So the other day I was having a conversation with one of my co-workers, who is 11 years younger than me. I find myself bringing up things that I grew up with that she either was too young to remember, or that she was born before. But there was something she was talking about that really had me thinking, and it involves the state of women in music today. She was telling me about a song where a girl was priding herself of more or less being what I referred to as a “party whore”. No, we’re not talking about Ke$ha here, I’m not sure who was singing this song (she sort of left that detail out). But whoever was performing the song, it begs the question: who in music can women look up to feel empowered?
The 90’s saw a real insurgence of women taking control. Sure, there was the whole manufactured “girl power” thing with the Spice Girls. But there were also real examples of empowerment found in the likes of Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Liz Phair, Shirley Manson (of Garbage), Gwen Stefani (of No Doubt), Janet Jackson, hell even Madonna included. Even someone as crazed as Courtney Love of Hole could at least show women that they can have a spine and some conviction in what you do (and that’s about as much as an endorsement for being a role model she’ll ever get out of anyone). Women in the 90’s, especially in the alternative music realm, were angry and vocal. They had opinions that demanded to be heard. Meredith Brooks made a point of that by titling her one-hit wonder “Bitch”. It was no longer a time of just being a piece of eye candy to market, but rather finally having a point in the music they perform.
So, what happened? Well, thank the return of the bankable pop stars like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson from 1999-2001. The alternative rock era died off steadily within the new millennium, so even though groups like No Doubt and Garbage were still putting out efforts in this period, the audience shrunk. The interest in the female fronted rock band dropped off, and faux rock stars like Avril Lavinge took their place. Music had to be more bankable in an era where content could be had much easier (and illegally), and pop stars had to be produced. The industry created reality shows and competitions to keep people buying into their product. The idea of having a message in music just didn’t seem important anymore, and it was less about being a role model and more about just being a star.
Today, finding a role model in music is getting tougher to find for women. Ke$ha doesn’t do anyone favors by having nearly every song consist of “partying and fucking” (sometimes both, sometimes with glitter). Rihanna began her music career as someone young women could look up to, but with the last few albums, her message seems to be as bad as Ke$ha’s, and on top of which doesn’t provide a great example of empowerment of hooking up with the man that physically abused you (we could go into detail on that, but let’s just leave it at that). Britney Spears really has nothing valuable to give women in terms of empowerment, just like when she began her career. So, who could be considered a role-model? Two that come to mind are Kelly Clarkson and Pink. Kelly Clarkson may have been the winner of the first season of American Idol, but she’s been very outspoken when it comes to dealing with the record industry. She’s someone that doesn’t take kind to being pushed around, and she stands pretty firm on her opinions and values. Pink, over the years, has shown a lot of maturity. Like Clarkson, she’s fought for her decisions on her music career, and hasn’t been afraid to voice her opinions on what she believes is wrong. Lady Gaga does put forth a good effort on becoming a role model, and at the very least encourages people to be themselves, as well as fight for what is right. I would like to think of Taylor Swift as a good role model, except aside from her clean persona, much of her music is about trashing former lovers (then again, that was a good chunk of Alanis Morissette’s catalog).
If we look outside the artist’s persona, and look into the music lyrics, it’s hard to find anyone that puts forth an effort to actually present a message. Clarkson does well with a song like “Stronger” ,but many of her songs have one or more songwriters attached to it. The same goes with many other pop artists. That was the real difference with the female alternative performers. The songs they performed were written by them, and the messages seemed a lot more organic. Yes, many of them seemed like Taylor Swift break-up songs on steroids, but at least it came from their mind. It put more personality into the music, which is something that is sorely missing today. I wish that more of today's pop stars put more of an effort into songwriting (in all fairness, Kelly Clarkson, Pink and many others do put effort into the process). Music wouldn't feel as disposable as it does now, and at least provide some decent moral fiber in a world in moral decline.
Special thanks to my co-worker Sara for this idea!