When listening to the Alphabeat album, with its mix of male and female lead vocals, I got thinking about the way I describe singers and their music when reviewing it. So many times I have called a female pop star ‘fierce’ or ‘feisty’ or celebrated the ‘girl power’ of a singer – everyone from Gwen Stefani to Fefe Dobson to Beyoncé has been applauded for their girl power on this blog. But is it even possible to call a male singer ‘fierce’ or ‘feisty’? ‘Boy power’ is simply inconceivable, yet the kind of music or performance a woman has to make in order to gain the ‘girl power’ label is the kind that is generally expected of men – rock music, loud voices, controversial lyrics. Is it female empowerment or just a sign that we are all becoming equally aggressive and impudent?
This is not a criticism of the women who have ‘girl power’ or of the writers who use the term to describe women who are angry and obnoxious, because in fact the positive sides of this ‘girl power’ term (open ambition, emotional expression and catharsis, dismissing convention) outweigh those negatives. I find it interesting to consider why popstars with girl power appeal to me. Throughout my teenage years I have tended to shrink into the highly repressive stereotype of ‘quiet, studious girl’, and I’m no depressive angsting emo kid, I’m perfectly happy with my life and comfortable with myself, but a ferocious female singer appeals to a girl like me in a way that the shouty, angry male rock music beloved by most of my fellow teens bears no interest.
With the Spice Girls’ reunion being pretty much confirmed for this year, we can look back at a decade ago, when they were at the height of their success. Have women in music achieved anything since then? The use of music as female empowerment is now fully recognised by the press and the public, but this acknowledgement means little when the music world, just like every other sphere of society, is still extremely male-dominated and controlled by men. Women are being acknowledged as important consumers, but this is a passive role, and more talk seems to be of how to control their desires than how to fulfil them.
Feminism seems to have played out in the same way as every other issue that was supposed to be revolutionised in the 20th century. From the sufragettes to Margaret Thatcher, women looked for power in every way imaginable, and they gained equality in many areas, but still there are obvious signs of patriarchy and the methods of removing them that worked (to a large but not complete extent) previously no longer make an impact. Linda Sundblad followed in Madonna’s footsteps with sexy outfits and controversial lyrics on her debut solo album last year, but no-one was shocked, as much as it was a brilliant CD. This shows that if female musicians want to use their music to change the patriarchal industry they partake in, they are going to have to find new ways – it’s just difficult to find those ways, when we have reached a point where little hasn’t been tried.
Personally I believe that the best method is to continue to make brilliant music, to take control of their own careers and make sure everyone knows they are doing so. This approach has been exemplified by such female acts as Robyn and Amy Winehouse, who may not completely write and produce their albums themselves, but are involved in every choice made in relation to their careers. Both girls have succeeded because their work is a true reflection of their identities, and they have the intelligence and musical intuition to bring in producers such as The Knife, Klas Ahlund (Teddybears) and Mark Ronson, in each case preceding their rise to become the most desirable producers of the moment.
Girl power is about standing up to the aforementioned patriarchy, and would therefore not exist without it. Correspondingly, boy power does not exist because there is no such thing as matriarchy. But maybe, if women continue, as they are in many other cultural areas, to gain control and display intelligence, talent, creativity, ambition and good business sense, there will one day be a matriarchy and it will be the boys’ turn to fight back! Until they really have something to fight against, angry emotions in male music will continue to disinterest me, but I’m not that confident that this day of matriarchy will ever come, and I think that’s a good thing. Women should learn from men’s mistakes, and rather than replicating the arrogance and insensitivity they often display in their destructive pursuit of power, female musicians have the chance to rule the airwaves in a uniquely female way, with dignity, strength and sincerity. And let’s not forget the amazing pop music!