Sugar and spice and all things nice: why pop princesses matter

Over the past few years, pop has gone unashamedly feminist; following Beyoncé’s sampling of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists in her 2013 track ‘Flawless’, an endless number of pop stars have declared themselves supporters of the cause. These outward expressions of support for gender equality suggest a respect within the industry for the female artist; however, as many a pop culture think-piece will tell you, these surface-level impressions of feminism merely distract from the deeply rooted discrimination against women within the business.

A recent Twitter trend has seen users remove all male artists from festival lineups to highlight the pitifully low numbers of women being booked for these gigs, leaving major UK festivals such as V Festival and Wireless with less than ten female artists on the lineup. Pop princesses such as Rihanna, Little Mix and Dua Lipa are seen to sell out huge arena tours; are we expected to believe that there is no crossover between their audiences and the average festival-goer?

The issue is that whilst female pop stars may produce some of the catchiest hits, killer albums and most spectacular stage shows, their content is consistently critically dismissed. Despite creating some of the biggest selling songs of the past decade, these artists see their commercial success work against them, discrediting their work in a way that we would not expect it of male pop stars.

Perhaps the most important factor behind the dismissal of the female pop performer is a matter of audience: the expected consumer of female-driven pop being the teenage girl. As a demographic, 11-16 year old girls are used to seeing their views disregarded, their passion and a perceived lack of taste being looked down upon by critics and the public in general as if non-ironically liking things is somehow a negative trait.

The unfair treatment of teenage music fans has been most recently raised by teen heartthrob Harry Styles, who argued in an interview with Rolling Stone that to dismiss the musical taste of teenage girls as bad simply because of their age is wrong. Styles’ intentions may be good, yet it was his shift away from the tween pop genre towards more ‘credible’ music that granted him an interview with the publication. It is hard to imagine X Factor counterparts Little Mix on the cover of Rolling Stone, because women in the pop industry are given less scope to move within the genre.

These limitations set on the female pop star are epitomised in Lorde; as an artist who writes her own songs and produces ‘grittier’ and less commercial pop, the New Zealand singer should, in theory, see her work viewed as suitable of critical praise like Styles. What we instead see is Lorde snubbed at the 2018 Grammy Awards, refusing to perform after being the only nominee in the Album of the Year category not to be offered a solo performance spot. Whilst Lorde’s decision not to perform at an event which doesn’t value her may be deemed as empowering, it highlights the ways in which the music industry refuses to celebrate the female pop star in spite of commercial success. Even when moving away from more commercial, less ‘sophisticated’ pop sub-genre, the label of ‘pop princess’ holds the artist back, meaning she can never win in the critics’ eyes.

If we accept that the female pop star will always act as the music industry’s punchbag, then we have to question why these artists remain in the industry, knowing that they will never be able to appease their critics. It would naturally be naive to suggest that money plays no part in their decision, yet the importance of these women and what they represent to their young female fans cannot go unappreciated. For the teenage girl who is used to having the music of male artists marketed towards her on the assumption of heteronormative attraction to the artist, it is the music which draws this audience to the female pop star initially, showing these girls that their are tastes are, in fact, valued.

As a thirteen year old girl with walls covered in boy band posters ripped from Top of the Pops magazine, exposure to female pop stars would’ve provided me with inspiration and the same sense of ‘girl power’ that teenagers in the 90s gained from the Spice Girls. Today’s teens have HAIM to show them that they can play instruments, Ariana Grande to show them that they can dance and Cardi B to show them that they can own their sexuality. Music critics may dismiss these artists and their work due to their pop princess title, but the inspiration and sense of value they give to the next generation of music fans shouldn’t be understated just because these fans happen to be teenage girls.

Isobel Lewis

Image by Justice Southwell. Find her on Instagram

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