2010: Janelle Monae
From the vantage point of 2009, Katy Perry looked like 2010's royalty of choice. Yet "California Gurls," really felt like a light refinement of her 2008 splash entry, "I Kissed A Girl." The cupcake bra was the only novel thing we got out of it, which, looking back, resonates like a gag joke—Katy and Taylor hugging it out as Hamburger and Fries.
Hindsight is 2020, and Janelle Monae was the real gift we received in 2010, we just didn't know what we were looking for. I don't think we should blame ourselves... ArchAndroid came on the scene with a certain subtlety, her 1-take video for "Cold War" revealing an authentic intensity we had no idea we were craving, yet. Janelle was ahead of her time—with her pompadour hairstyle and androgynous black-and-white wardrobe, every bat of her eyes ushered in the coming era of #BlackGirlMagic.
Adele's second album 21 is the undisputed smash of 2011, full to the brim with timeless jams that transcend age and gender gaps alike. Grandparents loved "Rolling in the Deep" as much as teens loved "Set Fire to the Rain." "Rumour Has It" was a total Dad Rock favorite. Adele's music touched on something fundamental to the human experience, expressing powerful emotions through classical motifs that maintained profound relevance. You only have to watch her live performance of "Turning Tables" to understand exactly how Adele was able to get buy-in across generations & demographics—the kind popular music only achieves on its very best day.
2012: Lana Del Rey
Some Pop Queen's reigns are... fraught. Lana Del Rey beats out Nicki Manaj to rule 2012 largely by virtue of how much people loved to hate her. Her SNL Performance received utter blow back, and then came the reveal of her true identity... Lana del Rey was actually Lizzy Grant, a failed songstress who was only able to rise to fame with help from lip injections and her daddy's money.
Such level of disdain would turn any normal Nymph to stone, but Lana crawled out from meme-dom, largely by virtue of how genuinely good Born To Die is—and how compelling her new persona, a testament to the power of Brand in the 20-teens. Lizzy's re-emergence as blue-collar Jackie Kennedy in a flower crown, crooning about cocaine and heartbreak continue to endure. In fact, I have every confidence that "Summertime Sadness" will play every July well into 2025.
2013: Miley Cyrus
It's hard to recall exactly what happened in the 3 year gap between Hannah Montana's finale and the ill-fated VMA performance with Robin Thicke that ushered in the Bangerz Era. But by the time Miley's 2013 album dropped, she was just shy of 21, freshly single, and wild. Miley so intentionally wrapped herself in scandal, she made her 2008 Vanity Fair Cover look like a school photo. The haircut + tongue-wag wiped away a Disney past, and her commitment to it
While 2017's "Malibu" saw a return to the wholesome hippy vibe, (validating critics who pointed at Miley's Bangerz Era antics as appropriative) with a 2019 breakup in the works, we're all glancing over our shoulders at this year in the highlight real to predict what wildings this Pop Queen will get up to next.
The surprise drop of Beyoncé's Self-Titled 5th album shook the world to its core. Not only did it show up overnight, it packed 17 music videos—one for every song, plus 3 more for good measure. She completely reinvented over-achieving, raising the bar for what we expect an album to be. Beyoncé was more than the sum of its parts, each song flowing seamlessly into the next and featuring painstaking layers of vocals all sung by Yoncé, collaborations with the hottest names on the scene, and pointed samples from political activists.
There's an argument to be made that Beyoncé the only 20-Teen Queen—with 2 Superbowl performances (2013), Lemonade album + movie (2016), the most enviable birth announcement of our age (2017), releasing Jay-Z collab Everything Is Love and performing Beychella in the same year (2018). But In 2014, Beyoncé gave us the Surfbort, our first Blue Ivy album credit, and the full mainstream-ification of Feminism—and she plopped it into our laps without so much as blinking. For that, we are grateful.
2015: Taylor Swift
T-Swift hit the height of her power when she released 1989, her first album indisputably in the Pop genre. Tracks showed off remarkable self awareness and a sharp sense of humor with singles like "Blank Space" and "Shake it Off." In fact, 1989 was so iconic, it warranted a Ryan Adams cover of the entire album. Taylor's full embrace of the Pop Queen spotlight brought us the age of #SquadGoals, making her instagram top content in 2015: a curation of long-legged Victoria's Secret models in staged scenes of feminine fun-having.
It was all so unsustainable, looking back—the noticeable exclusion of certain sizes and shades had a bitter aftertaste, leaving us starved for authenticity. Over time, public unrest built against Taylor's saccharine-sweet PR front. It all came crashing down when Kim K exposed Taylor's behind-the-scene's dealings in 2016, resulting in 2017's follow-up fail Reputation and, not-unrelated, the downfall of the entire Victoria's Secret empire.
2016 was a HUGE year in Pop Music, but none could shine brighter than the diamond that is Rihanna. This was the year she gave us Anti, from start-to-finish a pristine body of work. This is also the year her relationship with Drake caused us heart palpitations. They got sexy on stage all over the world. He bought her a billboard before professing his love when presenting her with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. And then she turned him down. Incredible.
Beyond the music, Rihanna was busy debuting her first clothing line with Puma in 2016, an important cornerstone in the empire to come. The next year she would launch Fenty Beauty, and Savage x Fenty the year after that. Now, in 2019, she's working with Amazon on a televised fashion show for her lingerie brand that will put the final nail in Victoria Secret's
coffin—and cement a more inclusive future of entertainment.
2017: Cardi B
2017 could have been SZA's year. Ctrl was on repeat everywhere you went—but then Cardi B took the world by storm with Bodak Yellow. I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard it (actually, driving pitch black Oregon backroads to see Jyss at her 2017 farmhouse residence). My eyes grew wide, and I turned the volume all the way up. I thought to myself "Who is this?" I was so taken aback that I googled the song at a gas station. It is that fundamentally powerful--mighty enough to unite a New York subway—and Cardi B has the force of character to back it up. Cardi didn't release Invasion of Privacy until Spring of 2018, but her Jimmy Fallon interview in December helped seal her fate as reigning Pop Queen.
2018: Ariana Grande
The "thank u, next" video dropped in November 2018, and its early-aughts nostalgia bought buy-in from every Millennial on the block. This was a huge step, considering that just two years before, she had a completely different fanbase. Put it this way: in 2016, my coworker's 11-year-old daughter was busted for having a secret instagram—an Ariana Grande fan account. But come 2018 and even my most die-hard indie friends were converted to the Pop genre to revel in the self-love and acceptance that Ariana brought us.
We spent the Holidays re-watching Mean Girls and re-listening to "Pete Davidson" while waiting for the full album. If "Dangerous Woman" finally broke down expectations of the child star and established Ari as a sex symbol, then thank u, next presented an Ariana in tune with her female contemporaries, making music that adult women could relate to. And we wanted more.
If 2019 began with Marie Kondo's question, "What Brings You Joy?" the resounding response has been LIZZO. There's no question that she's 2019's Pop Queen—her brand of inclusive honesty is the salve that heals entire nations, and she leads by example. Her humor is infectious—she has an entire ig account for her flute: @sashabefluting, and she uses her platform to preach a gospel of self love. At her Tiny Desk Concert she thanked her band, her beauty team, and the audience, ending with a tear-jerking, "I just want everyone to remember if you can love me. You can love yourself. Every single day."
Lizzo is the pudding in the proof that confidence can beget confidence, see: If I'm shining everybody gonna shine! And that's the magic we've been wanting for over a decade.