SONGS OF EMPOWERMENT: WOMEN IN 21ST CENTURY POPULAR MUSIC

First, a note. This is the first post I publish on the date it has been written after four months of silence, caused by the cyberattack that affected the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona on 11 October 2021 (the blog is hosted by UAB). I was confident that the texts were not lost, as I keep separate copies, but at one point I did believe that I would have to rebuild the whole blog from scratch (eleven years posting, more than 500 posts). This didn’t happen, but I learned an important lesson about the fragility of digital media and its ephemerality. Last week I posted the twelve posts I wrote between 11 October 2021 and 10 January 2022. The ensuing five weeks of silence between that date and today are due to my finally losing the impulse to write without imagining an audience. I don’t know who reads me, and I have never checked statistics, but I realize that every blog needs an audience, if only an imaginary one. So, thank you for being there.

In those five weeks I have been extremely busy editing the tenth e-book I have published with UAB students (see the complete list here). The book is called Songs of Empowerment: Women in 21st Century Popular Music) and it can be downloaded for free (in .pdf and .epub) from the digital repository of UAB. In its more than 300 very entertaining pages, the reader can find the students’ analyses of a selection of more than 60 songs by currently active women artists using English in their lyrics. Each short essay consists of a biographical presentation of the artist, followed by a commentary on the song, mainly focused on the lyrics, and of the music video. The songs run from 2000 (Kylie Minogue’s “Spinning Around”) to 2021 (Charli XCX’s “Good Ones”). The book is not, however, a history of women singers in the 21st century, but a selection based on the students’ preferences. It is a sort of snapshot of what music by women sounded like in the Autumn of 2021, when I taught the subject from which the e-book derives. And, yes, it comes with a Spotify list, compiled by one of the students.

This is the first time I have ever taught a course on music, and this requires some kind of justification being, as I am, a Literature teacher. It is obvious to me that most of us, born in the 1960s and later, who choose to study for a degree in English did (or do) so out of an interest in Anglophone music. I have always been a keen reader but my initiation into English was through the songs which I would try to translate painstakingly as soon as I bought any new album. Music, however, meaning basically pop and rock, has never been an integral part of English Studies degrees in Spain, and although I constantly told myself that I should teach a course on this topic, I procrastinated until I lost the ability to work while listening to music. With the time devoted to music reduced practically down to zero, I decided that the chance was gone to present myself before students pretending I knew about current trends. This changed last year when I supervised a marvelous BA dissertation by Andrea Delgado López on Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America”. Andrea also did a research internship with me that we used for her to produce a booklet called American Music Videos 2000-2020: Lessons about the Nation. Andrea wrote for each of the twenty-five videos analyzed a short essay presenting the singer(s), the song, and the video, and this gave me the idea for the e-book.

I told my students in the ‘Cultural Studies’ elective (2021-22) about the projected e-book, candidly confessing I had no idea about what was going on in the world of popular music in 2021. They would have to teach me. Since I believed that we could not cover everything of relevance in one single volume, we focused on the women artists, and I will focus next year on the male artists with my MA students in a similar project. I brought to class a very long list of about one hundred women singers, all of them active, and asked students to choose two each, which they did, adding some new suggestions. I gave them, then, as much freedom of choice as possible, though I made sure that the main names got due attention (some, like St Vincent or Kacey Musgraves, will be probably missed, though, perhaps also Alanis Morrissette). I extended this freedom of choice to the songs, which students selected on the basis of their preferences and also thinking of whether the song and video combination would be productive enough for their essays. In a feedback session which I held at the end of the course, some told me that had been a major difficulty, since many favorite songs had no music video, or because they found the videos less interesting than the songs. I happen to like music videos very much as a strange bastard child of cinema and advertising, so there was never a question of focusing only on a song. Given, besides, our lack of training in music, I feared that students would be unable to write even a few hundred words on lyrics which are often very basic at a poetic or literary level.

