TIDAL 10: On Pop, Reality & Womanhood
This article is part of the TIDAL 10, our end-of-decade essay series. For more essays covering a wide range of music, visit Read.Tidal.com. – Ed.
“Don’t go crying to your mama/’Cause you’re on your own, in the real world.” – “Ain’t It Fun,” Paramore
As Paramore came up in the pop-punk scene, vocalist Hayley Williams was one of very few women making the Vans Warped Tour circuit, and by far the most prominent. She had no choice but to toughen up. “[T]here was never a show that we played that I didn’t go harder than all the frontmen, because I thought I have to be better than them to prove my worth. Because people look up onstage and see a small little girl,” Williams told Stereogum in 2018, looking back at those earlier years. Around the same time that Britney Spears had a highly publicized mental breakdown, after having been a model for youthful, sexy, unblemished pop, musicians like Williams entered the 2010s hoping to trump the pressures put on young female artists to obtain an unrealistic public image.
Of course, Hayley Williams didn’t invent the anti-pop figure. At the beginning of the millennium, P!nk, for one, aimed to be the typical pop star’s foil. “Always being compared to damn Britney Spears,” she sang on “Don’t Let Me Get Me.” “She’s so pretty. That just ain’t me.” Much like P!nk, Williams dyed her hair every color of the rainbow and wore band tees onstage, hardening her appearance in an effort to be taken seriously.
The idea of what a pop star should look like was revolutionized in the 2010s, from Billie Eilish’s baggy sportswear, to Halsey’s tattoos and general badassery, to Alicia Keys’ decision to no longer wear makeup, to Lizzo’s body-positive image and lyrics. One of the most successful pop artists of the 2010s, Sia, chose not to show her face at all. But the decade also demonstrated that a woman pop star’s ability to embrace her authenticity runs more than skin deep.
To start, the definition of what pop music actually sounds like has never felt more dismantled, and we largely have female artists to thank for that fact. When the 2010s began, Williams had transformed from an emo, mall-punk goddess into a genre-fluid vocalist, dabbling in hip-hop on B.o.B’s “Airplanes,” singing the hook on Zedd’s EDM track “Stay the Night” and getting into funk and pop on Paramore’s self-titled record of 2013 — particularly on the band’s biggest single yet, the gospel-inspired “Ain’t It Fun.” Over the past decade, as women artists have avoided or transcended the old pressures of pop stardom, they have managed to expand the musical language found in contemporary hitmaking. Think of Rihanna melding hip-hop and dancehall on ANTI, Taylor Swift trying out trap beats on reputation and Kacey Musgraves refining country-disco on Golden Hour.
Lyrically, the decade has been defined by women’s openness about trauma, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental-health issues — very often juxtaposing these confessions with upbeat choruses and jubilant anthems. A hugely celebrated exploration of insecurity and loneliness, Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” has nonetheless scored many a certified dance party. Lorde’s Melodrama is a party-pop record that delves into the demise of a relationship as well as disillusionment with partying itself. Billie Eilish has redefined teen pop by expressing authentic adolescence, replete with depression and exposure to drug and alcohol abuse — and her drowsy, melancholy, ambient sound has similarly thrown out pop’s rulebook.
Williams’ message has placed a premium on honesty and disclosure as well. Twenty-seventeen’s After Laughter was Paramore’s most pop-influenced album to date, taking cues from Talking Heads and Blondie with quirky post-punk and new-wave guitar licks, atmospheric synths and even an ebullient marimba. But behind that cheerful-sounding record were some of Williams’ most dejected lyrics, reflecting on the unraveling of her marriage and the despair that followed. What’s more, she has apologized for her failures in the name of healing. In 2015, she wrote on her Tumblr about her regret over “Misery Business,” the first single off 2007’s RIOT!, during which she jealously targets a boyfriend-stealer. (“Once a whore, you’re nothing more,” she sings. “I’m sorry that’ll never change.”) Three years after her post, Paramore decided to retire “Misery Business” from their live set for the foreseeable future.
In the 2010s, female pop stars felt empowered enough to demonstrate how they are complete and distinctive human beings, with their own flaws, struggles and shortcomings to own up to. Now only one question remains: As women are being more candid about their humanity, will the men of pop follow?
Natalia Barr is a Brooklyn-based music and culture writer with bylines in Rolling Stone, Consequence of Sound, Interview Magazine and other publications. You can find her on Twitter at @nataliabarr_.
Image: Hayley Williams fronts Paramore at Bonnaroo in June 2018. Credit: C Flanigan/WireImage.
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