FlopPop Power Hour
In the film industry, flops are easy to identify and quantify — just compare the budget (production + marketing) to the worldwide gross.
In music, it’s a bit more relative, and flops are defined in the context of an artist’s chart history. Confounding things further, a song can fare well in one metric but poorly in another, like a streaming and sales smash that can’t translate that success to radio (see: “Gangnam Style,” which was in no way a flop).
The songs on this playlist were all major commercial failures, though not necessarily in the same way. Some had pretty good chart peaks, others had notable cultural impact. But, had the stars aligned, they all could have been so much bigger. (And, for a handful of them, it would have been deserved).
You might notice that every artist on the list is a woman. We live in an era of almost-exclusively female pop stars, and we’re more forgiving of failed singles from male artists (nobody cared when Justin Timberlake’s “Take Back the Night” bombed, for example). Why is that?
First of all, there hasn’t been a male artist who’s been vocal about caring about the charts since Michael Jackson. Meanwhile, there’s a long history of women strategizing for chart success, from Mariah Carey to Rihanna and Katy Perry.
Beyond that, there’s the demographic makeup of chart-watchers. It’s no secret that a sizable portion of the people feverishly scanning the pages of Billboard, making predictions and elaborate spreadsheets, are gay men, a group that favors female pop stars.
One final note: not every song can be a hit. There simply isn’t room in CHR playlists or the collective consciousness for every single to have an impact. So the inclusion of any song on this list isn’t a slam at the artist. (Except for maybe Ariana Grande). It’s closer to the opposite: a loving acknowledgement of these stars’ humanity and imperfection. Or something.
1. Run Away With Me — Carly Rae Jepsen
“Up in the clouds, high as a kite, over the city, city”
When Factual Queen of Pop Carly Slay Jepsen told listeners to “run away” with her, she was probably hoping for something in the way of, like, actual record sales. What she got instead was one of the most absurd and, honestly, hilarious memes in recent memory.
Playing with the song’s iconic saxophone opening (v 80s, rite?), the lifechanging “Baby!” that opens the chorus, and the artist’s cult status, “Run Away With Meme” has earned over 110 million Vine loops.
Jepsen couldn’t translate that runaway viral success into chart numbers: the E-Mo-Tion track got as high as #49 on Pop Digital Songs, hardly impressive for someone whose previous meme-ified hit happens to be one of the biggest songs of all time.
2. Perfume — Britney Spears
“Am I being paranoid? Am I seeing things? Am I just insecure?”
When Britney sings “I hope she sells my perfume” on “Perfume,” I can’t help but think that what she really means is, “I hope this sells my perfume.”
(I’ve been making that joke for three years. I still think it’s funny).
But in all seriousness, when an artist has released four high-profile fragrances (a fifth, called “Private Show,” came more recently), how can you not be a little skeptical about the motives behind a song called “Perfume?”
Despite following the #12-peaking club-banger “Work Bitch,” “Perfume” debuted and peaked at #76, stopping the Britney Jean era after just two singles.
Please bow your heads for a moment of Britney lip-syncing live to Sia’s demo vocals.
3. M.I.L.F. $ — Fergie
“Heard you in the mood for a little MILF-shake”
This song still has me scratching my head. “M.I.L.F. Money,” while ostensibly a play on the phrase “milk money,” fails to meet any definition of the word pun, and just doesn’t work.
One of Fergie’s co-writer/producers on the track, Jamal “Polow da Don” Jones, was behind two of the #1s from Fergie’s 2006 magnum opus The Dutchess, and helped make “Anaconda” for Nicki Minaj. “M.I.L.F. $” is a far cry from those past successes.
Like a previous Fergie/Jamal collab, 2 Chainz’ “Netflix,” this song attempts to capture a piece of the zeitgeist with its instagram-referencing title. (That’s right; M.I.L.F. here stands for “Moms I’d Like to Follow.” I’ll save you some Googling: Fergie is not a mother.)
Despite spending a hot second atop the US iTunes Chart, “$”’s debut and peak was #34, even lower than Fergie’s previous bomb, 2015’s “L.A Love (La La).” “Love” was to lead into Fergie’s second album, Double Dutchess, but its failure sent the artist back to the drawing board to concoct a new comeback attempt. Maybe Fergie wasn’t meant to exist outside of 2006.
4. Out of the Woods — Taylor Swift
“Are we out of the woods yet? (x3) Are we out of the woods?”
Taylor Swift earned a shitload of indie cred when she released the Jack Antonoff-assisted “Out of the Woods,” an ethereal mid-tempo about simultaneously wanting your relationship (with Harry Styles) to wor, and wanting out (of your relationship with Harry Styles). The song shot up to #18 on the Hot 100, typical for a pre-album promotional release by the superstar.
