Thursday, November 04, 2010

Hear me Roar

Gutsy female vocalists are vying their way back up the pop charts

For the first time in several long years that have been dominated by female pop-music drivel, strong female vocalists are emerging onto the music scene en mass. Although they are still the exception and not the rule, there are inspiring new voices on the scene. Now artists like Ke$ha and Christina Aguilera have Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, and Marina Diamandis of Marina and the Diamonds, to contend with. Both Welch and Diamandis write their own music and perform fully clothed (which is a welcome change in these days of pant-less pop stars). Yet, perhaps surprisingly, they are garnering widespread public attention as well as critical acclaim. There seems to be an inclination toward the acceptance of female vocals and songwriting into main-steam music again.

Make no mistake, evil forces such as Katy Perry’s candyland-themed video for Teenage Dream and her whipped cream shooting breasts are still trying hard to keep female pop in the over-sexualized pigeon hole it has been so comfortable residing in. It may be too early to tell, but the trend toward featuring authentic, female songwriters is a long-awaited move away from the pre-fab bubblegum pop we’re so used to hearing on mainstream radio. Unorthodox female artists like Kate Nash, Welch, and Diamandis are garnering serious attention on traditionally fluff-filled, music charts and radio stations.

So where have they been hiding for the past several years?

Is this a question of record companies hesitating to back up strong female artists after the overwhelming success of pop-tarts and teen queen’s that have dominated the charts? As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. And with the exception of some truly exciting female songwriters in the mid 90’s(Tory Amos and Liz Phair come to mind), female pop has been following a fairly strict equation for success that involves creating “talent” from the Frankenstein mould, predetermined by record execs. Like Miley Cyrus, for the past several years, these label-created, wet dreams of female talent just “couldn’t be tamed”– until now.

Sam Machkoveck’s recent article “Beyond Gaga”, in The Atlantic, covers gutsy, female songwriter Alexis Krauss of Brooklyn act, Sleigh Bells. Machkoveck sums up this notion of consistently dismal, female pop careers, observing that many of [Krauss’] bubble-gum-pop peers did their damnedest to emerge from their careers as "mature," only to look pathetic and exploited; think Britney Spears sweating in a loft full of half-naked men in the "I'm A Slave 4 U" video, or even Miley Cyrus slithering around in a birdcage in her latest attempt at maturity. It seems as though record companies are more interested in making a quick buck rather than selecting and developing female artists for long term careers. Which leads to another question about the emergence of female music talent: “the Lady Gaga Effect”.

Has Gaga made it OK for smart female artists to be relevant again? Gaga certainly doesn’t shy away from controversy – in fact, most would argue that she has built a career out of causing controversy. Nor does she shy away from what some would consider traditionally masculine traits for a pop princess. She is out-spoken, aggressive, driven, and quite fearless in her quest for pop music domination. Quite a departure from her sickly sweet pop peers. Gaga has certainly received her fare share of credit for driving female pop in a different and possibly more thoughtful direction.

That being said, don’t be too quick to jump on this bandwagon of thinking.

Gaga for electro-dripping dance parties in your apartment - yes, but for lyrics that make you think and force you to play songs on repeat because the lyrics are just so damn clever -not so much. From her creative costumes; often the product of partnerships with couture houses (Uncle Karl can’t get enough of her) to her stage performances (at times transcendent and more suitably identified as performance art than award show fluff), Lady Gaga has undoubtedly broadened the public’s perception by offering a different image of mainstream pop.

However, Gaga is no Stevie Nicks. Leotards and catchy pop tunes don’t inspire me toward personal reflection the way that Welch’s songwriting talents do. I also find it rather unfortunate that Gaga had to stop wearing pants and shoot fireworks out of her bra to get attention from mass media. Although many claim Gaga had to comply with record label direction until she reached mega-stardom to get her “real” message across, this doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to Welch, Diamondis, Nash and Krauss.

In fact, both Welch and Diamondis received most of their early support from the BBC. Welch was promoted as part of “BBC Introducing” a showcase for new artists, and Diamondis rose to fame after reaching number two on The BBC Sound of 2010 poll list. Each of them went on to top pop charts around the world and had extremely successful record releases in 2010. Perhaps this is an issue of lack of support for gifted female writing and vocal talent. The CBC is chronically late in “introducing” and featuring exciting Canadian talent. A station comparable to BBC Radio One does exist in Canada; however, CBC Radio 3, which features new Canadian independent pop, rock, electronic and hip hop musicians is only broadcast on satellite radio, limiting potential exposure to great new acts.

Be it a lack of record label support worldwide or a lack of viable avenues for exposure of new artists in Canada, it would be nice to think this trend in featuring legitimate female songwriting and vocal talent will continue to be represented in popular music. It’s about time for pop music to offer more than a one-dimensional representation of women in music.

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