Hard fact: the best pop songs of recent years haven’t been heard by the chart-friendly public. They haven’t been on radio, and they haven’t been on any sort of streaming chart. Instead they’ve been nestling on shows like Nashville and Empire behind unknown names on late-night timeslots.
It’s a curious case that we’ve been following for quite some time, as fans of both shows spearheading the movement of musical drama. We’re not counting Glee – whose uninspired covers eventually revealed their own flimsiness – or Smash, where songs lived very much in the world of their singers, trapped in theatrics and far from anything that would bother the airwaves.
But week on week, some of the industry’s top talents (T Bone Burnett for country, Timbaland for R&B) come together to craft some serious game. On Nashville, we’re talking about quietly harmonised duets that would trample The Shires‘ popularity. On Empire, there are deep R&B cuts that would rival Usher. Hell, even Crazy Ex-Girlfriend recently lampooned some pop tropes and came out with the best song Shakira never made.
The question is, then, why stars like Jussie Smollett or Charles Esten won’t ever have a hope of bothering the mainstream. There’s certainly an appetite for it – from The X-Factor to Empire, music shows are still the highest rated in most countries. And these shows really do contain A+ songwriting (Undermine is a modern country classic). But perhaps there’s an automatic prejudice against those who can both sing and act. It’s tantamount to musical theatre, lacking credibility, and holding as much appeal as an album of show tunes from John Barrowman.
It’s taken Lea Michele some heavy graft to break out of her initial TV tag, but even then her pop career was largely ridiculed. And it’s also hard to imagine anyone getting excited by a Serayah solo album, or a much-needed pop break from the Stella sisters. In the end, it seems that we’re losing some tremendous artistry for the sake of confining what we believe to be lesser material to its smaller audience. Ironically, it hasn’t been a two-way street – these shows have welcomed the biggest names with open arms, from Christina Aguilera to Alicia Keys. If the TV world is so amenable to music, it seems only fair that the music world start extending the same courtesy.