This was more than just a great year for pop — 2015 was the year teen pop grew up. All over the radio, yesterday’s Disney moppets kept mutating into arty, angsty, confident grown-ups, as their music kept expanding both sonically and emotionally. Pop artists are making much savvier rock-star moves than actual rock stars these days, whether that means Justin Bieber making his teary-eyed EDM comeback or Miley Cyrus dropping a psychedelic concept album about her dead pets, One Direction saying farewell or Selena Gomez going Full Ronstadt or 5 Seconds of Summer banging their heads or Alessia Cara ruining your party. If you love pop for garish personalities and high-stakes emotional excess and dodgy decisions and crazed energy, these stars made it one wild year. Baby, we’re perfect.
Compare the Miley and Bieber albums — both personal statements, both risky moves, autobiographical to the point of indulgence, trying out tricks swiped from their elders. Miley can’t shut up about weed and Bieber can’t shut up about God, but they both testify about being confused young people fighting to break free of their twisted pasts. Even if they couldn’t sound less alike, both feel like records that could only happen right now. (And weirdly, both sound hugely influenced by Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, proving that pop stars these days will try anything — the electro-screeches in Bieber’s “Sorry” and “Where Are Ü Now” sound exactly like Adrian Belew’s art-rock guitar. The heat goes on.)
It just adds to the weirdness that so many of these stars sing about breaking up with each other — like the fact that the no-good dude Selena tramples in “Same Old Love” might be the Bieber who weeps for her in “Sorry.” Or the fact that Taylor Swift scored a hit called “Style,” whereupon One Direction nicked the chorus and turned it into “Perfect,” while Harry Styles gave his finest new jam (“Olivia”) the same name as Taylor’s cat. (Also the name of Harry’s sister Gemma’s cat.) All this call and response, whether intentional or not, stokes the fandoms as interpretive communities. It’s like back in the day when rock and hip-hop fans could pore through their LPs searching for clues that Paul was dead or Tupac was alive. “If you’re looking for someone to write your break-up songs about/Baby, I’m perfect” is the new “The walrus was Paul.”
It’s a pivotal moment historically, because teen pop stars aren’t supposed to evolve like this. The traditional goal of teen pop stars is to escape as soon as possible, fleeing into more respectable showbiz rackets like becoming a real (i.e., boring) adult singer (think of Justin Timberlake in his “clutching acoustic guitar and making sad faces” phase) or even better, a movie star (think of Timberlake in The Social Network). It’s the same old George Michael scenario: First you get famous as a teen idol, then you prove you’re a serious artist by wearing stubble and a leather jacket, then you prove you’re an even more serious artist by making a video where you set your leather jacket on fire. As George Michael sang in “Freedom 90,” 25 years ago, sometimes the clothes do not make the man.