Popularity, by definition, is both nebulous and fleeting.
Music, in the MP3 Era, has become a disposable vehicle most commonly used to help build a brand.
Popular music, on its face, would appear to be a terrifically uninteresting endeavor for a person who fashions themself as a legitimate artist.
Alicia Keys is many things. Uninteresting is not one of them. Popular certainly is. As is musical. And, for our purposes, she's a great case study in how to go about creating music that truly connects with the average listener and, in turn, becomes resonant. Even iconic.
Take her latest record, for example. Rather, take two singles from her latest album.
The first time I heard "No One" on the radio, I wanted to know what movie it was connected to. Surely, it had to be the SDTK for the trailer of Will Smith's latest attempt to win an Oscar. Maybe it was the theme for the opening credits of the same film. It had to be something more than just a song, right? It's entirely too cinematic to be just a single from an album. Which is, essentially, my point. I instantly recognized the dramatic potential of the song. As if it were composed to be a music video and not just a song.
"Like You'll Never See Me Again" is very clearly a prom theme waiting to happen. Or perhaps the first song played for a blushing bride and her brand new husband. Probably both. So obvious is its purpose that you have to assume Ms. Keys and her producers intended to write a song that would be a good prom theme. Again, the product is more than just a song--it's intended to serve a specific, larger purpose.
The lesson both of these songs suggest is that Alicia Keys and her producers are not simply writing a song. Instead, they're composing an experience or a moment.
In the case of the former, the experience implies multiple platforms that can be used to distribute a story and, in practice, does not permit the listener to separate those platforms. The song is the video is the film score is the however else the Keys team chooses to license it. It exists as everything at once--no matter how you specifically engage with it.
In the case of the latter, the moment is not only universally recognizable (by Western standards, of course) it is universally aspirational. Making it that much more likely to stick in the minds and hearts of the average listener.
(Ironically, I've posted live performances of each of these songs. The official videos were not available to embed. As such, I'm left to offer less than ideal samples to make my point. Nonetheless, you really can't take any iteration of either of these songs as anything but an experience or a moment.)
This was supposed to be about how to make popular music, right? Let's cut to the primary point, then:
Music that becomes popular does so, most often, because it is accessible and relatable. That's a no-brainer. But...if you're trying to connect in the hyperbolic 21st century, you need to make music that's more than just a song. It has to capture a moment or create an experience. Something that's bigger than just some chords and some harmonies. Something that is larger than life because it amplifies life itself.
And it wouldn't hurt that the musician who delivers the story of the moment/experience be 3 kinds of fine. That's always good, too.