In the current pop market, there’s no wrong way to be a diva. The latest evidence: three new releases from female pop artists–all issued within a two-day period, all operating outside radio’s Top 10–highlight paths to fulfilling careers that don’t require Hunger Games–style death matches to reach the top of the charts.
Of the three singers dropping new songs on May 26 and 27–veteran American star Mariah Carey, British reality-show alumna Cher Lloyd and Swedish underdog Robyn–Carey has weathered the most ups and downs (remember Glitter?) while chasing the relevance she had in the ’90s and reclaimed in the mid-2000s. After a number of delays and false starts, her 14th studio album resembles a ploy for attention–at first glance. The album’s title, Me. I Am Mariah … the Elusive Chanteuse, is so fabulously over the top, it could almost be a joke; her young children with husband Nick Cannon are featured artists, credited as “DemBabies”; one song has a hashtag for a title, while another–gulp–prominently features a harmonica. (At least it comes courtesy of Stevie Wonder.)
But don’t let Carey’s creative use of punctuation fool you. The album, her first in five years, is low on gimmickry. “#Beautiful” opens with a bluesy guitar riff that assuages any worries about the title’s nod to Internet culture. Contributing a verse to the track is R&B crooner Miguel, one of several party guests Carey shuffles in and out like a master hostess who knows how to keep things lively. The hip-hop kiss-off “Thirsty” features a sterling beat from Hit-Boy (who’s produced tracks for Beyoncé, Kanye West and Jay Z), but strip away its bells and whistles and the song’s hook would sound right at home in a piano bar.
Carey often references the past–the title is from a childhood drawing, while the disco-inspired “Meteorite” quotes Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame”–but she doesn’t dwell on it. Nowhere on the record do Carey and her five-octave voice sound desperate to please, though nothing reaches the soaring heights of 2005’s “We Belong Together.” Carey hasn’t had a Top 10 hit in five years, but even when she (relatively) underperforms, her numbers are nothing to scoff at. “#Beautiful,” which peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, was still certified platinum. Critics may hail newcomer Ariana Grande as “the new Mariah,” but Carey remains an icon. Call her Mariah, the original chanteuse–a diva with staying power.
Enter the Upstart
At the other end of the spectrum is Cher Lloyd, who is half Carey’s age and currently trying to prove that she too is capable of longevity. Lloyd is a kind of pop act that didn’t exist a decade ago. She got her start in 2010 as a teenage contestant on Simon Cowell’s U.K. singing competition The X Factor, covering Jay Z and rapping over Coldplay. During her stint on the show, where she placed fourth, Cowell affectionately called her a brat, and the name stuck–both for better (her hyperloyal, social-media-savvy fans call themselves Brats) and for worse (it cemented her drama-queen reputation, which Lloyd now admits wasn’t far off).
On her 2011 debut, Sticks & Stones, Lloyd incorporated Top 40 guitar pop, dubstep and Nicki Minaj’s hip-hop theatrics. At times, her coquettish persona sounded obnoxious and grating as she sang about never growing up. But on her sophomore effort, Sorry I’m Late, Lloyd decided to do just that. Though it’s odd to hear an artist who’s not yet 21 sing about the pains of getting old, Sorry I’m Late abandons what made her polarizing without losing what makes her interesting. She ditches the rapping for more power ballads in the vein of Pink–whose mix of punky personality and poise offers Lloyd a career blueprint–but reprises the unintelligible grunts and cheeky humor of her sole Top 20 single, “Want U Back.” “I wish I had style, I wish I had flash/ Wish I woke up with a butt and a rack,” the petite star yearns on “I Wish,” which features rapper T.I.
Though Lloyd has access to some of the top producers in pop (Shellback, Max Martin), she hasn’t delivered the kind of inescapable hit required for her to be added to the A list. (She comes very close on “Sirens” and the uplifting “Human.”) But then again, she may not need to. With a very young, very female fan base as devoted as hers is, she has a sizable core audience already in place–as long as it grows up with her.
Songbird of a Different Feather
Compared with Carey and Lloyd, Robyn maintains the biggest cool factor, mostly because she tries so hard not to be cool. After having bubblegum-pop hits as a teenager in the late 1990s, Robyn retreated to her native Stockholm, where, unhappy with her label, she founded her own Konichiwa Records to release the edgy electro-pop she longed to make. There, she wrote theme songs for outsiders and misfits that made her a cult favorite long before Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Kesha (formerly Ke$ha) unleashed It Gets Better anthems championing self-acceptance.
Still, one song from 2010’s three-part Body Talk, “Dancing on My Own,” found its way into a high-profile spot on the first season of HBO’s Girls. It was a perfect fit. The way Robyn’s albums reference public transportation and the way she treats dance floors like testing grounds for new identities demonstrate a keen understanding of what it’s like to be a young person in a big city. Robyn isn’t about popping bottles in the club; she’s about finding herself there. And though she employs many robot metaphors in her music, her observations about technology’s role in everyday life are partly what make her music so relatable and beloved by both the cool kids and the critics who revere her ingenuity and musicianship.
Saturday Night Live writers may have memorably spoofed the fist-swinging choreography of her “Call Your Girlfriend” video, but it’s the song’s distinct take on classic love-triangle stories that helped make Robyn the hipster’s pop star. Her insistence on creative independence impresses those who would discount pop as a soulless, corporate product, and it makes chart performance a low priority.
Her latest work, the Do It Again mini-album, is a stopgap collaboration with Norwegian duo Röyksopp. That likely explains why a handful of its five songs buck the usual verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure of pop songs in favor of atmospheric instrumentals. Robyn barely speaks on “Sayit,” while “Monument” and “Inside the Idle Hour Club” approach 10 minutes in length.
Yet it’s also hard not to see the EP as a reminder that as capable as Robyn is at writing big, classic pop songs with universal themes, she’s utterly uninterested in celebrity or commercial success (and with this outré release may be looking to escape the pressure of following up such an acclaimed album). While the title of her Body Talk series indicates that Robyn is one of the pop stars most committed to getting fans moving, Do It Again doesn’t make it easy for anyone simply looking to quickly freshen up a gym playlist.
That’s not to say listeners won’t find such material–the EP’s title track is a shimmering piece of elastic dance music that could cause whiplash with all its stuttering stops and starts. But by making some of the most interesting pop music–even if it’s not always the most digestible–Robyn offers a completely different path to divahood: opting out of the game entirely.
This appears in the June 09, 2014 issue of TIME.
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