When the Spice Girls’ third album “Forever” flopped last year, it could have signaled the end of “girl power” — the group’s signature motto — in pop music. But, instead, the pop charts have been taken over by an often-innovative breed of female acts that are making the pre-fab Spice Girls seem out of date and out of touch.
Groups such as Destiny’s Child, as well as solo acts Dido, Nelly Furtado, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, and India.Arie are, in different ways and degrees, challenging the way young women have been represented and perceived in the pop music industry.
They’re accomplishing this by taking a hand in writing and producing their own material, critiquing the way women are often portrayed in music videos and placing the everyday concerns of young women at the core of the music.
This approach is paying off in mega-sales and chart success.
“Survivor,” the latest album by Destiny’s Child has sold more than 1 million copies in the five weeks since its release; and “Independent Women Part I,” the group’s song from the “Charlie’s Angels” soundtrack — which is also included on “Survivor” — has spent more weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart than any other tune this year.
Additionally, Dido, Furtado and Elliott have each recently had Top 10 hits. And Elliott’s new album, “Miss E…So Addictive,” debuted at No. 1 last week on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
In several ways, the success of these acts reflects the long-term effects of the teen-pop boom, which has always been more of a female-consumer-led phenomenon. Many of the young women who started buying music five years ago for rosy romantic fantasies offered by such boy bands as the Backstreet Boys are now older and are embracing tunes that candidly and honestly address issues relating to their daily lives.
Indeed the success of Destiny’s Child’s 7-million-selling breakthrough album, “The Writing’s on the Wall,” can be related to the disc’s matter-of-fact songs that convey the everyday concerns of many young women with a visceral, engagingly conversational and almost blues-like simplicity. “Bills, Bills, Bills” excoriates a freeloading lover. “Say My Name” questions the fidelity of a suspicious-acting beau. And “Bug A Boo” dismisses an overly aggressive suitor in humorous and quite contemporary detail.
On the song, the group sings: “You make me wanna throw my pager out the window/Tell MCI to break the phone poles/–I wanna put your number on the call block/Have AOL make my email stop/–Because you’re a bug a boo/–and it ain’t cool.”
In contrast to the girl groups of the ’60s who sang songs suggesting that it was acceptable to endure any manner of inequality, torment and even violence in order to have a boyfriend, Destiny’s Child’s tunes emphatically state that a woman shouldn’t compromise her standards or put up with abusive behavior in order to be with a guy.
The group’s new album, “Survivor,” picks up on the same easily relatable themes as “Writing’s.” The title track, which addresses the act’s much-publicized lineup changes and its disgruntled former members, savvily relays this industry dispute so that it’s applicable to any number of situations, from dealing with backbiting friends to recovering from the breakup of a romantic relationship.
On the song, the current group members sing: “Now that you’re out of my life/I’m so much better/You thought that I’d be weak without you/But I’m stronger/–I’m a survivor/I’m gonna make it.”
In addition to this empowering cut, Destiny’s Child also sings about other themes relevant to the lives of many young women. The rhythmically propulsive “Sexy Daddy” is about bonding with one’s girlfriends while on the hunt for a cute guy. In the tune, which sounds like Martha and the Vandellas re-imagined as a tribe of drum-wielding Amazons, the group sings: “I’m gonna dance with my girls/It’s alright/Until I find my sexy daddy.”
(Janet Jackson’s current hit “All For You” exudes a similar female-bonding vibe when she calls out to her gal pals to admire a guy’s buff physique, singing “all my girls at the party/look at that body.”)
Destiny’s Child also addresses sexual abuse on the album with the song “The Story of Beauty.” And the funky “Bootylicious” is a celebration of women who aren’t model-thin.
“It’s basically a song that congratulates women who don’t look like everybody in a magazine,” said the group’s lead singer Beyonce (rhymes with fiance) Knowles, who also co-writes and co-produces much of Destiny’s Child’s material.
Motown artist India.Arie, whose first album, “Acoustic Soul,” recently scored the label’s first Top 10 debut by a female act since Diana Ross’ heyday, also takes on the issue of body image on her single “Video.” Her song encourages self-acceptance in the face of the pop music industry’s barrage of images that suggest to women that there is something wrong with the way they look. On the hip-hop influenced track, she sings in a pleasingly husky alto: “I’m not the average girl from your video/and I ain’t built like a supermodel/but I’ve learned to love myself unconditionally/because I am a queen.”
