Most successful pop stars are polarizing figures. Case in point: Walk into any room and shout Kanye West or Taylor Swift's name. You'll get, "I love her! I admire him!" or "Ugh, she's overrated, and he's arrogant." Very rarely does the conversation sit in the apathetic middle, and that's why they are superstars.
It's easy to be a casual fan of both artists, but it's hard to find real dialogue in that passive appreciation. To find real success, you need to be on the tip of everyone's tongue... for better or worse.
Now let's think about that with regards to Ellie Goulding, whose new album Delirium comes out today. The British pop star is in no way as huge of a name as T-Swift or Yeezus, but she has become a commercial force in her own right, with five Top 20 hits in the past four years and a 2016 arena tour looming. You love her songs. But do you love her?
It's not that people are disinterested in Goulding or her aesthetic--that's clearly not the case following the success of songs like "On My Mind" and the Fifty Shades of Grey hit "Love Me Like You Do" this year. Those tunes live on the radio and have helped cement Goulding as a reliable hitmaker, but haven't fed into a collective obsession with her as a pop personality. Fans love her songs, and she has enough of them to spin that radio play into an arena tour. However, casual radio listeners appear to retain very little knowledge about Goulding's personal life, songwriting process, dating history or even stylistic evolution; for instance, how many U.S. listeners know that she once dated Niall Horan, or that she started out as a folk-leaning artist?
There's a certain power in that anonymity. Goulding can become a household name, work with Max Martin and write smash hits... but we're not necessarily invested in the stories behind them, like we are in Taylor Swift's 1989. We're interested solely in the music itself. Her subtle approach to pop stardom fuels success without intrusion.
In an interview with Spin, she described her collaboration with Martin:
I had only ever really heard big, radio-pop records from Max — the songs that I grew up with — I wasn’t sure how he and I would work together...He didn’t have a particular strategy for me. He was just very intuitive. As soon as I got in the vocal booth, I started doing the things I do with my voice — you know, I wasn’t sure how he was going to take that. I just felt like it worked really well. Maybe he doesn’t get on with everyone, but I felt like us in particular — we’ve got something really good.
In this story, the focus is on the work, not the interpersonal connection between the two. She doesn't tell us a story about the moment she met Martin, or share a juicy anecdote on how "Love Me Like You Do" came together. There's no VH1 Behind the Music moment. It's just Ellie, Max, and a blockbuster single.
Her songs deal with what all pop songs deal with: love, loss and sex. However, what's unique about Goulding is that there's a real disinterest in who the tunes are about. We know she was linked to Ed Sheeran and Horan, but U.S. audiences have not analyzed her dating history in the way that Swift, Rihanna and Ariana Grande's romantic lives get endlessly dissected.
It's partially her own doing: Goulding doesn't name her significant others in interviews the way Sheeran does, and neither relationship was as high-profile as, say, Harry Styles and Taylor Swift. There's another layer to this, of course: When we say folks are not invested in intruding in on her personal life, we mean American audiences. Ellie is currently dating Dougie Poynter of U.K. band McFly and supergroup McBusted. Goulding and Poynter are wildly popular across the pond, but McFly and McBusted don't have any real stateside presence.
Goulding might be one of the biggest names in the U.K., but in America, she's sitting in some happy medium. Consider it a new, passive pop space. She's not looked over in the U.S. the way Jessie J is, or obsessed over like Swift. She's also celebrated more than say, Rita Ora, who also has huge hits, but usually with the help of another major artist, with the help of a high profile collaboration. As it stands, Ellie is sitting pretty.
With a few more years of top-line success, Goulding could reach that next level of fame, and the world could begin prying. If she plays her cards right, superstardom could be in her future; if she doesn't, she could become more obscure and something of a cult figure. At any rate, maintaining a certain level of success and mystery at the same time is nearly impossible. For now, Goulding is loved, a little and a lot, and probably gets more privacy than other pop stars. Who wouldn't want that?