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From Taylor to Ariana, pop’s overreliance on gossip is choking the life out of it

When released Reputation in 2017, she self-published an accompanying magazine while avoiding interviews. “When this album comes out, gossip blogs will scour the lyrics for the men they can attribute to each song, as if the inspiration for music is as simple and basic as a paternity test,” she wrote in an essay. The sentiment oozed with contempt for playing dot-to-dot with her lyrics – even though, from her debut album to Reputation’s predecessor 1989, Swift left clues in her liner notes that clearly indicated whom certain songs were about.

Seven years on, and Swift’s new album, The Tortured Poets Department, couldn’t be more transparent about its subjects – typewriters and tattoos lighting a path to the 1975’s Matty Healy, whom she had a fling with last spring; Hampstead Heath and “longsuffering propriety” referring to actor Joe Alwyn, who she dated for six years.

In case you didn’t clock them from ambient exposure to the mass coverage of the past year in her life, there are hundreds of articles online handily “decoding” the carefully chosen references; bonus song The Black Dog mentions Pennsylvania pop-punk band the Starting Line, and one easy Google search reveals that the 1975 covered them live last year. Maybe Swift was going for the highest-profile humiliation of her exes possible; maybe it’s an admission of defeat against a media that will pick the bones clean of anything she does – or a naked attempt to harness the exposure guaranteed by that kind of coverage.

The latter seems most likely given that gossip is pop’s driving engine right now. From Swift to Ariana Grande’s divorce album , Sabrina Carpenter, Miley Cyrus and Olivia Rodrigo, the highest-profile releases are laden with popcorn-chewing subtext – or it’s the subtext that propels them to that level of exposure.

Ariana Grande holding a microphone in a bright dress

The lurid appeal of famous people shit-talking one another is evident – and it’s long been an art form in rap, now in the midst of – but whether it makes for lasting pop is another matter. Swift helped propagate the notion that pop achieves universality through specificity, though there’s a point at which specificity begins to strangle the life out of songwriting; where proper nouns (“Charlie Puth”) stand in for being able to contour emotional arcs and elegant portrayals of relationship dynamics that listeners might see in their own lives. Rather than enduring landmarks in an artist’s catalogue, these records can feel like expansions of personal lore more akin to how the Marvel Cinematic Universe operates: a layering of references and gestures over meaning and depth; a patently obvious breadcrumb trail that harnesses the public into promoting a generation of superstars, who can now comfortably evade the press.

The move away from physical music and bespoke music media to streaming and social media seems key to this shift. New music is now just another thing in your feed; it has had to use the eye-catching clickbait of its competitors to keep pace. “Why do you care so much whose dick I ride?” Grande asked on Yes, And?, the lead single from Eternal Sunshine – rebuking fans and baiting them at the same time. It’s also down to a generation of particularly young female pop stars becoming the writers of their own work and so documenting their own lives, something that was much less common at the turn of the 2010s. That is a wholly positive shift that has produced a ton of great work. But even the most elegant songwriters find themselves caught in an age when veracity is considered the ultimate in authenticity, and they are subject to prurient online sleuthing that treats songwriting as a series of clues to piece together in pursuit of some ultimate “truth”.

Rodrigo never discussed the explicit background to her masterful debut single Drivers License, but fans quickly assumed that it concerned a supposed love triangle between three young Disney Channel stars. She seemed burned by the invasive coverage; so too was Joshua Bassett, the alleged male party, who ended up hospitalised as a result of the stress and whose career has never recovered. Carpenter, the rumoured “other woman”, wrote the excellently nonchalant Because I Liked a Boy after she was hounded over the allegations (“Now I’m a homewrecker, I’m a slut … Tell me who I am ’cos I don’t have a choice”). She then seemed to become weaponised in a rumoured rift between Rodrigo and Swift when the latter invited Carpenter to support the Eras tour (Rodrigo’s comeback single was also assumed to be about Swift).

