5 Amazing Stats in Defense of Pop Music and the Cult of Self Esteem

New York Magazine's smart justification for preening hits and the kids who listen to them

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Ke$ha addresses her critics. (Reuters/Susana Vera)

The kids are all right, and so is their music—it's science! Or at least, it's a conclusion supported by a few well-marshalled facts and figures from writer Nitsuh Abebe's essay in New York Magazine defending today's crop of club-conquering, empowerment-obsessed, slogan-slinging pop stars and their listeners.

In the face of rising old-media grumble about the millennials' supposed culture-killing vanity, we've needed something like this for a while: a unified theory of new pop that's unapologetic, sweeping, and points out that things are actually kind of looking up for anyone who's interested in the idea of popular music as an inclusive, constructive reflection of society.

The article bills itself as a reaction to broadsides against the supposed coddling of Generation Y, including Lori Gottlieb's Atlantic cover piece about the "cult of self-esteem." To understand Abebe's argument, you have to understand the story of pop's evolution in the last 30 years, part of which he illustrates with some number-crunching:

  1. Between 1980 and 2010, the average age of artists with No. 1 songs fell from 34.2 years old to just 26.3.
  2. How to envision that age drop? Try this: "In 1980, nearly half of our No. 1's came from artists who had their first hits in the sixties," Abebe writes. "For a few years after, much on the charts seemed aimed at people on the verge of a boat purchase or signing up for adult education."
  3. In 1980, more than half the stars with No. 1 singles were white men; in 2010, only one was: Eminem.
  4. A "chilling fact" about the '90s: "In any given week of the decade, there was a 10 percent chance the No.1 song was by Boyz II Men," Abebe writes. "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."
  5. In this past decade, though, a quarter of the hits came from the combined works of Usher, Beyoncé, the Black Eyed Peas, and Nelly. "Their hits were pointed at a very different kind of public environment: They were club songs."

Why's this all a good—or at least not terrible—thing? Abebe explains it well, and his entire piece is worth reading (ditto for his still-essential 2009 Pitchfork explainer on the rise of indie rock). But a few takeaways: The club is the last vestige of the monoculture, and mainstream music has become more socially engaged than alternative music. In a pop star market as diverse as today's, "brave thrusting entitlement and self-regard" isn't necessarily a bad thing. "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," Abebe writes, "people for whom ego and self-worth can be existential issues, not just matters of etiquette."

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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