No doubt there’s a tangible difference between the female pop vocalists of the ’80s, and the female pop vocalists of today. Aussie news outlet The Age published an essay by Louise Swinn this week that speaks to this difference and gives some theories on what divides them. Her basic thesis? Female vocalists of the ‘80s are strong, confident, fierce vocalists and choruses jam packed with empowerment. Female vocalists of today? Breathy, passive, indecisive, and waiting for their prince to come.
Her top ‘80s role model is Pat Benatar, of whom she writes: “Her lyrics were muscular and resilient but it was her voice itself that made the difference. It was strong and confident and it did more than tell a story — it challenged and convinced.”
Are the female musicians of today lacking in this department? I can follow this idea for some artists. Like when La Roux croons “This time, baby, I’ll be bulletproof,” I don’t really believe her. I don’t quite see her donning some armor and following through on that promise. Maybe there’s something to be said about not just the message of female musicians’ songs today, but also their delivery.
Swinn cites a few other solid examples of ‘80s women whose songs inspire empowerment: Annie Lennox, Chrissy Amphlett, Cyndi Lauper. “These women were in charge,” she notes. “They knew what they were doing; they were the masters of their own destiny. They might be sexy but it wasn’t their trump card.
Being sexy without being just sexy — there’s something the representation of women in music could use. Swinn also makes a fair point that in the time of cassette tapes and not YouTube, we only really had the songs. You weren’t seeing an onslaught of images in blogs and videos and promotions. You heard the song on the radio. You maybe stared at the cover art in your bedroom. But there was a lot less visual clutter, and thus a lot less chance of women being pushed to wear whipped cream bras and skimpy nonsense as part of their music.
When summing up the female pop vocalists of today, Swinn hears it like this: “An intake of breath before the first word of each line doesn’t inspire confidence from the outset. Sarah Blasko and Feist can sing a ditty but the whispery harmonies don’t empower me to greatness.”
Her article also gives a kind of litmus test for the strong, confident songstress: if they showed up at a venue with no stage, or their bassist quits an hour before a show, how would they handle it? She trusts that Benatar and Lennox would make due, and perform like the badasses they are. But Taylor Swift? Or the singers whose lyrics and voice are full of passive submission? Maybe not.
Thinking about this litmus test, though, I can name a couple rad women musicians of today whose voice and songs make me confident they’d be able to belt it out anywhere. Take Beth Ditto for instance. She hollers “Honey ain’t no woman like a Southern girl,” and I am taking her tone for gospel and seeking out dates with girls who grew up below the Mason Dixon line. Or Beyoncé: yeah, she’s diva like whoa, but “Ring the Alarm”? Or even “Irreplaceable”? I like to imagine Pat Benatar giving Beyoncé a high five of approval.
Who are the female artists of today who you think pass Swinn’s test?