By the time the song got a proper release as the sixth single from blockbuster 1989, no one cared about “Out of the Woods” anymore. We were sick of hearing its repetitive chorus, and maybe even a little sick of Taylor.
It wasn’t for lack of trying on her part: debuting the song’s über-expensive video on New Year’s Rocking Eve (at shortly before midnight, no less) was a smart move, and it would probably would have worked three singles earlier.
That is, if the video weren’t so boringly, pretentiously, bad. (I’m still gagging over “She lost him, but she found herself, and somehow that was everything” nine months later). Sure, you could argue that the video was feminist, but that doesn’t make it good.
When follow-up single “New Romantics” flopped even harder, we had the scientific proof we needed that Taylor Saturation is achieved after exactly five singles.
5. Run the World (Girls) — Beyoncé
“Some of them men think they freak this like we do, but no they don’t”
Diplo, whose work is sampled on the lead single to Beyoncé’s 4, eventually tried to play “Run the World” off as a joke, but the truth is that, for a flop, the record is pretty iconic.
Who can forget, for example, this BBMA performance, an undeniable visual masterpiece, despite the (fairly valid) plagiarism accusations?
Why did it flop? Was the song just not good? Had we reached Beyoncé Saturation? Are whiny straight males to blame? Some fans pointed out that the song is literally impossible to sing along to; others posited that the song simply felt like a disappointment after all the hype.
Today, “Run the World (Girls)” is fondly remembered as a fairly-lighthearted feminist anthem, but certainly not as one that ran the charts.
6. Team — Iggy Azalea
“I feed ’em lemons in the limelight.”
Iggy Azalea’s attempt to follow-up on the one-two punch of “Fancy”/“Black Widow” (what’s “Beg for It?”) was “Team,” which Igloo Australia herself described as “20% meaningful 70% bop 10% ratchet.” Pretty accurate, if you ask me.
What made “Team” fail where previous Azalea hits have worked is that the rapper “sings” her own hook on this one. “Fancy”’s hook was written and performed by Charli XCX, Katy Perry penned the Rita Ora section of “Black Widow,” and Charli returned to write MØ’s part in “Beg for It.” Sure, “Team” has a writing credit from Bebe Rexha (of all people), but Iggy-Iggz’ grating shout-vocal is just impossible to latch onto.
“Team” missed the Hot 100’s top 40, and seven months later, we still haven’t seen its supposed parent album, Digital Distortion.
Feel bad for Azalea? Stop that, and read this.
7. Stone Cold — Demi Lovato
“I was your amber, but now she’s your shade of gold”
Poor Demi Lovato really wanted “Stone Cold” to be a hit. She gave it a commendable promotional push, performing the song on American Idol, James Corden (twice!), Ellen DeGeneres, the GLAAD Media Awards, and Billboard’s Women in Music event.
Lovato was damn proud of “Stone Cold,” too: she told Entertainment Tonight that the song’s video was “the hardest… I’ve ever shot,” congratulating herself on the song’s relatable lyrics and the energy she put into every performance of the piano ballad.
In the end, though, it just wasn’t meant to be, and, as the legendary Tweet above references, the third single from Confident never even reached the Billboard Hot 100, settling for #2 on its consolatory “Bubbling Under” chart.
8. Spark the Fire — Gwen Stefani
“OMG, OMG, I’m back again. Original feel-good is what I defend.”
Ahead of the release of her comeback album, This is What the Truth Feels Like, Gwen Stefani released the singles “Baby Don’t Lie” and “Spark the Fire.” Neither of them would make it to the album.
“Spark the Fire,” the more memorable of the two, was also the bigger flop. To its credit, it peaked at #326 (not a typo) in Russia. A Pharrell Williams co-write and production (like Stefani’s #1 “Hollaback Girl”), “Spark the Fire” is forever associated with the semi-animated, emoji-heavy accompanying music video that gave life to the meaningless lyric, “Hey! Get off my cloud!”
9. Focus — Ariana Grande
“I can tell you’re curious / It’s written on your lips”
There’s something genuinely frightening about Jamie Foxx’s (uncredited) vocals on this one. They do, however, make the song notable in that it’s one of the few top-10s in recent memory in which the chorus is not performed by anyone actually credited on the track. (The Beibs’ “Where Are U Now?,” which lacks a sung chorus, joins the elite list).
