Written by Maddie Chia
Graphic by Harriet Sherlock
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
CW: Mentions of sexual violence and sexism.
Music is universal; it can simultaneously bring people together and tear them apart. Recently in pop music, we have seen a rising emphasis on the importance of feminism, sisterhood, and girl power. This shift has been driven by young, female singers such as Bea Miller, Hailee Steinfeld, Taylor Swift, Halsey, Kesha, and Lizzo.
As a staunch feminist and advocate, songs by these women – and others like them – have become my personal anthems. When I can’t get out of bed in the morning, I put on these songs to remind myself that I am the strongest, most powerful bitch. When I am feeling withdrawn or upset, I put these songs on to hype myself up because I don’t take shit. I have a playlist of feminist songs to remind myself to keep going and continue to speak up even when others would have me be silent. I am a sexual violence survivor, and these songs remind me that I am in control.
These songs are so popular because they ring true to the emerging values in our society. We stand in solidarity with each other. We stand against the patriarchy. These songs teach young women to band together and speak up.
They also bring feminist issues to the mainstream in an accessible way. Unlike feminist scholarship, music is widely available for general consumption and doesn’t require a university degree to understand. In particular, pop music popularises specific elements of feminism to the next generation of young women and – along with movements like #MeToo – is helping to aid a cultural shift within our generation.
Feminist pop music often reflects personal experiences with sexual assault, sexism, and harassment. Taylor Swift’s ‘The Man’, for instance, draws upon her experiences of being villainised by the media and portrayed as a crazy, power-hungry woman. Her lyrics – I’d be a fearless leader, I’d be an alpha type. When everyone believes ya; what’s that like? – allude to the media’s constant use of gaslighting to delegitimise her business decisions and experiences of sexual assault. This is Swift’s way of empowering not only herself, but other women who have experienced similar vilification.
The hypocrisy surrounding the sheer difference between the treatment of young women and men growing up, as well as in broader society, is further alluded to in Dua Lipa’s ‘Boys Will Be Boys’. The song highlights the rules women are taught to follow from a young age: it’s second nature to walk home before the sun goes down; and put your keys between your knuckles when there’s boys around. This is Lipa’s way of raising awareness about the harmful messages we tell women: messages that tell us what we can and can’t wear, how we can act, and the proper etiquette of response to being catcalled. Messages that tell us to submit to the male gaze and be passive.
Bea Miller’s ‘S.L.U.T’ teaches us to be anything but passive in our quest for equality; rather, it reclaims the word ‘slut’. No longer is the term a tool to police female sexuality, but a reclamation of personhood. A reclamation of an identity that had previously been dictated by the male gaze. Thanks to Miller, ‘slut’ has been transformed to stand for ‘sweet little unforgettable things’.
These songs empower women to fight back; to take a stand and reclaim their own narrative.
For so long, the music industry has objectified women and encouraged misogyny. There is a history of music that involves women pitted against other women; women slut-shaming each other. Early 2000s pop music was filled with this: think back to The Pussycat Dolls and their song ‘Don’t Cha’, which asks don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was raw like me?. Even a number of artists who now include feminist tones in their songs have a history of endorsing competition amongst women: in Swift’s early songs, lyrics like she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts; she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers in ‘You Belong with Me’ were common. Many of her lyrics also contained elements of slut-shaming, misogyny, and derogatory language – in ‘Better than Revenge’, Swift sings, she’s an actress, but she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress. The shift we now see towards female empowerment in music reflects a growing cultural shift within the music and wider entertainment industries.
Modern female artists are taking a stand within the music industry and challenging its antiquated structures. Within media, women are constantly criticised for their choice of clothing, makeup, and partners. They are rated for their sex appeal and dehumanised. These songs of solidarity directly address the toxic effects of the male gaze and the objectification of women, and call attention to the cultural shift we need within broader society. Specifically, we need to address the abuse of power within the music industry. Swift has been ridiculed since her rise to fame at sixteen, and the media has scrutinised every relationship she has had. Her entire music catalogue – except for her latest albums, Lover and folklore – is owned by record executive Scooter Braun, who has forbidden her from performing the very lyrics she wrote while profiting from her music. Despite this, the media has depicted Swift as ‘deranged’, while sparing little indignation for Braun’s actions. Similarly, Kesha has been wrapped up in legal battles with former manager Dr. Luke over the past decade, and still to this day. She and many other female singers have been fighting to be released from their contracts in the wake of sexual harassment from Dr. Luke. This demonstrates how the music industry has never been on the side of women – behind the scenes, men still make the decisions.
This new wave of mainstream feminist pop music fights back against that historic bias. It empowers women to reflect upon their own actions and what they have been told to do by those around them and the larger patriarchal society. To truly ensure equality is achieved, feminist attitudes need to be adopted by all individuals within society.
Self-expression is a wonderful thing, and this is just one way of expressing feminist ideals. As we continue to move forward as a society, pop music has become both a unique and accessible way for modern feminists to empower themselves and express their ideas on misogyny and competition between women.
This is just one step of many in our fight for equality.