Originally published in The Worcester Journal on January 14, 2015
To be clear: I am not here to talk about what’s punk and what’s not. As much as I’d like to have the authority to do so, my knowledge of punk is scant compared to what I really love – pop. And while the two may seem to be diametrically opposed, it seems to me that pop is beginning to take a few small but visible notes from punk’s playbook.
Pop culture infiltrates our lives – in fashion, film, slang, TV – trickling through our minds, memories, and conversations in big and small ways, but perhaps most obviously in music. And right now – sorry guys – women own the playing field. The influence these women can have (and are already having) on thousands of girls today could be immense, but what are we actually learning from them? And is it really as bad as some people seem to think?
Exhibit A: Taylor Swift. Undeniably attractive as she may be, the seven-time Grammy winner is also undeniably more conservative than most of her other female pop peers, somehow remaining as innocent and adorable as when she released her debut album in 2006; for all we know, Ms. Swift has been completely sober and sexless for all her twenty five enchanting years on earth. Despite the self-professed confessional nature of her songwriting, criticism of what some may call an obsession with boys continues to crop up year after year. Referred to as “a feminist’s nightmare” by Jezebel, Swift has publicly admitted that her relationships are most often what inspires the strong feelings behind her songs, with countless defenders who thrive on the connection built between the artist and fans in hearing familiar stories and moments retold in such an articulate, relatable voice. What some interpret to be a “feminist’s nightmare” is Swift’s apparent inability to write about anything but these relationships, with haters arguing that the lyrical message of her music is little more than simply, BOYS; fans, however, see something very different.
NPR interestingly called Swift a “princess of punk” upon the release of her fourth album, Red, in 2012, commenting on the noticeably new attitude of the songs and noting that Swift’s growth is evident in the tones of both anger and acceptance (as opposed to what might have previously been called whining and obsession) felt throughout the album. Swift’s maturation is by far most visible in light of her newly-released fifth studio album, 1989, and is perhaps most palpable in the single “Blank Space” and its music video. In what the New York Times called a “metanarrative” about her reputation as a perpetually lovelorn, occasionally clingy ex-girlfriend, Swift seems to have directly dedicated “Blank Space” to her haters, shamelessly acknowledging her notoriety in lines like “You look like my next mistake” and the gleefully knowing chorus, “Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane / But you know I love the players / And you love the game.” The accompanying video brings Swift’s self-awareness to a new level, following a traditional fairy-tale love story and featuring caricatures of Swift’s alternately girl-next-door and crazy-ex personas, teaching us just as much about rolling with the punches and knowing yourself as her earlier songs did with issues of growing up and dealing with young love and heartbreak. Swift is in good company though: fellow pop princess Lana Del Rey also defied the mainstream culture by abandoning the reputation built by hip-hop inspired Born to Die (2012) when packing her second album Ultraviolence (2014) full of slow, psychedelic songs, none of which make the traditional three-minute radio cut. Del Rey took a bow to her skeptics as well, most notably in the Ultraviolence song “Brooklyn Baby,” which highlights haters’ perceptions of the artist whom Rolling Stone called “rock’s saddest, baddest diva” as an unapologetic hipster. Swift may have taken a note from Del Rey’s book as she gave her haters exactly what they were looking for in “Blank Space.” Though Swift’s sugar-sweet, pure-as-a-virgin image may have made (and continues to make) her music marketable to younger listeners and often causes older ones to undermine or disregard her music, Swift is undeniably succeeding in the powerful cultural position she holds – in fact, because her sound is so accessible to young girls, she is actually instilling her ideas of how to work through relationships and expressing strong feelings in girls at a younger age – kind of empowering, right? And isn’t that the kind of ability we’d like our daughters growing up with?
The one girl who probably has the most to say on growing up is actually the youngest of most pop stars on the radar right now. At 16, Lorde topped the U.S. Billboard Charts in 2013 with her hit “Royals,” from her debut album, Pure Heroine (the name itself basically says all you need to know). Now, at 18 years old, Lorde remains admirable in a traditional sense — incredibly talented, wildly successful — yet at the same time “punk” in the way she defies our expectations; a 16-year-old girl writes an album almost entirely absent of boys, romance, or sex? Her incredibly impressive debut instead focused mainly on the concept of youth and the strangeness of getting older, a theme as universal as Ms. Swift’s obsession with writing about boys. “Royals” even challenges the elements of songs on the radio as of late: “But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom / blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room / we don’t care.” How punk is it to write a number one international hit song that rolls its eyes at every other number one hit?
And then there’s Miley. Once the woman of the hour, arguably old news, yet consistently relevant and discussed amongst fans and cynics alike.
Ridding herself of the long, luscious, Hannah Montana locks in favor of a Twiggy-inspired shaved head and bleach blonde bangs, and crowned as “Princess of Twerk” by tabloids everywhere.. Cyrus has gone through an incredible transformation. Under intense public scrutiny for the majority of her life, the singer received shocking amounts of negative publicity in the aftermath of the controversial 2013 VMA performance. Her public sexuality and discussion of drug use has been criticized as an overly dramatic way of saying, “Y’all check me out, I’m not a kid anymore,” and her carefree attitude towards the situation has upset parents telling CNN they are now forced to think that Cyrus does not either a) care what her younger fans think of her or b) hasn’t even bothered to think of what her actions are doing to her image…but isn’t that what continues to make her so awesome?
Despite the scandal created around her new look, Cyrus is flourishing more than ever because she simply does not care – which is why VICE magazine even went so far as to call her “the most punk rock musician around” at the height of her controversy. Subsequent appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Ellen Show proved her capacity for eloquence, honesty, and a good sense of humor (about herself) and what it’s like to suddenly be the most talked-about person in the world. She’s not perfect, but she’s rich, pretty, and testing her limits, paving the way for her own independent image, trying to figure out who she is.
That Cyrus can disguise her fourth album, Bangerz, (which is, in fact, a breakup album) as what most angelheaded hipsters would write off as another shitty pop record trying too hard to get in the Top 40 is actually an incredible feat. When some girls might be tempted to fill their album with acoustic emotion and bittersweet strings, Cyrus shook off her broken engagement with actor Liam Hemsworth by reestablishing her confidence in herself: “So don’t you worry ‘bout me, Imma be okay / Imma do my thang.” The lyrics of the album tell the story of real feelings, but the upbeat quality of most of the songs instills a sense of conviction and empowerment – occasionally admitting to unhappiness, but never giving in to it. “Wrecking Ball” is the obvious exception, but we can allow her a few minutes of sadness, right? And can we please allow her to wear what she wants? To dance how she wants? Though the initial hysteria surrounding the transformation of Ms. Cyrus has faded, I think it’s important to remember how harshly and cynically many of us reacted. Everyone has (had) at least a little bit of Miley in us, in our reckless, fun, experimental youth. We watched her evolve and now here she is, and some people still want to criticize her for not keeping things PG? All I can say is: grow up.
Rock critic Lester Bangs said that “punk represents a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it, and do something good besides.” Not to say that girls like Miley, Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde are punk musicians — not at all — but they’re bringing an element of the tradition into mainstream popular music. The women of pop are stronger than ever as they continue to top the charts, make bank, and make the news every week, joining the ranks of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and other established queens of the radio. As they use their words, sounds, and images to express themselves with confidence and be who they choose to be, listeners of our generation should feel more and more comfortable following suit. Punk is, after all, “just another word for freedom.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the magazine STIR in 2013.