When Madonna rolled around on stage in a wedding dress at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, no one could have predicted the impact she would have on the music industry. 30 years have passed since this now iconic moment in popular culture, and the historian’s privilege of retrospection confirms that this performance, more than any other, signified a new wave of American pop music. For better or worse, we’re still feeling the effects of this, but never more so than in the ‘00s, when women were at the center of it all.
From the early years of the decade, with emerging pop stars like P!nk, Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera, to the reemergence of always relevant legends such as Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Kylie Minogue, to the arrival of new stars at the end of the decade like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga, it’s clear that women took over a genre of music and performance once associated with The Beatles, David Bowie, Prince, and Michael Jackson.
While these women were united by similarities in musical style (electro beats, catchy hooks, etc), their most significant commonality was an emphasis on persona and performance above all else. The focus was on the construction of an image that transcended the music, and as a result women in the ‘00s dominated pop music because they demonstrated that women could be powerful and prolific, thereby inspiring female fans to be confident and independent in their own lives.
The most influential pop star of the decade was Britney Spears. A plethora of snarky critics have chastised Spears throughout her career, and some have attacked her singing voice while others have rejected her status as a positive role model. The former criticism rings true, but it’s a moot point because Spears never intended to be the next Barbara Streisand. The latter criticism is simply misinformed, and if we look more closely, we can see why Spears mattered to her legion of fans.
Consider, for instance, the title track off of Spears’ sophomore album, Oops!...I Did it Again, a funky song that Spears has a lot of fun with. Don’t let the surface fool you, however; there’s more depth to it than has previously been assumed.
As the song opens, Spears addresses a lover with the lines, “I think I did it again, I made you believe we’re more than just friends.” Right away, Spears informs the listener that this won’t be a typical love song. Instead, it’s about a young woman who plays around with men because she’s “not that innocent.” The fact that she does it again and again, as the song’s title indicates, leads the listener to believe that she is in control of her sex life, and even has the power to control the men she’s with, as well.
The second verse reveals that she would like to fall in love, but she spends her days “wishing that heroes, they truly exist.” Life isn’t a fairytale for Spears, and she persuades her listeners to have their fun with men, but not settle for someone who won’t satisfy their emotional needs.
“Oops!...I Did it Again” was an extremely empowering song for Spears’ young female audience, especially at a time when Eminem and other hip-hop artists were rapping about raping and killing women. Spears convinced an entire generation of women to take control of their sex lives and not let men have the upper hand.
Spears’ sophomore album was a massive success, selling over one million copies in its first week. Although some may debate the musical quality of the songs, there’s no denying the power of their lyrics. Each song on the album is an anthem for female empowerment, and that’s never clearer than with “Stronger”.
“Stronger” is a classic break-up song, and it has much in common with Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. In the first verse, Spears tells her lover, “I’ve had enough, I’m not your property as from today,” which immediately signifies that she is a strong and powerful woman. The chorus, as well, is simple and effective, as Spears sings, “I’m stronger than yesterday, now it’s nothing but my way, my loneliness ain’t killing me no more, I’m stronger.”
Throughout her career, Spears recorded songs that showcased her confidence and bravery, in addition to her vulnerability. On the one hand, listeners identified with Spears’ desire for love and affection, as with the songs “Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know” and “Lucky”, but they also emulated her unapologetic independence and confidence, as with the songs “Overprotected” and “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”.
Moreover, Spears wasn’t afraid to express her sexuality, which alienated those who admired her song lyrics but weren’t impressed with her image. Her performance of “Oops!...I Did it Again” at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards perfectly demonstrated her willingness to exhibit her body, and it was met with equal excitement and resistance. Some believed that Spears was a powerful role model for young females who weren’t comfortable with their bodies; others, however, were offended, and wanted their pop stars to be more wholesome and less controversial.
If Spears was the all-American girl with a sexy side, Kelly Clarkson was the girl next door who refused to be sexual.
Like Spears’ “Stronger”, Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” is an inspirational break-up song that promotes female autonomy. When Clarkson sings, “Since you’ve been gone, I can breathe for the first time,” she proves that women don’t have to be dependent on men, and that they can find happiness on their own terms.
