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?

In July I drove 1,800 miles in a moving truck from Florida to Maine, and as my minimalist Budget rental had no iPod adapter, I spent dozens of hours listening to radio stations along the eastern edge of the United States

I had just spent more than two years prior living in Egypt, where I was less exposed to western pop. One thing dawned on me, other than my resolve to promptly take my own life if I hear Bruno Mars’s “The Lazy Song” one more time. What struck me were the overarching themes of female strength and resilience sung over the airwaves. They seemed to air one after another and were impossible to miss.

Much of the music of Pink, Lady GaGa, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Sara Haze, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift told listeners, “Like everyone, I’m flawed. Deal with it. I’m good enough and worthy of respect.”

I’ve taken days-long trips across the US before, but I don’t remember such a recurring musical announcement of female self-worth. Songs titled “Born this Way,” “Lovely,” and “[Expletive] Perfect” glorify self-acceptance. This latter song, by Pink, croons “You’re so mean when you talk/ about yourself, you are wrong/ Change the voices in your head/ Make them like you instead.”

Female empowerment through music isn’t new, of course. Madonna built an empire by asserting her independence. But her tone was different. Her songs “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” communicated that she likes expensive things and time in the sheets.

Granted, the messages of today’s female pop stars aren’t always the stuff of enlightened self-respect. Katy Perry’s song “Last Friday Night” celebrates vaguely recalled, alcohol-primed flings with multiple partners.

Similarly, the artist Rihanna seems to celebrate her libido much more than any self-efficacy she possesses. Esquire magazine wrote in November that her sensuality is such that “Rihanna doesn’t really dance,” but rather how she moves on stage “amounts to choreographed oozing.” Rihanna is Esquire’s 2011 “Sexiest Woman Alive,” and she didn’t lure this laurel by being profound.

Still, it seemed during my drive to New England that there was less of the bubble gum of Brittany Spears and Jessica Simpson on the radio. There was some nourishment over the airwaves.

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.”

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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