When I was 12 years old, Jewel was one of the biggests artists on the radio. Her songs were both heartfelt and catchy. Her album liner notes consisted of poetry (which was, to be kind, mediocre). She was a self-described “sensitive” soul and she had lived in her van. For a brief, shining school year, she was my feminist role model.
We all know what happened to Jewel. Suffice it to say, she was most recently found on Bravo judging the reality show Platinum Hit—a show which does not appear to be coming back for season two.
Despite my role model’s slide from thoughtful star to cultural joke, I did not follow Jewel, selling out my own sensitive side to pursue a career in reality TV. Instead, I started reading better poetry and listening to actual folk music. Now I look on the feminism-lite of the Lilith Fair era with fondness; it introduced me to artistic women who were successful because, not despite, they expressed themselves with strength.
Some of us were lucky enough to be teenagers during the glory days of the approximately three truly popular artists in history who have identified as feminists (some of whom were men). Others come of age for the Spice Girls, Britney Spears or Taylor Swift. Usually, their influence on our trajectories is nil. Instead we view them through a pleasant haze of nostalgia when we’re older.
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So why do we spend so much energy worrying about the feminist failings of the pop star of the moment? If the Spice Girls were on the airwaves today, openly eschewing feminism in favor of “Girl Power!” they’d get a lot of condemnation from the very folks who bop about to their songs “ironically” now. The castigating of pop stars too often becomes an exercise in older women concern-trolling younger ones. It alienates us from a demographic we could engage with by expressing appreciation—qualified—for the culture that matters to them now, and will always matter to them as a signifier of their youth.
I propose a truce in the feminists vs. pop stars wars, which have been raging particularly intensely of late. This week, Mary Elizabeth Williams was understandably frustrated in response to Katy Perry’s ‘I’m not a feminist but’ moment: “Nobody enjoys it more when a woman says she’s not a feminist than a misogynist,” she wrote. Amanda Hess and Nona Willis-Aronowitz, in response to feminist slamming of Perry felt we were too hung up on the label: “‘Are you a feminist?’ is often a nonstarter. But when you ask someone, “What pisses you off about being a woman?” people can’t stop talking. … “ At the same time, Sady Doyle wrote on Taylor Swift’s “narcissistic” approach and decided that feminists can and should criticize pop stars. “A feminism that devotes itself only to critiquing other women’s lack of feminism will get nowhere. Yet when someone is presented as a role model for young women, we needn’t automatically accept her work as empowering.”
I have to wonder: isn’t narcissism part and parcel of the definition of a rock star? And don’t male stars frequently make ignorant comments about the political landscape? And isn’t it also an artistic tic to “reject labels?” Even Dylan was saying this kind of thing as soon as he went electric.
So let’s declare a detente. Team Feminist may’ sport “smash the patriarchy” buttons and fret about pop stars, while Team Pop Star rocks bodysuits and frequently has no idea what our movement means, but we can peacefully coexist.
Feminists can keep pushing politically and socially for a wider range of gender presentations and permutations to be accepted in society. Meanwhile pop stars, those singing and dancing dominatrices of the zeitgeist, can keep aggressively occupying any space that’s been opened up, normalizing it and projecting it onto millions of tv screens.
I’m comfortable with that arrangement: there’s already a lot of mutually-beneficial exchange going on between us. There would be no Beyonce or Taylor Swift without feminism, but they’ve also brought some of the messages of our movement to further corners of the earth than any post-structuralist manifesto might hope to do. So if they call themselves princesses and occasionally want a ring put on it, we can take a deep breath.
This isn’t to say we should not look at pop stars through an analytical lens, but that when we do, we should give credit to the thousands of teenage girls who adore them. Rather than take the stars to task for being “poor role models” and assume that zombie-like hormonal hordes will imitate them forever and always, let’s look at the messages they project that make young women feel good about themselves, and consider what such messaging success says about where we are as a culture—and where we have to go.
Indeed, the way artists like Rihanna, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift craft their images can be dissertation-worthy at times. The outlandish costumes of artists like Minaj and Gaga play with and subvert images of beauty and femininity. Rihanna’s overtly sexual personal projects abject desire, Beyonce’s focus on financial independence echoes through her music over and over again, and Swift has become a reliable bestselling artist by having romantic relationships and then writing about them–with gleeful honesty and a sometimes smug self-regard that was supposed to be the sole province of male singer songwriters.
But none of these artists are overtly political. Even the most subversive or empowering pop personas stop short of direct confrontation because the artists have mostly managed to find ways make themselves acceptable to the broader culture, which reeks of sexism and all the other isms, while pushing the envelope just a bit each time they reinvent themselves.
So when we express our wish that these divas could go further, challenge more, make art that pushes even further against norms, we’re identifying and naming cultural frontiers. Instead of wringing our hands, let’s get on the dance floor and get motivated for the next fight.