Pose this question in the 1980s and the answer would have been obvious: Michael Jackson, the end. In 2020’s fragmented, constantly shifting pop landscape, however, that idea of who is and isn’t a superstar is as mysterious a concept as the moonwalk was back then.
In the 1980s, Jackson was joined by Prince and Madonna, creating a triumvirate that represented both “pop as in popular” and the way pop itself sounded. Their “dominant superstar” mode – otherworldly, theatrical, ruthless in their myth-making – was reborn in the late 90s via the turbo-charged pep of Britney Spears, who was followed by the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and, finally, Lady Gaga, whose zeitgeist-throttling purple patch from 2008 to 2011 recalled the 80s-megastar heydays.
In many ways, Gaga represents the last pop star of that ilk, and pinpointing her successor today is tricky. Fundamentally, how we define success has changed. In the 80s and 90s the biggest pop star could easily be pinpointed by a mix of chart success, radio play and ticket sales, with a tabloid blitzkrieg keeping them in the mainstream conversation. Nowadays, all of that has fragmented, accelerated by social media’s ubiquity and a rising streaming model that has folded globalised sub-genres – K-pop, reggaeton, Latin trap – into a genre-less pop soup.
Many of the stars of this new world – Latin singers J Balvin and Bad Bunny (who dominate YouTube streams), K-pop’s BTS (four consecutive US No 1 albums and counting) and Blackpink (whose hit How You Like That recently broke the YouTube record for most video views in 24 hours) – also eschew English as the dominant language, selling out stadium shows worldwide and adding a whole new stratum to pop’s top tier.
Some still govern popularity by actual hit ratio, though, and the above acts are often seen as not breaking out of their fervent fanbases. More ubiquitous are the likes of Drake, Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande, modern pop’s A-list, who have each, for better or worse, helped solidify a so-called Spotify sound, ie shorter songs, no intro, hip-hop-adjacent (yes even Sheeran), hooks for days. They’ve also harnessed modern pop’s need for speed, knocking out a conveyor belt of hits with little regard for old-school eras.
While some of that classic superstar magic dust still exists in the shape of Beyoncé and Rihanna, who have both moved beyond music to become cultural icons, perhaps the pop star who best encapsulates the old and new is Billie Eilish. She has the modern-day metrics covered (28 million Spotify followers, more than Beyoncé or Adele); she has the hits (her Grammy-dominating debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? has spent 50 weeks in the UK Top 10); and she has an easily recognisable and parodied look (surly teenager with a penchant for neon), making her perfect for proper mainstream infiltration.
One album in and Eilish has also crafted a sound – hushed, minimalist, eerie – so uniquely hers that it already feels like modern pop ground zero, with copycats to match. Plus, most crucially, to use an enduring old-school metric: has your mum heard of her? Thought so.