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Chris Molanphy

Chris Molanphy is a pop-chart analyst and critic who writes about the intersection of culture and commerce in popular music. He writes the “Why Is This Song No. 1?” series for Slate and hosts the Panoply podcast Hit Parade. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Vulture, NPR Music's The Record, Billboard, Rolling Stone and CMJ. Chris is also a frequent guest on National Public Radio (Soundcheck, All Things Considered, Planet Money, On the Media) and on Slate’s podcasts The Gist and the Culture Gabfest.

The era of the dollar-download single was unusually good for female music superstars

In the late 2010s, streaming dominates the music business and hence the charts. As several journalists have chronicled, the Spotify era has been especially good for hip-hop—streaming’s playlist-centrism and hair-trigger reactiveness to trends creates a virtuous cycle for rap, and for the predominantly male artists who rule the genre (Cardi B being 2017’s momentary exception).

But five to 10 years ago, the music business was dominated by the dollar download and the iTunes Music Store. Apple’s explosion of the music industry’s album sales model, turning every track into a retail single (first for 99 cents apiece, then eventually $1.29), had far-reaching consequences for the business of creating and marketing hits. But it also gave a remarkable boost to female pop artists in particular. If the current streaming period is the Hip-Hop Dudes Era, the dollar-download period of music consumption was all about the Queens of Pop.

Gaga. Katy. Rihanna. Taylor. Miley. Adele. Ke$ha. Nicki. A revived Britney, a reinvented Kelly and a redefined P!nk. These ladies dominated the Billboard Hot 100 from roughly 2009 through 2014—and some of their chart conquest began even earlier. (When download data was first added to the Hot 100 in 2005, the immediate beneficiary was a single by the newly solo Gwen Stefani; later that year, dollar downloads essentially launched Fergie’s career.)

The data backs up the distaff trend, as well: Of the 200 most-purchased songs in retail-download history, the list of top-selling dollar-download artists—aggregating each act’s best-sellers—is led by women. The Queen of Pop era culminated in a two-month period in late 2014 where women locked down the entire Top Five on the Hot 100. A dizzying peak, presaging a steep fall: This year, women have been locked out of the Top 10 for several weeks, and no woman topped the chart until fall.

So what explains the success of women in the prior, betwixt-and-between music system? Why did the system where all songs cost a buck apiece favor women, and why do streaming and playlists favor men? Pop music moves through trends, and the pendulum—and creative energy—clearly swung toward women from 2005 to 2014. But the sheer number of females on the all-time downloads list seems more than timing and happenstance. If streaming has inarguably helped men and hurt women on the charts, it’s arguable that the converse was true under the prior music-technology regime.

In this paper, I will try to look past gender essentialism to get at the root of how pop music by women is consumed and most especially marketed—how downloads changed the feedback loop from fans back to the industry, the virtuous/vicious cycle that has long defined how the charts work. And I look forward, even more than usual, to input and smart analysis from my fellow PopCon attendees.