How Female Pop Stars Lost and Are Regaining their Voices
Before we get into it, let’s analyze what the female pop star has grown to represent in the last decades. As Nelly Furtado neatly articulates in 2006 sex romp “Maneater,” it’s a binary choice: “You either wanna be with me or be me.” By displaying vulnerability, glamor, power, beauty, or independence (not usually at the same time), somewhere in the early 2000s the female pop singer became an on-demand channel for whatever we want to feel at any given moment. For every situation you might encounter and don’t know how to respond to, there surely exists a song to tell you how to feel. And because the pop market is all about marketability and sales, every artist has to offer a full emotional spectrum if they want to maintain a loyal fan base.
It’s become too common for a dramatic piano tearjerker to be followed by the sassy, I-don’t-need-you jam, or vice versa. Mariah Carey’s mid-2000s comeback “The Emancipation of Mimi” gave us “We Belong Together” (“When you left I lost a part of me / it’s still so hard to believe”), “Shake it Off” (“But now it’s clear to me / You would cheat with all your freaks / And lie compulsively”) and “Get Your Number” (“Here’s a little somethin’ bout me / I got a pimp penthouse with a sick hot tub / We can watch the flat screen / While the bubbles fill it up”). Hit shuffle, rinse and repeat, and on to the next album.
The proliferation of writing camps definitely contributes to the lack of authentic, coherent output coming from a single pop artist. If you’re not familiar with writing camps, it’s an operation where a group of slick producers meets a group of slick songwriters to collaborate for a week to deliver new cookie-cutter hits designed to sell. Labels argue that, in the era of buying singles on iTunes and streaming, no fan would ever listen to an album front-to-back, and its art direction and message are all secondary to the strength of the lead single (looking at you, Britney, with the Glory album cover).
In a Popcrush interview, Sia revealed how “they’ll entice me into a session by saying, ‘Rihanna will definitely be there’ or ‘Kanye will definitely be there,’ but it’s hilarious because I turn up and, almost always, they never come.” What Rihanna lacks in hands-on involvement in her songs, she makes up with good beats, killer fashion, and her signature brand of I-don’t-give-a-fuck escapism. Does it really matter then that Rihanna did not pen her own lyrics when you’re in the club at 3 am belting:
Cause I may be bad but I’m perfectly good at it
Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But chains and whips excite me
Fly-on-the-wall fans may say yes, but each singer’s fandom (The BeyHive, Rihanna Navy, Britney Army, Gaga’s Little Monsters) would immediately wave their hand, content with their queen’s signature brand of vocal tricks and hair flips. Perhaps in an act of reverse mimesis, the performer that lends her voice to other writers’ compositions in a way embodies the fictional world of the song and legitimizes it.
Is Britney’s decade-spanning sex drive something she’s actually boasting about in “Slumber Party,” a hot collaboration with R&B diva Tinashe: “We use our bodies to make our own videos / Put on our music that makes us go fucking crazy, oh / Like a slumber party”? In pop music world, since her debut in 1998, her growth shows a new affinity for bad words and technological awareness, alluding to the celebrity sex tape phenomenon. In real life, however, Britney Jean Spears, the person, first became the best-selling teenage artist ever, and then proceeded to navigate two messy marriages (one lasting under 48 hours), resulting in a year of erratic behavior, hospitalizations, the infamous head-shaving breakdown, and a legal conservatorship resulting in her father gaining control of her assets. She has never addressed any of this in her music in the last decade, aside from the tongue-in-cheek “Piece of Me” on 2007’s “Blackout”:
I’m Mrs. Lifestyles of the rich and famous
I’m Mrs. Oh my God that Britney’s shameless!
I’m Mrs. Extra! Extra! This just in
I’m Mrs. she’s too big now she’s too thin
And it is important to note that behind each of these female artists is a big management team & label, predominantly male, meeting and strategizing how to maximize the sales of each album, from promo appearances to music videos, styling, and paparazzi stunts. Lady Gaga, in her Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, reveals that “when producers, unlike Mark [Ronson], start to act like, ‘you’d be nothing without me,’ for women especially, those men have so much power that they can have women in a way that no other men can. Whenever they want. Whatever they want.” In a cruel, ironic twist, behind every seemingly carefree female pop star moment, there may be a group of men orchestrating it.
You can’t help but feel duped by the glossy production of Britney’s last leading single “Make Me…” coming from a woman who has gone through so much in her personal life, yet sweetly coos to a hypothetical lover: “Baby, ’cause you’re the spark that won’t go out / My heart’s on fire when you’re around / Make me ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.”
Perhaps pop world functions in a suspension of disbelief of sorts, a utopia based on escapism, unlimited resources (does money exist or are we just rich enough to not worry about it?) and the plenty-of-fish-in-the-sea dynamic of dating. You only need to know album-Rihanna or album-Britney is having fun to justify going out and dancing the night away, even if the real one is at home taking care of her children or plotting the launch of a makeup line. In pop world, we are not used to talking about pain and hurting (in a way that is not self-serving or empowering), class issues (because nobody wants to jam with a poor pop star) or uncertainty (because confidence and killer dance moves have been deemed attractive).
However, there is a new wave of singer-songwriters out there, and they have got things to say. But while Solange & Lorde are providing social commentary on race and maturity over lush, pulsating synths does the audience give them enough credibility to pay attention to words?
At Solange’s concert last fall at Radio City Hall in New York City, it was an electrifying experience seeing a diverse fan base supporting her anthems of black empowerment. Yet, as she swaggered on “FUBU,” a track aimed at “All my niggas in the whole wide world / Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn,” there was an uncomfortable number of white women singing and jamming along to the track, mesmerized by the satisfying beat, Solange’s honey-tinged melisma or the fierce choreo. Good pop music is drenched in spectacle, but have we forgotten that there’s a message to it all?
Lorde’s sophomore album “Melodrama” tackles the ups and downs of growing into an adult through the metaphor of a single house party from start to finish. She layers beautiful imagery (self-written) on every single beat, depicting her and her friends as not only “A couple rebel top gun pilots / Flying with nowhere to be,” but as a beautiful car crash that will “end up painted on the road / Red and chrome / All the broken glass sparkling,” in a falsetto that makes it sound strangely appealing. It’s so adolescent to romanticize violence and death, but nobody does it as stylishly as Lorde.
Even so, it seems a frustratingly small number of pop fans actually want to know what their idols are communicating. Pop music has become the sonic analogy of contemporary art with a take-it-as-you-may attitude, where the artist is providing the soundtrack to our own emotional rapture rather than the music being a platform for them to share theirs.
When Solange addressed the crowd near the end of her set, expressing gratitude for being part of her journey and enabling her to share her artistry, even though it may not relate to everyone at all times, she sounded genuinely thankful and a little amazed. In a world of big arena tours by Britney, Rihanna and her sister Beyoncé, it must be overwhelming to have Radio City chant to your own lyrics, compositions, and choreography. At least those who know there’s a person behind it all.