They may not follow their grandmother’s brand of feminism, but it’s empowering nonetheless. By going their own way, ingénue made it the year of the young and female in pop music.
By Ann Powers
The Los Angeles Times
Young women are often treated like the empty calories of American culture – they’re as hard to resist as a forbidden sweet, as guiltily denied and as easily forgotten.
This truism applies to this suddenly very serious year as much as it did in the teeny-bopper-dominated 1950s and the flapper-fueled 1920s. As the more significant stories of a historic election and disastrous economic collapse unfolded, the buzz in the background was often generated by undone ingénues and excitable tweens, from Lindsay Lohan and the Spears sisters to the fans behind the Jonas Brothers and “Twilight.” (And then there’s pregnant Bristol Palin, now out of sight but not forgotten.)
The pop history now being recorded in year-in-review essays and lists are mostly focused on other forces: rock’s commercial savior, Coldplay; hip-hop’s new jack king, Lil Wayne; indie’s sensitive souls, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. But in a moribund year for pop, young women provided much of the spark.
Katy Perry released the most talked-about single, the bi-lascivious “I Kissed a Girl.” Jordin Sparks had the sleeper with her Chris Brown duet, “No Air.” Miley Cyrus transcended her Hannah Montana character with her summer debut, “Breakaway.” Taylor Swift crossed genres with “Fearless,” the album of the winter. In R&B, 20-year-old Rihanna was unstoppable, and 21-year-old Jazmine Sullivan emerged as the genre’s hottest new voice.
Among critical favorites, retro-soul singers Adele and Duffy both got major Grammy nods, while teen singer-songwriter Laura Marling won blogger hearts. Bassist Esperanza Spalding, 23, made waves in the jazz world, and hard country warmed to Ashton Shepherd, who’s 22 and already a married mom.
More than just ‘it’
Pop culture has never wanted for “it” girls, but the authority these fledgling artists claim is a great sign of feminism’s ripple effects. Swift might play a princess in many of her songs – in fact, the best parts of “Fearless” meditate on the princess myth and how reality subverts it – but in the studio she’s her own boss, writing and producing those fairy tales.
Swift is exceptionally precocious, but cowriting credits are the rule in this bunch, and Svengalis are rare. Whether they’ve actually spent time listening to the Ronettes, the Runaways or Lauryn Hill or not, these women have benefited from their elders’ hard-won lessons.
Yet if empowerment is a given for this new generation, it’s also a hotly debated concept. Women born after 1984 are not only young enough to be the granddaughters of second-wave feminists, their mothers are the ones who took sides in the “culture wars” of the 1980s and, as Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton so aptly demonstrated, are still fighting about what it means for a woman to be truly on top.
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