How pop got its snap and crackle back
A singing actor, a rapping comedian and a certain French chameleon left Neil McCormick all shook up
Music’s biggest stars of the year were not cuttingedge electropop wonderkids, swaggering rappers with gratuitously misspelt names or even veteran superbands staging their umpteenth comeback. They were singing actors and acting singers. In terms of sheer sales, few recording artists came close to Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman and Lady Gaga (making her screen debut) and Bradley Cooper (making his pop chart debut) in A Star Is Born.
Panned by critics, the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman (a film which stormed multiplexes on Boxing Day last year) was the biggest album of 2018 by a considerable distance. It spent the whole year in the British charts – including more than 20 weeks at number one – and sold more than 4.5million copies worldwide. It even spawned a spin-off compilation featuring pop stars from P!nk to Jess Glynne keen to cash in on some of that movie magic. Meanwhile Lady Gaga’s first soundtrack topped the pop charts in 15 countries, with global smash Shallow giving her the biggest hit of her entire career, a country duet with a handsome leading man who had never sung on record before.
The resurgence of soundtracks seems to serve some deep-seated need for music that tells stories. For years now, we have been told that the album is a dying form. We are deep into a new era of stream and shuffle, where listening habits are dictated by the delivery technology of smartphones and PCs.
Instead of immersing ourselves in a favoured artist’s backlist, we let algorithms act as our personal DJs, serving up playlists curated by mathematical data: if you liked that, you might like this. Sure, popular artists still trumpet the release of new albums, but is anyone really listening?
In America, the biggest album by a solo artist this year was Scorpion by the Canadian rapper Drake. But when Rolling Stone magazine analysed its streaming data, it transpired that over 60 per cent of plays focused on just three of its 25 tracks. The same pattern was repeated across other big releases. Listeners are effectively skipping over entire albums to play singles on repeat.
Cinemas and theatres may be among the last entertainment spaces where audiences lay down their smartphones and actually pay close attention. In a musical, songs carry us on a journey. And big-screen musicals are flourishing.
Mamma Mia! Here We
Go Again (the Abbasoundtracked sequel to
Mamma Mia!) spent five weeks at number one.
Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek as
Freddie Mercury, was another critic-proof hit, quickly becoming the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time and sending Queen’s Greatest Hits back into the album charts. In recent years, the film La La Land and stage musical Hamilton have inspired a similar level of obsessive devotion.
I don’t know what all this means for the future of the album but it is evidence that listeners still crave