Has pop music ever been so in touch with its feminine side? The upper reaches of the charts seem to be exclusively the dominion of divas these days: Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Shakira and Katy Perry command the sound, the spectacle, the spirit of the times. Your little cousin has a Miley Cyrus poster on her wall. Your grandparents have a Susan Boyle album in their CD player.
The Top 40 is not merely by women. Increasingly, it’s of women: packed with club-thumping megahits about she-wolves and single ladies and fame monsters. The old archetypes are there: good girls (Taylor Swift), bad girls (Ke$ha), good girls gone bad (Rihanna), femme fatales (Beyonce), Earth goddesses (Sade, Erykah Badu) and of course divas in the classical model (Mary J. Blige) — women with huge egos and huger voices, rattling concert rafters with ballads about cruel fate and callous men.
“Everybody wants to be on top — we don’t want to give up that spot,” says Rihanna. “And right now there are a lot of women on top — so it’s a real fight.” The godmother of today’s shape-shifting, hitmaking, media-exploiting women is, of course, Madonna. The model of stardom that Madonna launched in the 1980s and ’90s has reached its apotheosis now, thanks to timing and technology. The record industry has collapsed into bits and bytes, and women have swooped into the void, finding new ways to write their stardom large, project it globally and spread it across platforms. In a media-saturated age, being a pop star is not just about making records and playing concerts. As Lady Gaga has demonstrated with such fearsome panache, it’s about dressing the part 24/7 and treating the whole world like a gigantic red carpet. “There’s no competing with Lady Gaga,” says Perry. “You don’t even try stepping in her lane. She’ll just fucking run you over. She eats, breathes and shits that stuff.
“It’s a powerful thing when women play with their sexuality,” Perry adds. “Gaga is kind of a creature. It’s not just the plain-Jane sexuality of tits and ass these days. People are getting deep.” The next generation is getting the message: “People are able to be more like characters now,” says Cyrus. “Now artsy is sexy.”
While the ladies flourish, the fellas have retreated to secondary, supporting roles. Once, rappers hired female singers to croon their hooks; now, if they’re lucky, they get to spit a few bars in a Rihanna song. Even Kanye West looks diminished these days. In order to get a word in edgewise, he has to interrupt the acceptance speech of one female superstar to stick up for another one.
“Women get to play up our features with visuals and costumes,” says Perry. “There’s only a few men who can get away with that: David Bowie, Prince and now Adam Lambert. There have been some moments recently, like at the American Music Awards, where a male-fronted band came and played, and it was a sleeper. Jeans and a T-shirt and a guitar — it just doesn’t work anymore. Unless you’re Bob Dylan.”