“Breakaway” is Clarkson’s signature song, and it remains the most resonant representation of her public persona. In the first verse, Clarkson sings that she “grew up in a small town…dreaming of what could be.” What begins as a potentially somber song about disappointment soon becomes an ode to determination, as she belts out on the chorus, “I’ll spread my wings and I’ll learn how to fly, I’ll do what it takes til’ I touch the sky.”
Clarkson’s “Breakaway” encouraged her female fans to dream big, and her success on American Idol was living proof that those dreams could come true. The majority of Clarkson’s songs were as uplifting as Spears’, and they both recorded heavily manufactured pop that was produced by hitmaker Max Martin.
However, Clarkson’s anti-sexual image appealed to those who were uncomfortable with Spears’ overt exhibitionism. When Clarkson performed “Since U Been Gone” at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards, for instance, she only showed her midriff, and it was clear that she was marketing herself to an alternative group of young females that liked pop music’s conventional sound but didn’t want to be confronted with sexual imagery.
By contrasting Clarkson with Spears, we can comprehend why women ruled pop music in the ‘00s. Each female star constructed a specific image that aimed to capture a niche audience, while at the same time they recorded similar sounding music for the general public. As a result, nearly everyone listened to Clarkson and Spears on the radio, but certain listeners wouldn’t be caught dead at a Spears concert, and vice versa, because they didn’t support and relate to the public persona.
Avril Lavigne was another interesting pop star that flourished in the decade. Her songs “Complicated” and “Get Over It” resemble Spears’ “Stronger” and Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” in terms of a radio-friendly sound and thematic expression of female independence, but her star image was decidedly different.
Lavigne’s rebellious punk persona was a refreshing change, and it caught on with the skateboard counterculture that felt isolated from the popular crowd. It’s fair to say that the punk chicks and skater girls were throwing darts at posters of Spears, as if she represented all that they despised. Lavigne was a hero to these underrepresented teenagers, and it hardly mattered to them that Lavigne was as manufactured as Spears.
Lavigne’s performance of her hit “Sk8er boi” on Late Show with David Letterman in 2002 established her presence. The song itself is relatively conventional, but the image set Lavigne apart. With her ripped baggy jeans, Vans sneakers, backwards baseball cap, and camo t-shirt, Lavigne appeared as if she was a spokeswoman for Hot Topic, and this was a far cry from Spears’ skimpy tank tops and leather pants.
Beyoncé was similarly successful, bringing her brand of feminism to the wider public. She was proud to display her body in performances and music videos, and songs like “Me, Myself And I”. “Irreplaceable”, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, and “If I Were a Boy” encouraged her female fan base to be courageous and confident.
In addition to celebrating the beauty and power of African-American women, Beyoncé appropriated hip-hop in her more radio-friendly pop songs, which undoubtedly earned her respect amongst those who otherwise ignored the genre. Her performance of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)” at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards captured everything that made Beyoncé so unique. She’s sexy, powerful, and a little aggressive, and it’s easy to see why she’s still relevant in 2014.
By the end of the decade, some stars like Spears and Lavigne faded away, while others such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna took their place. In the midst of all this uprooting, however, it’s imperative to keep in mind that the emphasis on an upbeat musical sound that appealed to the general public and a calculated star image that was marketed to a specific group remained the same. While a number of men succeeded in this as well, most notably Justin Timberlake and Eminem, they were anomalies, and women generally shined more often in pop music.
As much as the music industry changed throughout the decade, female pop stars remained consistent in their control, precisely because there was always a gap in the market and an image that could fill the gap. Just when we thought we’d seen it all, for example, Ke$ha came along to remind us that party girls who wear glitter needed a role model, too.
It’s easy to undermine the contributions of these women, especially considering the lackluster quality of their music. However, many of their most successful songs are harmless fun, and the lyrical content is surprisingly inspirational. Combined, their music and performances encouraged a generation of young females to be confident and confrontational, and to express their identities in myriad ways.
As we look back on the decade and praise the brilliant music by Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and The White Stripes, we owe it to ourselves to recognize the many women in pop music that made an undeniable impact on popular culture and the world at large.
// Notes from the Road
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