Being a Hot 100 top-10, “Focus” is arguably the biggest hit on this playlist, but that doesn’t make it a hit. It’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it chart run and poor critical receptions resulted in the song being pulled from the Dangerous Woman (or, at the time, Moonlight) tracklist. The era turned out just fine, though: Dangerous Woman has, as of this writing, produced 3 top-20 hits.
10. Unconditionally — Katy Perry
“Oh no, did I get too close, oh? / Oh, did I almost see what’s really on the inside?”
Perry’s bizarre phrasing on “Unconditionally” led one clever listener to rename the song “Uncle DeShawn Ali.” (No, it wasn’t me. I wish I had thought of that).
I’m not going to try and argue that the cultural appopriation controversy was the actual reason the song flopped, but I’ll admit that that’s a better storty than the truth: the song was just a snoozefest. After Katy smashed records with her Teenage Dream record and seemed poised to do it all over again after the success of “Roar,” that “Unconditionally” didn’t even come close was just disappointing.
11. American Girl — Bonnie McKee
“I fell in love in a 7/11 parking lot. Sat on the curb drinking Slurpee’s we mixed with alcohol”
Poor Bonnie McKee. Sure, she’s co-written seven top-two hits (Britney Spears’ #1 “Hold it Against Me,” Katy Perry’s #1s “California Gurls,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Part of Me,” “Roar,” and “Teenage Dream,” and Taio Cruz’ #2-peaking “Dynamite”), as well as singing back-up on Britney/Ke$ha/Nicki’s #3-peaking remix of “Till the World Ends,” but she hasn’t been able to turn that behind-the-scenes success into a successful solo career. (Yes, that was a 63-word sentence. Don’t tell anyone).
Anyway, Katy Perry’s close friend and longtime collaborator attempted to break out with “American Girl,” a song with a try-hard cliché-a-second format reminiscent of the How I Met Your Mother pilot episode. A full analysis of the tropes McKee employs here would require its own post, but a cursory scan of the lyrics reveals Slurpees, anti-parental rebellion, stargazing, and Millennial disenchantment to be among them. Yikes.
12. Marry the Night — Lady Gaga
“I’m a soldier to my own emptiness. I am a winner.”
After 11 consecutive top-10 hits, a feat not achieved since Mariah Carey did the same, Lady Gaga finally faltered on “Marry the Night,” a wholly uninteresting track (woah I’m really selling this playlist, aren’t I?) with an even less interesting 13-minute video.
As an attempted modernization of Whitney Houston’s “Queen of the Night,” “Marry the Night” doesn’t do half-bad. As a single worthy of Gaga’s legendary discography, it doesn’t success on quite the same level.
13. American Oxygen — Rihanna
“This the new America. We are the new America.”
Rihanna’s career is fascinating in that it’s produced as many flops as it has massive hits. Like a couple of others on this list, “American Oxygen” is an example of a song that never made it onto the album it was supposedly promoting, or any album for that matter. Among Rihanna’s three pre-ANTI singles (“FourFiveSeconds” and the iconic “Bitch Better Have My Money” being the others), “American Oxygen” is hardly a standout: it’s neither the best nor the most “different.” It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but… okay, see I’m already bored just talking about it.
14. Jam (Turn it Up) — Kim Kardashian
“5 more shots of tequila, I’m thirsty.”
Listen. Kim Kardashian gets a lot of hate she doesn’t deserve. That doesn’t make this song any less terrible. Brought to us by singer-songwriter The-Dream (of all people), “Jam” has been cited by Kardashian herself as the biggest regret of her career. 50% of proceeds went to St. Jude’s, so that’s… something, at least.
15. Sober — Kelly Clarkson
“This could break my heart or save me”
For proof that not every flop deserved its fate, look no further than Kelly Clarkson’s third album, My December. As the follow-up to Breakaway, the #5 album of 2005 and the #10 album of 2006 (per the November-November Billboard year, not the calendar year), My December was a high-profile release from the moment promo began.
But fans noticed that something was a little… off about that promo. From telling Vh1’s Top 20 Countdown that the album’s release date “makes no sense” to mysterious reports that label bigwig Clive Davis hated the record, something was clearly up.
Lead single “Never Again” debuted at a robust #8.. and then fell like a rock. Next up was “Sober,” the album’s second-best track (after “Maybe,” which remains a masterpiece almost a decade later). “Sober” peaked at the equivalent of #110 despite critical acclaim and a healthy promo schedule.
The musical politics around My December’s release significantly overshadowed the art itself. Don’t cry for Kelly: the flop was just a blip in her career, and was followed by three hit regular studio albums and the Christmas classic Wrapped in Red.
Damn, this song is good, though.