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Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift sing a new message of girl power

In July I drove 1,800 miles with only the radio to keep me company. What struck me were the overarching themes of female empowerment sung over the airwaves. Pop music is singing a new tune. Are girls taking the message to heart?

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The New York Times wrote an October 2011 profile of “Kelly Clarkson, a pop star proud in her own skin,” discussing her latest album, “Stronger,” which details “her own journey of empowerment, addressed directly to fans.”

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Pink, too, has anchored much of her musical career in the message that women deserve respect and needn’t be shy wielding power. She can be crass, but her millions of adulators are drawn to her radiance of self-love.

Cynics are not overly impressed by commercial products that use female dignity to sell things. Does the message of empowerment promote girls’ progress or does it just sell songs? To Dove’s recent home run with its “Real Beauty” advertising campaign, for example, naysayers retort that the messages were merely a gimmick to sell soap and deodorant.

Critics have also pointed out the tension between sexuality and beauty as a form of girls’ empowerment and sexuality as replicating the idea of women as sex objects. Some pose the question: sexy or sexist? It’s a tradeoff that plays out in the messages and imagery of some of these artists as well.

But what’s the alternative? Would you rather have 13 year-old girls hearing the aggressive misogyny of Eminem and Ludacris, or to Lady GaGa celebrating adolescent existence?

Then there’s the overriding question of whether an artist’s girl-power message inspires real change or whether it actually has an adverse affect: lulling girls into thinking they “run the world” (as Beyoncé asserts in her high-powered dance anthem “Who run the world (Girls)”), when the reality is far from it. Will girls high on pop-song refrains learn about the systemic problems they and their global peers face and thus be ready to do the real work of changing things?

Yes, for real progress, society needs to follow up the message with meat. But this is a much healthier starting point.

Of course, even if female pop is moving in a pro-social direction, other media sectors seem to be degenerating. Vogue magazine drew opprobrium in 2011 for stretching out a 10 year-old cover model in gaudy garb and caked in makeup. In media and marketing the acronym G.G.O.Y. stands for “Girls getting older younger,” which seems to be the trajectory of things.

In spite of this, a cohort of young female musicians, seems to be saying, at least part of the time, “girls – and self-worth – matter.” And the break from the filth is refreshing.

Superstar Taylor Swift, who has sold more albums over the last five years than any musician – anywhere – summed up her cohort’s ethos in her November profile on 60 Minutes: “Every singer out there with songs on the radio is raising the next generation. So make your words count.”

Justin D. Martin, Ph.D., is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin


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