Are Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga Changing the Game Through Image Reinvention?

Is image reinvention the apex of pop power? Are women performers only now picking up Madonna's mantle and stepping up? Is female pop passivity on the out? We have questions and maybe some answers…

This is the year of reinvention, with three of the world’s biggest female pop stars—Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga—very deliberately and very loudly divesting themselves of their past personas. It seems the ability to give definition to one's image is the new apex of pop power. Where Katy’s “Roar” teaser campaign involved a series of short videos that saw her burning her purple “Wide Awake”-era wig and conducting a funeral service for her spinning-boob candy-cane dress, Beyoncé teased “Grown Woman” in a Pepsi commercial by dance battling, and beating, several of her past alter egos, including the obviously very fierce Sasha Fierce. Gaga meanwhile, as Gaga does, posited herself as a blank canvas freshly painted upon as a doe-eyed harlequin on her “Applause” cover art.

Musically at least, it doesn’t much matter what comes of any of these image makeovers. Indeed so far, Katy and Gaga’s music hasn’t deviated from their previous output: Katy’s sticking with the “Firework”/“Part Of Me” theme of anthemic self-empowerment; Gaga’s still milking the idea of the fame monster busting out on the dancefloor at the gay club. And unless you’ve been lucky enough to attend an extortionately priced Beyoncé show then like me, you’re probably still in the dark as to Bey’s new “sound.” What matters is that all three of these women are screaming—this is me and this is how you will see me. What Madonna pioneered is now an ingrained and precious reality.

For the first time in pop music women have the ability to be chameleonic in a way that pre-Madonna, was only available to men—think David Bowie. I should clarify that when I say “available to men,” I mean that men in pop music, no matter what they choose for themselves aesthetically, whether it be consistent or constantly changing, are generally applauded, or at least allowed to carry on with little to no group-think haranguement from the critics or the poisonous gossip of the masses. Snoop went from Dogg to Lion, and while there were a few chuckles, most came from a place of endearment. Overall the attitude seemed to be, if Snoop wants to be a Lion, let him be a Lion. Similarly, Jay-Z went from baggy-clothed, coke slinger to style-savvy, designer-embracing art dealer. A couple of years ago Kayne West started wearing skirts and this year he proclaimed himself the second coming. Will.i.am used to be a socially conscious hippy in an argon sweater and now, he’s a Britney Spears groupie in a too-tight suit. And in all these cases, there may have been a brief pause—see what you did there, duly noted—but then we all carried on as usual, searching for the artistic merit in the music, rather than of the image.

Essentially, what Madonna began in the 80s is only just beginning to see it’s natural progression, 30 years after the fact. Sliding effortlessly between virginity and voguing, faster than a ray of light, Madonna revolutionized the way it felt for a girl to express herself, showing us that we needn’t ever be frozen in place (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). Madonna demonstrated exactly how a woman could and should be in charge of her own projection, and is still doing so today. But Madonna’s game-changing approach to womanhood suffered a hiccup in the reductive era of 90s boy-band mania and the subsequent Mandy Moore/Jessica Simpson manufactured Barbie doll pop of the early 2000s.

For a beat in the late 90s/early 2000s there was little desire to be challenged by female performers. I’m not quite sure if current diversifying trends are due to an increasingly fickle audience or an increasingly demanding audience (or both). Or perhaps if a lot of it has to do with the female performer now also acting as a creative force both musically and visually, rather as a cipher for others—her songwriters, her fans, the public at large. Take, for example, the wonderful Britney Spears, a woman with seven albums and only nine writing credits to her name. It’s a small creative contribution for such a long-standing and iconic career, and yet Britney Spears has remained—if not always stoically—an aging vintage of the original product. I mean, girlfriend has the same hairstyle on the cover of her new single, “Work Bitch,” as she did in 2001.

Brit Brit in 2001. Sorry Britney in 2013. *Twilight Zone soundtrack plays now.*

Remember, this is a woman who had a very public emotional breakdown—shaving her head in an attempt to reclaim herself before quickly wigging up in a bid to bring back the old Britney, albeit one in shambles. So when she was officially re-launched back into the public eye complete with a new album, she was marketed not as a new woman, but as the exact same Britney as before. There was no reinvention, but then, Britney has never needed a reinvention. Quite frankly, the dead-eyed “it’s Britney bitch” persona works for her. Plus it doesn’t really seem like she, nor any cog in the Britney machine, is particularly interested in either music as an art form, or subverting classic pop power structures, which is an apathy our preeminent female pop icons are now rebelling against. The closest Britney ever came to a reinvention was being not a girl, not yet a woman, or a slave 4 u (in which she sings “All you people look at me like I’m a little girl/But did you ever think it would be okay for me to step into this world?”). But I would argue that growing up does not necessarily constitute a reinvention: growing up is a necessary rite of passage, something that must be navigated, rather than a conscious choice to redefine one’s image. Growing up is unavoidable; reinvention is a choice.

How much tongue is too much tongue? See evidence of too much above.

Most recently we’ve seen Miley Cyrus (emit group groan here) enter the fray as the latest female singer to face the perilous task of growing up in the public eye while trying to eke out a niche for herself within the female pop canon. But don’t be fooled: Miley is not reinventing; she hasn’t yet earned the right to. Miley is showing us her bones, sure, but as far as taking control of the projected self, Miley is proving just as much to herself as she is to us. Do you remember being 20? I do and it was a very spray-tanned time for me. Miley, like any other teenage girl emerging into her 20s, is trying everything on to see what she likes. Whereas Katy, Bey, and Gaga have got nothing left to prove. They’re grown women who have experimented and tested boundaries, and they’re now moving into leadership roles. They’re the pied pipers of pop, telling us how and when to fall into line behind them.

Finally we’re back to picking up where Madonna left off. It seems like 2013 is the year of the pop diva heavyweights turning the accepted notion of female passivity on its head. And one can only hope, that in the grand tradition developed by the Material Girl herself, women will be able to continue metamorphosing to display multi-dimensional personalities and images, because regardless of whether you blame the demands of an internet-reared audience, what stands out here is women are emerging from the flat, predictable mold that pop has overwhelmingly squeezed us into. Instead, the women at the pinnacle of pop superstardom are inspiring flexibility in self-definition, and taking up the dormant Madonna cause, creating an arena in which the girls are calling the shots, presenting themselves—without addendum—exactly as they wish to be received.

Kat is very passionate about pop. She's on Twitter - @kat_george.

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