Something quite peculiar has happened in relation to the main thesis behind the e-book. I originally announced that we would organize the class presentations of the songs and videos (used as a rehearsal or pre-draft of the essays) around the question of whether the songs women pop singers sing today are empowering. Little by little, we lost track of that question, as we worried mainly about how to continue the presentations with no internet in the classroom because of the cyberattack. We became so interested by the particularities of each singer—from mainstream Jennifer Lopez to indie Mitski, and so many others—that the notion of empowerment lost focus. We did discuss it all the time indirectly, mainly by commenting on the artists’ self-presentation and whether their choices could be called feminist and other issues such as race or class; it seemed to us that depression and abuse, a constant in most singers’ biographies, were somehow antagonists to any notion of empowerment. However, as I went through the second final draft of the essays, I noticed that the students had not missed at all the notion of empowerment, and had in fact addressed their essays mostly to explain how this is not in contradiction with women having been radically disempowered by patriarchy. That is to say, the common thread in the e-book is how women singers, despite being in some cases quite powerful, are constantly subjected to abuse (mental, physical, even commercial) and must send each other a message in favour of self-empowerment. This message is not sent, as I assumed, by songs that celebrate natural strength but by songs that candidly admit that strength is often born of vulnerability. In that sense Madonna, though still the Queen of Pop, is not representative but, rather, Rihanna, whose battered face we all remember and, indeed, Lady Gaga.

Although with variations, most of the songs in the e-book (and, believe me, they are a very representative selection) hold the same discourse: the singer describes how she fell in love with a man who turned out to be either abusive or simply disappointing, next how hard it was to break up with this man because of the strong hold of love on her mind and body; and, finally, how this experience brought empowerment by teaching the woman that she, and not a man, should be the centre of her own life. I found that with few exceptions (such as Shania Twain’s “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and perhaps Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP”), the expression of female heterosexual desire for men had been replaced by the expression of a constant disillusion with heterosexual love and masculinity. With the songs women not only express their personal feelings but aim at giving other women support, inviting them to discuss their own views of love. The classic love song with the triad “I love you”, “I want you”, “I need you” has been replaced by “I once loved and wanted you, but now I don’t need you anymore”; “I will survive” is now “Of course I will survive, why shouldn’t I?” Secondarily, there is also a parallel discourse on femininity, which on the one hand expresses great admiration for women’s superiority (Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman”, Halsey’s “I Am not a Woman, I’m a God”) and at the same time a certain acknowledgement of imperfections (as in Celine Dion’s eponymous song), which must be accepted as they are. I have no room here to comment on each of the sixty plus songs—please, read the book—but I think these are the main lines.

In class another topic that came up recurrently is how much pressure these women singers must endure from the social media. Since music videos became popular after the establishment of MTV in the mid-1980s, women singers have had to accept a constant exposure of their bodies to the public gaze. Videos, photoshoots and even performances are subjected, however, to a limited time frame. Social media are not, which means that female singers must now be posting on a daily basis about their activities, their looks, and their private lives trying to please fans but also battling haters. Just a week ago Charlie XCX announced on Twitter that she is taking a break from social media, tired of the endless monitoring and the angry comments by her own fans: “I’ve been grappling quite a lot with my mental health the past few months and obviously it makes negativity and criticism harder to handle when I come across it—and of course, I know this is a common struggle for most people in this day and age.” So it is, indeed, but because of how the lines between being a celebrity and being a pop artist have been blurred, many women singers like Charlie XCX are bearing a brunt that few other professional must endure. It seems to me that the pressure is much lighter on the male singers.

Next year, as I have noted, I will be dealing with the men in current popular music. I do have a list already of bigger and lesser names, and I’m bracing myself for the barrage of sexist, misogynistic lyrics, particularly those coming from rap. I am telling myself, though, that these lyrics must be analysed, also the music videos, from a perspective as constructive as possible. I don’t know, however, what the resulting e-book will tell us. I just hope it is not called Songs of Entitlement, though my deepest fear is that it will.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

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