by nice-guy crooners like James “You’re Beautiful” Blunt and Daniel “You Had a Bad Day” Powter.

One simple explanation for this develop­ment: We now have access to a ridiculous variety of media. The music we spend our private time on, and use to build our identities, varies more wildly than ever from person to person. But there’s at least one kind of music that needs consensus to function, and that’s the stuff we dance, party, and strut around to. “The club” might be the last remaining space where strangers are all forced to pay attention to the same songs. And whether it’s an actual club or just a bedroom, it tends to be a space where people enjoy feeling fabulous.

Another change that’s swept through the charts since 1980 is the steady disappearance of white men. In 1980, more than half the artists at No. 1 were white men; in 2010, the only white guy in the top spot was Eminem. Today’s pop world is female, African-American, and Latino, dance-pop and hip-hop and R&B. The audiences it’s usually associated with are female, African-American, Latin, gay, and young. And the music running through the charts is filled with qualities that look a lot like the aspirations and survival strategies of people who’ve felt marginalized—people for whom ego and self-worth can be existential issues, not just matters of etiquette.

This isn’t some arcane sociological observation; empowerment is a selling point of the music itself. It’s almost redundant to explain how hip-hop has schooled the nation in some of the tools and postures of an under­class, from persona-building to competitive braggadocio as a form of entertainment. (Even something as basic as the way rappers used to move their arms is now part of the physical vocabulary of most Americans under 40.) (2) Today’s dance music still carries traces of gay club culture—spaces where people could perform gender and sexuality in ways they couldn’t elsewhere. Just about every young woman on the charts is navigating a complicated matrix of beauty standards, sexual roles, power dynamics, and good-girl/bad-girl dichotomies. Questions of self and self-esteem are unavoidable.

2. January 24, 2004: Jay-Z releases the single “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” April 17, 2008: Senator Obama addresses campaign attacks using the “brushing dirt off your shoulder” gesture.