Poptimism: As Pop Music Dominates Boxoffice Charts, Is It Time For A Critical Re-evaluation?

Brett Schauf
– Pink
Pink performs acrobatics during her show at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan., March 3.

Poptimism, the belief that pop music is as worthy of professional critique and interest as other forms of music, gained currency 10 or so years ago. Critics dug deep into the role and intrinsic cultural value of popular music versus other music, including rock, rap and hip-hop, to find meaning – or at least signs of life. And perhaps it’s the doomed protagonists of the latest iteration of “A Star Is Born” – played poignantly by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper – who best symbolize the victory of poptimism over rockism, even if it’s not much written about lately.

While the term mainly applied to music critics and recorded music – and has been declared “dead” by some, possibly because it was discussed to navel-gazing death – a look at box office charts this year proves that whatever its perceived cultural value, fans flocking to concerts with pop gods and goddesses are proving the genre’s staying power as an entertainment force.

Look no further than Pollstar’s third quarter Worldwide Top 100 Tours chart. Eleven of the Top 20 touring artists are unquestionably pop stars, led by Ed Sheeran with 4,377,488 tickets sold and Taylor Swift’s 2,417,423. The Jay-Z/Beyoncé outing is third with 1,999,112 sold, Justin Timberlake checks in at No. 6 with Pink close behind at No. 7 and Imagine Dragons at No. 8. Germany’s Helene Fischer closes out the Top 10 with 813,905 tickets sold. Bruno Mars, Harry Styles, Shania Twain, and Sam Smith also notched spots in the Top 20.

The conventional wisdom over the last decade (or two) was that the concert business was being sustained by the war horses of classic rock. The Rolling Stones, U2, Bruce Springsteens, and the Bon Jovis of the world could be counted on to fill the upper reaches of the Year End Top 100 Tours – Madonna being an exception, rather than a rule, as the then-reigning Queen of Pop.

But Madge has been displaced; all hail Queen Taylor – whose “Red” tour blew out the competition in 2015 with a top gross of $199.4 million reported to Pollstar by the end of that year (more has been reported since). Madonna’s top mark, in calendar year 2012, was $133.7 million – good for No. 8 of the top-grossing tours of all time, behind Swift and, perhaps unsurprisingly, three U2 tours, two Rolling Stones outings, and Beyoncé’s 2016 “Formation” juggernaut.

Bear in mind: those are the top-grossing tours of all time as of last year. Swift and Sheeran have each already surpassed her 2015 record. Sure, some of it is a function of all-inclusive VIP packages now baked into ticket pricing rather than purchased separately (although not Sheeran). But even if you take the spike in high-end ticket dollars out of the equation, Swift has sold 2,417,423 tickets in 2018 and Sheeran has moved 4,377,488 worldwide as of the third quarter.

The only non-pop artist making a stadium run this year is country’s Kenny Chesney, who recently wrapped up his “Trip Around The Sun” with 1,298,089 tickets sold.

In contrast, the best-performing rock act to date in 2018 is the Def Leppard/Journey arena co-bill (825,825 sold), followed by Foo Fighters (752,477) and The Rolling Stones (without crossing the Atlantic, Mick and the boys have sold 750,914).

Justin Timberlake is a man who need not rely on touring or record sales, having run the table from boy band heartthrob from his days with *NSYNC, to solo artist, to actor and back to touring. He’s won Grammys, Emmys and been nominated for an Oscar. 

Justin Timberlake
John Davisson
– Justin Timberlake
Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival at Park At Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin, Tenn., Sept. 23.

He launched his current “Man of the Woods” tour in March, soon after his Super Bowl halftime show, which is all evidence that our pop stars can and do transcend the confines of pop stardom.

Finishing the third quarter at No. 6 with 992,945 tickets sold, Timberlake is maintaining his cachet as a touring force in between making movies (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “The Social Network”) and “Saturday Night Live” appearances (at one point, the popular SNL guest host was rumored to be joining its cast).

Timberlake has, at press time, more than 25 arena shows left on his 2018 itinerary but has a bit of territory to cover before he making the leap to the stadium-tour-level numbers grossed by the artists in the 3Q chart’s Top 5 (save for the “Disney On Ice” tour).

In the meantime, Timberlake’s ex, Britney Spears, just finished setting records in a Las Vegas pop music revival spearheaded by Celine Dion, Elton John and others, having sold more than 1 million tickets over 250 dates in her four-year “Piece of Me” residency at The Axis at Planet Hollywood. So successful is the Las Vegas residency format that Lady Gaga, J. Lo and Bruno Mars have lined up runs in Sin City.

Rounding out the pop artists in the 3Q Worldwide Top 100 Tours is German chanteuse Helene Fischer (who is an entertainer, presenter, and actress in her homeland) with 813,905 tickets sold. But looking to push through the threshold to the Top 10 in coming months are Bruno Mars (No. 11; 790,188) and Harry Styles (No. 12; 757,843).

And there’s plenty of popsters peppered through the Top 100 Tours to date – formidable talents like Sam Smith, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, Celine Dion, Lana Del Rey, Niall Horan, Vance Joy, and Paloma Faith, to name a few. All reporting large, and not to be dismissed as cream puffs.

Which brings us back to whither poptimism? Of course, commerce does not equal art. Not everything that is popular is necessarily good.  Nor is it necessarily bad. But can you dance to it? Does the musicianship, production, the special effects, the dancers and the video display combine for a sensory experience that surpasses the literary and emotive calisthenics of, say, Sheeran’s “I’m In Love With Your Body” or Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”?

NPR critic Ann Powers says that pop’s power is in its ability to lift people up.

“The great thing about popular music, I think, is that it connects so deeply with our bodies that it can move us in new directions,” Powers wrote for NPR’s The Record. “For every time music has been used to promote misunderstanding and oppression, there are many more when it’s lifted people up, making them feel better within themselves and helping them better understand others whose differences they feared.

“I know that on one level, music is abstract – like a thought … But it’s also like a feeling, a real sensual and emotional pull. Music can make you feel like a room without a roof. When that’s happening, all the categories we build as thinkers recede, and whatever sound made it happen is glorious.”

Which brings us to Pink, who will resume her “Beautiful Trauma” tour in March and take it deep into 2019. She famously brings actual physical art to the table – or should we say
to the rafters? – with her aerial acrobatics. Her current tour has been selling out arenas across North America and Oceania since March, and Pink announced yet another U.S. leg before her first caravan even ended, and an arena tour in the U.K. and Ireland (with dates reportedly coinciding nicely near Glastonbury weekend), which will keep her trek going through at least June.

By the end of 3Q, Pink sold a reported 909,676 tickets (No. 7 on the chart) that, barring a return from a well-deserved hiatus or a cascade of box office reports from AEG Presents, should represent her final total for the year.

A Pink show, however, is the concert definition of “value added.” As noted by Variety’s sometime Pollstar contributor Chris Willman in a review of her June stop at the Forum
in Inglewood, Calif., “Pink’s is the most ‘holy f—ing s—’ act of physicality I’ve ever seen as part of a pop show.”

Willman sort-of answers the poptimism question later, noting that Pink’s voice and singing ability is what made her a star well before her high-wire performance was added to the show.

He asks rhetorically: “Wouldn’t it be nice if she could do at least a tour where she did nothing but show off her exquisite and powerful voice, foregoing the massive pageantry
and really focusing exclusively on what’s at the heart of the music? But then she goes into another eye-popping showpiece, and you correct yourself: No. Let’s hope that never happens.”