This year feminism was as big of a buzz word as booty, but are Nicki, Bey, Taylor, J.Lo, Iggy, Meghan Trainor, et al pushing the conversation forward? We assess the situation.
“Feminism” is the second word you think of when you think about pop music in 2014. If “booty” wasn’t first and foremost, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention, no soup for you! Thinking about it, there’s actually something inherently feminist in the conflation of women’s rights with their asses; 2014 was largely a year in which not only were the pop charts and news cycles dominated by its female cohort, but one in which those women defined exactly how we viewed their womanhood—from behind, it seems. There’s surely something to be said for the reversal of the gaze when it comes to such a traditionally masculine fetishization.
Aside from all the butt stuff, 2014 was littered with women in music doing amazing things for feminism. Disclaimer: The focus here is on top 10 artists, lest I end up writing a tome about fabulous women in music. (Note to potential book editors: I would be happy to write said tome in the future). Speaking of female top 10 artists, 2014 was a historic year in pop, it being the first time in Billboard 100’s 56-year history that all top five songs were sung by women, with those spots being occupied by those women for six consecutive weeks. The last time we came close to anything similar was 15 years ago in the era of Britney Spears, and the female top five domination only last for four weeks. And in 1984, only four women made the Billboard 100 all year. Are you starting to see the leaps and bounds here?
The recent feminine chart saturation occurred through September and October and included Meghan Trainor, Taylor Swift, Iggy Azalea, Tove Lo, Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj. By comparison, the last male-dominated top five happened in 2013, and is generally a common occurrence between bouts of mixed gender charts. So this is a very important thing for women, although it’s little surprise it happened in a year defined by women in pop clamoring to be the biggest feminist. From Jennifer Lopez’s rousing Braveheart-esque moment, the satirical but brazenly feminist “I Luh Ya Papi” video, to Nicki Minaj reversing Sir Mix-a-Lot’s switcheroo of the creepy male gaze, to Beyoncé carrying a giant neon “FEMINIST” sign with her everywhere she went, and Taylor Swift emerging from her formerly un-sisterly chrysalis to fly into the atmosphere as a reborn feminist butterfly—everything looks absolutely fabulous for female pop stars as we approach the new year. One can only hope this trend towards female empowerment continues.
The last time feminism and music were so inextricably entwined was in the early 90s thanks to Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Heavens to Betsy, and the many other bands associated with the riot grrrl movement. Their kind of (third wave) feminism was more concerned with giving women a platform to speak and be heard with regards to whatever topic they felt passionately. Double standards and misogyny, domestic abuse, the treatment of women at punk rock shows, and to a lesser degree representations of sexuality, were all part of the agenda. In accordance with the endlessly self-referential pop culture of today, and given the fact that an picture or video holds more instant share-ability than any riot grrrl fanzine op-ed, 2014’s pop feminists are manipulating their image as a means of subversion and reclamation. Perhaps it makes their message more muddied, more up for debate, and leaves more room interpretation than words typed out on the page, or the lyrics to Bikini Kill’s “White Boy,” but that doesn’t mean this moment in music and feminism is any less valid. This is part of the conversation and conversations evolve.
Returning to 2014, there was that flicker of a moment this year when Lana Del Rey appeared as a rape victim in a supposed unreleased Marilyn Manson video, but all the defiant booty shaking created a drum beat so deafening it’s hard to see 2014 as any way but belonging to the women in control. I also take some issue with Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” because it doesn’t celebrate women on female terms (“Men like a little more booty to hold at night”) and its derision of certain body types in order to promote others is kind of mean, but I can see how some might have found it heartening. There’s also the little problem of cultural appropriation: the way in which Trainor co-opted traditionally black language (words like “booty” and “junk”) and imagery (accessorizing her video with black women twerking, didn’t we learn anything from Miley, seesh!) to suit her incredibly white purposes. Feminist music, in order to be taken seriously, needs to be both sisterly and intersectional. “All About That Bass,” if you ask me, is neither.
That being said, there is the argument that maybe we’ve all just become overly hysterical and demanding—if the song dropped five years ago, perhaps it wouldn’t have been scrutinized in nearly as much detail. This year women have given us so much we’re becoming greedy for feminist perfection, which, for the record, no one has reached, but we’re trying and isn’t part of perfection accepting imperfection and learning from our mistakes anyway?