For all that subtext, Carpenter’s new single, Espresso, is a mercifully frothy diversion from the discourse: breezy disco about being so hot you keep boys up at night. It’s rising up the UK Top 10, and Carpenter looks set to become the next big pop star – a waning archetype, with few breaking through since Rodrigo in 2021. You wonder if the difficulty in developing new stars comes down to an absence of readymade lore, which Carpenter has. Now 24, she is only new to the general public. She started on Disney at 16 and has released five albums, and left Disney’s own Hollywood Records, which caters to a niche teen audience, to sign to Island for 2022’s Emails I Can’t Send – her first album after intrigue into her personal life flourished.

It leaves pop in a tricky spot. Too much gossip and you date your work; too little and fans lose interest. Last year, Ellie Goulding toted her fifth album, Higher Than Heaven, as her – and it was also her least successful, bombing out of the UK charts after a fortnight. The opening track to Justin Timberlake’s new album, Everything I Thought It Was teased introspection in the wake of his post-Britney reckoning, but only offered up vacant libidinous disco pop: it also dropped out of the Top 100 after two weeks. Kacey Musgraves’ latest album, Deeper Well, frustratingly traded her old lyrical specificity for therapy-smoothed platitudes. Dua Lipa’s forthcoming album has been distinguished by a remarkably blank press campaign: good on her for not spilling her guts for headlines, but her vapid interviews and three totally impersonal singles have left fans nonplussed about Radical Optimism. “The self is the only subject,” Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys – one of pop’s great storytellers – withered at a Guardian Live event this week while promoting the band’s new album, Nonetheless, which instead imagines the inner lives of dancer Rudolf Nureyev, spy George Blake and Oscar Wilde.

Today’s self-obsessed pop, which needs its own footnotes, may well alienate the passing fan who just wants something to listen to in the car. Perhaps that’s why charts are seeing a resurgence of rustic broad-church emoting from the likes of Benson Boone, Teddy Swims, Hozier and Noah Kahan; and why Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten has stuck around off the back of its Saltburn bump (“No one else can speak the words on your lips”).

There’s also a rising newcomer in Chappell Roan, the alternative US pop star whose Good Luck, Babe! is shooting up the Top 40. It’s a song about loving a closeted woman who ultimately goes back to men, which nonetheless makes a universal statement about the unstoppable nature of desire: “You’d have to stop the world just to stop the feeling,” she sings. Moreover, she has a fantastical vision: a sort of regency rodeo prom queen; or . As with the Last Dinner Party’s similarly baroque get-ups, it’s an invitation to fantasia that assumes no prior knowledge: just don some fancy dress and get stuck in. That sense also seems key to Beyoncé’s current incarnation: after the personal revelations of her 2013 self-titled album and 2016’s Lemonade, 2022’s Renaissance and this year’s Cowboy Carter mostly strip the specifics of her life from the lyrics to instead comfortably centre Beyoncé as a font of joyful genre play and invention. Tellingly, the one “Becky with the good hair” reference in Cowboy Carter’s Jolene rewrite stuck out for its tedious biographical retread.

None of this is to say that pop stars should avoid writing about their personal lives – far from it. But the most resonant pop steers between the two impulses. Charli XCX’s comeback single Von Dutch was clearly taunting someone – “it’s OK to just admit that you’re jealous of me” – but whoever the subject is pales in comparison to the way the song’s brazen grind makes you feel just as unfuckwithable as Charli. The Tortured Poets Department has a handful of moments like this. Guilty As Sin? may make its subject clear from the first line (no prizes for guessing which pop rogue’s favourite band is the Blue Nile) but Swift’s portrait of agonised fantasy over the forbidden while trapped in a stultifying relationship – and trapped in the societal expectations around it – resound with real emotional truth. The unfulfilled yearning is the album’s most convincingly sensual moment – a testament to leaving the picture incomplete.