Michael Jackson has rightly held his title as the King of Pop for over four decades. With his solo career beginning in 1971 and taking off in 1982 with the release of the critically acclaimed album Thriller, no artist has been able to sit in his throne… until now perhaps.
Although Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber have been dubbed potential Princes and Dukes of the genre (respectively), it might have taken until 2017 for a new King of Pop to be crowned.
Abel Tesfaye who performs as The Weeknd is a Canadian-born singer, songwriter, and music producer. Hawaii native Peter Gene Hernandez who performs as Bruno Mars is five years his senior and is a singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and choreographer.
Both men have created phenomena around their musical personas within what is still the first decade of their artistic careers, but only one can fill Michael Jackson’s black penny loafers.
Default Pop & Timeless Music
Bruno Mars and The Weeknd have changed our relationship with popular sound and are reinventing the way in which we experience mainstream music. We need to examine the evolution of contemporary pop as a genre in order to realise why it is, that these artists are contenders for a second crowning of Pop King as opposed to being passing pop icons. Without discrediting the artistry of either musician, it was convenient timing that determined their current success, and to put it frankly: they got lucky.
Perhaps they were up all night ‘til the sun… perhaps they were up all night to get some… or perhaps they were just up all night for good fun… Point is: they got lucky. (That was hard to write without singing along). “Get Lucky” has the hallmark of a successful pop song if you think about it: a musical stimulus that causes an involuntary response on behalf of the listener.
For example, when you hear the words “Peace up; A-town”, do you not find yourself internally screaming as you start involuntarily putting your hair up knowing you’re about to partake in a dance battle (which you most likely served up yourself because you’re ballsy like that) and you just hate it when a tassel of hair falls across your face stopping you from rapping Ludacris’ verse at maximum potential? Oh right, yeah… me neither.
“Yeah!” By Usher featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris was released in 2004, dominated mainstream charts for twelve consecutive weeks, and is still regarded as an iconic pop song to this day. Why? It featured crunk and R&B as its default pop sound.
“Get Lucky” by Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, was released in 2013, also dominated international mainstream charts, and still remains a top selling single. Why? It featured disco and funk as its default pop sound. Moral of the story: urban rhythm is what sells popular music. Black genres being the default sound for pop is what makes mainstream music cool, and in turn, produces a timeless record.
Pop music goes through cycles. In 2004, hip-hop and R&B influenced pop music so much that tracks basically required the inclusion of a twenty-four-bar rap interlude in order to be successful. Fast-forward approximately five years and open your one good eye (you know, the one that’s not covered by your straightened side-fringe) to witness the emo era, where punk and rock have become the fusion genres for pop.
A few more years ahead where “disc jockeys” are playing whack-a-mole with their MacBooks and EDM is pulsating as the default pop sound. After nearly a decade of people claiming, “they just don’t make pop music like they used to”, 2016 saw us reach full cycle and our tendencies gravitate toward urban genres again – funk and alternative R&B oriented sounds to be precise.
The late 2016 releases of 24K Magic by Bruno Mars, and Starboy by The Weeknd could not have come at a better time for them. With pop music intuitively drifting toward an old school soul sound with retro aesthetics, both artists encapsulate the synthesised funk vibe perfectly in their latest albums.
As 2017 introduces this changing sound of pop, Mars and Tesfaye must become the faces of this revitalised genre proving themselves in three aspects: showmanship, artistry, and pop revolution.
Known as being the ultimate showman, Mars’ concerts and live performances are considered legendary with fans spanning all ages and social divides. As a choreographer, he embodies James Brown as the Godfather of Soul with his fast footwork and split routines, and more recently, Michael Jackson inspired popping.
Always performing with his nine-piece soul band, he has no need for special effects, as he is able to fill the stage with his own performance. Here he is performing the self-titled lead single from his most recent studio album: 24K Magic, live from the 2016 Victoria Secret Fashion Show in Paris.
Showmanship: The Weeknd
With Tesfaye’s introverted style of performing and subtle dance moves (essentially rhythmic walking) to accompany, “Starboy” is the track that most emphasises his showmanship – or lack thereof when compared to Mars. Here he is performing the self-titled lead single from his most recent studio album: Starboy, also live from the 2016 Victoria Secret Fashion Show in Paris.
Artistry: Bruno Mars
Like Michael Jackson, Mars is a multi-instrumentalist, rocks a unique wardrobe, and has a cheeky confidence that creates a playful relationship with listeners. Whilst MJ trademarked his stage persona with a signature glove, Mars is known for sporting a plethora of headgear.
Bruno manages to make 80s windbreakers, gold chains, and silk shorts look gaudy-chic, while Michael did the same with his white socks, sequined blazers, and 7/8 trousers. Watch Bruno Mars and James Corden discuss wardrobe, hats, and artistry in their Carpool Karaoke session.
Artistry: The Weeknd
After travelling to Tokyo, Tesfaye was inspired both sonically and visually, and states that videography now plays an integral role in communicating his music to fans after years of not appearing on camera. This idea was introduced during the Kissland tour when he performed on an empty stage with no more than a microphone and two video projectors.
Michael Jackson was known for his elaborate live performances, but we should also remember his passion for video projects. The film for Billie Jean (1981) was the first music video to be aired on MTV by a black artist making television history, and the aesthetic project for Scream (1995) with Janet Jackson surpassed their budget target of seven million US dollars and ended up costing closer to ten million to produce.
After years of hiding his identity, The Weeknd started appearing in his own music videos for Kissland (2013) and The Beauty Behind The Madness (2015), and has even taken a conceptualising role for the aesthetics of Starboy (2016). Tesfaye wrote and starred in MANIA, a short music film directed by Grant Singer and produced by Saul Germaine.
Pop Revolution: Bruno Mars
“Don’t fight the feeling; invite the feeling” – Mars (2016), 24K Magic.
Mars was already a multi-genre artist spanning reggae, rock, soul, R&B, pop, and balladry. In 24K Magic, Mars exploits the funk avenue of his music embracing the fact that popular music is heading in that direction.
Most underrated track from 24K Magic: “Finesse“.
Pop Revolution: The Weeknd
“You belong to [the fans]; not the other way around… they choose your fate” – Tesfaye (2013), Road to Success MTV / XO Documentary.
Creating a staple sound for alternative R&B via House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, (although to a lesser extent), meant that experimental artists were given a voice in mainstream music as opposed to having their sound pigeonholed into an ironically genre-less reverberation.
With Beauty Behind the Madness and Starboy being so heavily pop influenced, one could argue that the demand for popular sound and easy listening is determining Tesfaye’s music direction as he evolves into a pop artist sprouting from alternative roots.
Most underrated track from Starboy: “A Lonely Night“.
Hooligan or XO
Regardless of whether you are a Hooligan or part of the XO, both Bruno Mars and The Weeknd will be dominating popular music for the rest of 2017 and your new King of Pop will be determined dependent on how much both artists adhere to the digital funk sound that pop is currently demanding.
Words by Olga Maher