There are also arguments to be made about the dominance in raunch culture in 2014, that Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video is a step backwards. I’d contend that it might not be a forward step for every kind of woman, but it is definitely a forward leap for anyone who believes a woman should be entitled to work her sexuality on her own terms. The song itself, in my opinion, is heinous; the kind of thing that because of my aging ears, sounds like a car alarm incessantly blasting through an otherwise peaceful night. Music critique aside, Nicki’s shrewdly made a parody of male desire, and re-packaged it in her own brand of bootylicious wrapping. For the most part, it’s worked. I’ve yet to speak to a man who knows exactly what to make of her video, which is how I know it’s done its job: If a man is confused by hypersexuality, it’s because it’s been wrested out of his control. Nicki Minaj, for all her faults, has spent 2014’s “Anaconda” moment asserting a brash sexuality that is at once both provocative and sassily slapping sleazy hands away.
Nicki is, of course, a champion for black women specifically, with so much of her image and message being built on her being a billboard for unapologetic black female power and sexuality. At the beginning of the year, her track “Lookin’ Ass N****” was an assertion of her right to portray herself as she pleases, and her right to not be minimized because of her sexuality. It’s also an ode to her earning potential and independence, and it’s important to acknowledge this for black women, as well as women generally, because when the Meghan Trainors of the world are putting the value of black women in trendy dance moves and little else, we need women like Nicki to spit lines like “I don't want sex, give a fuck about your ex / I don't even want a text from y'all n***as,” to remind us that power comes in autonomy, rather than in the diminishing, commodifying handouts that are often reserved for women of color in pop culture.
Unfortunately for Nicki, the Nazi imagery used in her “Only” lyric video distracted from either her autonomy (if you believe she had nothing to do with it), or her intelligence (if you believe she had everything to do with it). That was a moment that made people question whether Nicki might be a puppet, or if she’s just a fool in feminist’s clothing. Without that gaffe however, it would have been a near-perfect year for the 32-year-old, but even the most perfect feminist didn’t make it out unscathed. Take for instance, Beyoncé and her condoning of Jay-Z’s verse on her “Drunk In Love,” in which he refers to himself as both Mike Tyson and Ike Turner in terms that very clearly promote violence towards women. But then Beyoncé’s spent the year grappling with the line between her public and private life, allowed herself to be ultimately flawed and vulnerable (through the entire elevator debacle, and Jay-Z cheating/divorce rumors), and owning it each and every step of the way. It’s difficult not to see Beyoncé as a feminist role model: she’s unapologetically doing Beyoncé, and as we all know, over-apologizing is the scourge of womankind.
Then there were the more subtle victories. All of Taylor Swift’s magazine covers in the latter half of the year were shot stylistically in a manner more commonly utilized associated with men—without sexualization, stoic and powerful—because not all types of feminism are sexy feminism. Like her incredible TIME cover, a close up of her face as she stares defiantly down the lens. More importantly, Taylor Swift owned the fact that in the past, she hasn’t identified as a feminist, and corrected her path with so much zeal you can almost forgive all her anti-female lyrics, like for instance, the slut shaming lines of “Better Than Revenge”: “She’s an actress, whoa / She’s better known / For the things that she does / On the mattress.” (After all, she was but a teenager when she wrote them. When I was a teenager I drank a whole bottle of Jim Beam at a party and spewed into my own lap. So we’ve all done things we regret).
Lorde jumped to Taylor Swift’s defense when Diplo deplorably dedicated a website to body shaming her flat ass. Iggy Azalea eloquently tore down Eminem on Twitter after he rapped about raping her. Rihanna singlehandedly fought censorship and made her way, triumphantly, back to Instagram. This was the year of the woman biting back, and banding together, especially considering there were so many year-defining female collaborations: Nicki and Beyoncé on the “Flawless” remix, Iggy and Charli XCX on “Fancy”, Rihanna and Shakira on “I Can’t Remember To Forget You.” Iggy and J.Lo on “Booty,” Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki on “Bang Bang”… you get the idea.
Feminism isn’t the sole purview of pop icons. But there’s something moving about women who recognize they’re widely idolized taking some responsibility on behalf of the women and men who idolize them. I genuinely believe gender equality can only be reached through education. And isn’t it true that so much of our education, for better or worse, comes from pop culture? It’s the subtlest education too. It’s the things we perceive about ourselves and others from the images we see on screens and the lyrics we mouth when we hear the songs we love, and the standards of behavior we set based on those elements combined. When women in the public eye begin to demand more for themselves, us normals might just be motivated to do the same. What’s so exciting to me is that’s what music is supposed to do: it’s supposed to be able to unify people and beget change in society. You might find pop music frivolous and ridiculous, but this year, that music has been part of a movement, which is enough to instill my faith with a medium that might have been dragging its feet, but that’s now boldly marching forward with a distinct message to bear.
Kat George is a feminist, and she's on Twitter.