The music industry was in midst of a new era of female pop stars in 2008. The emergence of La Roux, Little Boots, Marina and the Diamonds, Ladyhawke and Lady Gaga signalled a significant – if limited – shift in the zeitgeist: synthy, futurist stars who contrasted both with the dominant all-male indie groups and polished female acts of the late 90s, such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
2017 has seen the emergence of Anne-Marie, Raye, Dua Lipa, Halsey, Maggie Rogers, Sigrid, Alma, Zara Larsson, Dagny, Bebe Rexha, Mabel, Noah Cyrus, Billie Eilish, Skott, Ängie, Tove Stryke, Astrid S, Whitney Phillips, Maggie Lindemann and more.
These artists all have a mainstream presence – performing at major festivals, appearing on Spotify, nurturing healthy social media accounts – but their popularity feels more microcosmic than an all-conquering march. Look at the charts. No female solo artists or groups have scored a UK No 1 this year, and beyond Anne-Marie’s vocal on Clean Bandit’s No 1 Rockabye in January, and Little Mix’s No 1 album, the year has been dominated by male artists. It is an issue that’s even affected A-list stars: both Lady Gaga and Katy Perry failed to make a real dent with their latest albums. Lorde’s second record came and went.
So why are so many women being hurled at the pop marketplace – and at what cost might their success come? There are many challenges faced by women in music in 2017, led not only by the competition and the demands of being a modern pop star, but the inequality that still reverberates throughout the industry.
Arguably, rap and R&B are the leading forces in music in 2017. According to Nielsen Music’s mid-year report, R&B and hip-hop are nearly as popular on streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music as rock and pop combined. But it only takes a cursory glance at the recent Wireless festival line-up to see that there are few female megastars in this realm. Lady Leshurr and Stefflon Don, arguably two of the most exciting acts to come out of Britain in years, are uncompromising in their sound and remain relatively marginalised.
You might say the archetype of pop music is actually now shifting from female pop stars to male hip-hop artists which helped launch the careers of Florence and the Machine and Lorde. Pop music is not being led by any female pop star right at this minute. Developing female stars are, therefore, being diverted away from R&B and rap.
The “how to have it all” pressures that litter women’s magazines similarly apply to female pop stars. If you look at singles by acts such as Dua Lipa, Anne-Marie and Zara Larsson, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly their core influence. Is this pop music that dips into R&B, dancehall, tropical house and EDM, but commits to none of them entirely? Eclecticism may be a product of the internet and people’s post-genre tastes, but if you consider the popularity of the male solo artists who operate at a similar level – Rag’n’Bone Man, Shawn Mendes or George Ezra – they are able to commit to a more straightforward ambience which carries throughout whatever they do.
It is not just in their music that female pop stars are expected to cover all bases. It is now crucial for artists to present a number of different mindsets: they must be socially conscious in broadsheet interviews, musically literate in chats with what’s left of the music press, and urbane and edgy for the arty fashion magazines. The latter is particularly important, especially considering the financial benefits of being able to front a brand campaign (see Dua Lipa for Foot Locker or Ellie Goulding’s Pantene commercial).
In the post-Rihanna, post-Beyoncé landscape, it seems impossible for labels to launch a new female artist without positioning them as potential style icons. There is a view that publications such as Notion, Wonderland, Hunger and Fault, while apparently high end, seem to cover almost anything they’re offered by big PR firms.
Chlöe Howl, a pop star who was signed to Columbia at 16, released a string of bratty, brilliant pop tracks then disappeared for three years, has recently returned to music.
Howl emerged in 2014, the same time that male peers such as Tom Odell, James Bay, George Ezra, MNEK and Sam Smith were breaking through. Often, girls are expected to be the full package a lot sooner than guys. I see boys go on in jeans and a T-shirt and look a bit scruffy and they’re a bit awkward and people love it, but when you’re a female act you’re expected to be very polished very quickly. It can be daunting.
In spite of the abundance of female stars, the upper ranks of the UK’s music industry remain depressingly male-dominated. A UK Music study in January revealed that women make up only 30% of senior executive roles despite making up more than half of entry-level positions. Not only are men mostly calling the shots, but female producers are still a minority.
There is no doubt that while mainstream marketing is effective for luring older audiences who might invest in gig tickets, social media is eclipsing traditional advertising when it comes to the youth market. A healthy Instagram following can be more valuable than a magazine cover. But it feels sometimes as though female pop artists are expected to live up to the “strong woman” archetype on social media; that women known for their outspoken digital presence are allowed this one space to be “real”, an artificial trade-off while labels confine and control other areas. Certainly, the importance of having “something to say” defines whether you are worthy of pop adulation in 2017. We are in an age in which social consciousness is a commodity (just take Perry’s recent fishy attempt at “purposeful pop” with her single Chained to the Rhythm), and ferocity is increasingly an appealing trope in the songs themselves, a good example being Sigrid’s Don’t Kill My Vibe, a triumphant response to male songwriters who underestimated her writing talents.
In the case of Anne-Marie, her #ConfidentForAnneMarie hashtag was not only a way to get personal affirmation following online trolling she faced about her image, but it in turn helped her fans. In posting images of their bodies with the hashtag, they felt part of a community. In the same way that teen girls would attempt to create Britney Spears’s washboard abs in the 90s, Anne-Marie fans were mimicking their favourite pop star’s sense of self-love.
More pressure comes from such “realness” needing to be authentic. Audiences in 2017 are far more savvy to manipulation. So, you do need to be careful that artists adopt these positions from a place of sincerity rather than just of self-interest.
But because of this gender imbalance in the industry, and the fact there are so few spaces in stardom’s upper reaches, it is not always easy to stand your ground.
The success of the likes of Lorde, Florence, Ellie Goulding, Rihanna and Beyoncé has opened up the floodgates for young women, not to mention the fact that more alternative pop acts can record and market their own music directly to fans. The current stall in actual stardom may be more symptomatic of the status of fame in 2017. Given the fragmented way in which we consume music, an artist can rack up the numbers on social media and streaming services, but that does not guarantee a long-term audience, meaning that success may exist in a vacuum. It means that development takes longer, and the industry cannot afford to be so impatient with young stars. Dua Lipa is finally breaking through after two years of building support; the industry narrative may be one of a stumbling campaign, but her hundreds of millions of streams speak for themselves.
Maybe if this current crop of female pop stars can stay out of the limelight and become the new underdogs, it will allow space for more creativity and longevity – even if that means getting dropped by a major label and starting afresh an independent artist like Chloë Howl. There are genuine stars on the horizon, if this new era of pop can exercise some patience – and trust its women.