Despite the effectiveness of Arie’s tune, some pop stars who preach can come off as terribly misguided. Even the usually unflappable Destiny’s Child missteps on the song “Nasty Girl,” where the group chastises a scantly clad young woman and tells her to “put some clothes on.” This message is bizarrely hypocritical coming from three young women whose belly buttons peek through almost every outfit, and who never leave in doubt the answer to the question posed in Nair commercials: “Who wears short shorts?”
Birds of a feather
More successful with a message is Canadian Nelly Furtado, whose Top 10 hit “Like a Bird” takes on the pejorative and age-old association of women with “birds.” Furtado subverts the idea of being “like a bird,” by linking it to the sexually adventurous “rolling stone” persona most often associated with male rockers. On the breezy tune, she tells her lover that they’ll soon have to part because she’s emotionally unable to settle down. She sings: “I’m like a bird/I’ll only fly away/I don’t know where my soul is/I don’t know where my home is.”
Furtado’s tune is a prime example of how many of today’s female artists are picking up on themes expressed by earlier women rock pioneers. Thematically, “Like a Bird” is similar to singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell’s 1972 tune “Let the Wind Carry Me.” Throughout the song, Mitchell expresses her longing “to settle and raise a child up with somebody.” But ultimately she realizes that she can’t do it. “I’m a wild seed,” she sings. “Let the wind carry me.”
British singer/songwriter Dido also refuses to be tied down in the video for her current top 10 smash “Thank You.” In the clip, Dido sings such romantic platitudes as “I want to thank you for giving me the best day of my life” while her picture-perfect house is being ransacked and ultimately bulldozed. Any associations of this singer with happy-homemaking are quite literally smashed.
In addition to challenging stereotypes about women through lyrics and videos, many of these artists are also working behind the scenes to change notions about women in the industry. Unlike female pop acts from Dionne Warwick to Whitney Houston, Arie, Furtado and Dido all write much of their own material, including their current hits.
Also, as noted earlier, Knowles is the primary writer and producer behind Destiny’s Child. And indeed it’s nearly unprecedented for a member of a pop girl group to have such control over the act’s sound. Traditionally, female acts, from the Ronettes and the Shirelles to TLC and En Vogue, have had their music shaped by male writers, producers and iron-fisted Svengalis.
Not just a pretty voice
Missy Elliott is another notable behind-the-scenes talent, because she not only writes and co-produces her own songs, she also performs these tasks for other artists. In the past, she’s collaborated with both Furtado and Destiny’s Child. And she’s one of the producers behind what is perhaps the year’s definitive “girl power” hit, the remake of LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” by Pink, Mya, Lil’ Kim and Christina Aguilera.
In an MTV special about the making of the video for the song, the artists discussed how their collaboration successfully challenged the long-standing notion within the industry that women can’t work with each other.
“I think everyone was pretty nervous about getting the four of us together,” said Pink. “But we proved them wrong. We get along.”
Elliott added: “This is legendary here. This is the way females should work together in the game.”
“Marmalade,” which just hit No. 1 on the pop chart, is also notable because it’s one of the most aggressive sounding tunes currently in rotation on Top 40 radio. In the tune, the performers don’t coo and purr, as is the female pop star norm. Rather, they rip into the lyrics, snarling, and, in the case of Aguilera, scream at the top of their lungs.
Early in her short career, Aguilera was often likened to Mariah Carey because of the similarity between their high-pitched athletic pipes. But Aguilera’s vocals on “Marmalade” show how significantly her style differs from Carey’s and indeed from the tradition of female pop singing.
Aguilera makes no attempt to make her big voice sound pretty or controlled. She blasts through the tune in a bold, pugnacious manner more associated with punk rockers such as Courtney Love and bluesy soul artists such as Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin. Aguilera’s showing on “Marmalade” singularly makes her the most exciting and aesthetically promising act from the current crop of teen pop talent.
The success of “Marmalade,” Destiny’s Child, Arie, Furtado, Dido and Elliott unequivocally prove the strong commercial power of female artists in today’s pop marketplace. But it doesn’t necessarily suggest a trend, since their work is less groundbreaking than an example of taking the ball, put into play by such rock ‘n’ roll trailblazers as Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin, and running with it.
It does clearly indicate, however, that female artists who push at social and musical boundaries are no longer the marginalized exception, but the top-of-the-charts norm.
(with Toni Ruberto)