FOR A CERTAIN KIND of 21st century liberal, the fight for gender equality in pop has already been won. Adele is the world’s best-selling singer-songwriter. Amy Winehouse is, according to broadsheet lore, the tragically posthumous Voice of a Generation. Nicki Minaj rules imperiously over the rap game, and Florence and the Machine is the doyenne of neo-pastoral hipster chic. In the floodlit mainstream of the 2010s mediascape, it seems that the girls have got all bases covered.
But have they really? A glance at music industry employment statistics suggests otherwise. At the end of the last decade, for example, a survey found that two-thirds of UK music industry employees are male. Moreover, the current crop of affluent women artists are not especially positive examples of egalitarian empowerment. The peculiar mix of ambition and self-regard that percolates in late-capitalist culture has given rise to a new role for the female superstar that lies halfway between exploiter and exploited. If they are not stereotyped in the high old-fashioned way, today’s female popstars are targets of a commodification that is more worrying because it is more universal. In previous eras, the female pin-up was exploited by men as a sex object; in the neoliberal period, she has become an infinitely serviceable fashion icon, an eclectic mannequin of lifestyle envy for men and women consumers alike.
It is probably no coincidence that glamorous “queen” and “princess” imagery often accompanies this peculiar form of idol worship. In contrast to the emphasis on sisterhood of earlier eras, 2010s culture often appears to have reinstated the sort of top-down feminine archetypes Queen Victoria might have endorsed. Some girls are richer than others. In far too many quarters, indifference to hierarchy has replaced anger at inequality. Even a supposedly “alternative” artist like Florence and the Machine makes great play of a decadent, unattainably lavish visual idiom. Ball gowns and ultra-affluence have replaced Dr. Martens and androgyny as the hallmarks of the girl-pop elect.
Thankfully, feminist collectivism has always offered a powerful antidote to corporate-sponsored atomism in this vein. Indeed, the overarching theme that emerges from Women Make Noise: Girl Bands from Motown to Modern, a strenuous new collection of essays edited by British academic Julia Downes, is that countercultural movements are only ever truly momentous when all-girl units are leading the charge from the bottom up. This timely book is both a summary of historic struggles and a cri de coeur that the pop-feminist counterculture is alive and well and possessed of the ability to oppose and correct the moribund culture of 21st century music if given the space to breathe.
A great strength of the anthology is its chronological breadth. For many, “girl group” bears connotations of the emancipatory early 1960s, and indeed the subtitle here (“Motown to Modern”) appears to point to this as a foundational moment for all-girl pop. However, it is appropriate, given the emphasis on communitarian organization that runs throughout, that Victoria Yeulet’s opening essay delves deeper into pop lore by examining the female pioneers of American roots music. A classic “neglected history” account, Yeulet’s chapter is most intriguing in its dissection of the influences that gave rise to an authentic female culture in ...read more