Support the news

Women Are The Fabric Of 21st Century Pop

Robyn performs at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on February 5, 2011. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
Robyn performs at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on February 5, 2011. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

In 2014 I listened to "Dancing On My Own" by Robyn every day for 24 straight days. I wasn't alone; four of my friends did it, too. We were on a road trip, driving from Massachusetts to the west coast, down through California and back again. Someone put Robyn on the car stereo the first night of our trip, on a whim. This was four years after the song came out — just enough time for it to have faded into that somewhere between short- and long-term memories. I had maybe listened to the song a handful of times in the intervening years. I thought of it as a good song, but perhaps one whose moment had passed. But listening to it that first night of the trip — deliriously thrilled and sleep-deprived, surrounded by the warm buzz of excitement and nerves and the open road — it occurred to me (and everyone in the car around me) that it was, actually, a great song. So the next day, someone recommended listening to it again, to lift everyone's spirits in the midst of a daylong drive west.

The next day, it felt like it would be kind of funny to listen to Robyn again. And then eventually, it just became a habit: at least once a day; at least one Robyn song ("Call Your Girlfriend" was in heavy rotation, too.) The song became an anchor on days with no plans; it became the soundtrack to finally witnessing places we'd always wanted to see. We woke up to it and fell asleep to it; listened when we were tired of driving, when we were fed up with each other, when we were overcome with joy. The song is now permanently lodged in my memory. Whenever I listen to it, I'm immediately in that van with my friends, singing a song about loneliness that made us feel like a family.

That experience taught me what it means to decide that a song deserves to stick around. Great songs get lost all the time, for all kinds of reasons: a trend changes, or a song hits before we're ready for it, or we're supposed to be embarrassed of how much we love it. But these songs often have something to teach us about ourselves, or about the moment we're living in, or about what music can mean to us. We can choose, instead, to keep them with us — to value them as the fabric of a moment. We can evaluate their greatness in their time, before they risk being lost to history. Songs are, in many ways, the common language of this current moment; playlists, like it or not, are a domineering force in how people consume music today. This is why we chose to make a list of the 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+: to recognize a new canon as it's forming, and to pay tribute to the fact that women and non-binary musicians have been central to shaping the sound of contemporary popular music.

If you're looking for the voices that have been central to pop music in this century, women are not in short supply. Beyoncé, the reigning monarch of pop music and pop culture, and Rihanna, perhaps the most influential pop star of our time, have four and three songs on the list, respectively. Country-crossover trailblazer Taylor Swift and hip-hop history-maker Cardi B are both in our top 50. The voices of Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones (both in our top 10) epitomize the rise of contemporary, retro-sounding soul; meanwhile, songwriters like Mitski and Hurray for the Riff Raff represent women's central place within indie music.

And the artists on this list have been responsible for essential innovation, too. Early in this process, Ann Powers — who, with Jill Sternheimer, founded the Turning the Tables project last year — casually remarked that the most future-thinking music of the new millennium has women at its center. When M.I.A., for example, released "Paper Planes" (which tops our list) in 2007, early reviewers seemed to have trouble squaring her kaleidoscopic samples and strident political urgency. Her authenticity — on both counts — was questioned. But "Paper Planes" has more than held up, and predicted (and, frankly, bested) much of today's politi-pop. "Maps," the second song on our list, is a wholly flawless and searingly intimate rock song. Yet while The Yeah Yeah Yeahs came up through the same scene that birthed The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem and Interpol, they're less frequently cited as an epitomic band of the New York early aughts. (Despite the lack of deserved indie rock cred, Karen O's legacy has perhaps been better appreciated in the pop world: Beyoncé interpolated a line from "Maps" on "Hold Up," and "Maps" is rumored to have inspired "Since U Been Gone.") Alicia Keys appears on our list just a few spots ahead of Janelle Monáe and Solange, representing the shifting sonic landscape of R&B in the last 18 years.

Our list also shows how this generation of musicians — women in particular — is challenging the paradigm of rock and soul as the central elements of American pop. Latinx and Caribbean influence weaves throughout the list — from RiRi herself, to Puerto Rican Queen of Reggaeton Ivy Queen, to Downtown Boys' Latinx punk. Not to mention hip-hop, the genre that perhaps best exemplifies innovation and domination in this century. Whether being fashioned into self-love pop on songs like "Feelin' Myself" or "Good As Hell," or as a vehicle for queer desire by artists like Young M.A., or as the language of protest by artists like Jamila Woods, hip-hop has become a language of complicated, introspective and universal experiences of womanhood in this century.

Our list centers the music of women and non-binary artists because, despite the crucial role they have played in creating the most innovative, forward-thinking music of our era, their accomplishments are so routinely undervalued. This bias is already showing up in considerations of the best music of this era: Mainstream lists of the best songs of the 2000s continue to heavily favor men (even if women sometimes find their place at token spots on such lists). Awards shows continue to celebrate male success while overlooking women; at the last six Grammy Awards, for example, 90.7 percent of the nominees were men.

This inequality shows up on the charts, too. Women-only acts have seen a more-or-less steady decline in the top 10 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 since the '90s. Last year, no solo woman performer topped the the Billboard Hot 100 until Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" hit No. 1 in September; for the first eight months of 2017, only 14% of songs in the top 10 of the Hot 100 were by women unaccompanied by men — the lowest, Billboard reported, "since Nielsen Music data began powering the Hot 100 just more than 25 years ago." The trend is similar for albums on the Billboard 200, too. And the statistics aren't just bad for performers; one study showed that of the top songs on the Hot 100 from 2012 to 2017, only about 12% of credited songwriters were women; the numbers for women producers were even worse.

New technology isn't fixing the problem. Streaming, sometimes hailed as a space of infinite accessibility that ought to erase man-made sexism, seems to only replicate human bias. As Liz Pelly, a writer who contributed to our list, has reported, playlists on streaming platforms like Spotify are often egregiously gender-imbalanced, promoting music by men and then assuming, algorithmically, that's all anyone wants to hear.

When we launched Turning the Tables in 2017 with our list of the 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women, we sought to correct this longstanding sexist bias: to ask who is at the table when we talk about the history of great music and how we can change that. We didn't ask to include women in the dominant paradigm; instead, we offered an entirely new way to consider greatness. We looked at albums in order to show the depth of women's musical accomplishment, by staking claims that Joni Mitchell's poetry stirred listeners just as much as Dylan's; that Missy Elliott defined the classic hip-hop sound just as much as Biggie; that Patti Smith embodied rock defiance perhaps more than any male '70s rocker.

Albums may be the grand statements of a musician's career, but songs can be the key to understanding particular moments. They let us see artists experimenting, or finding their way to a sound, or crystallizing a heartbreak too fragile to extend. Listening to songs by different artists or different albums side by side, as playlists allow us to do, recontextualizes what we're hearing, helping us make connections or understand differences. That's why lists of songs are so important. They help us see things from new perspectives; they make historical records of these ideas; they pin down something that might otherwise float away. And that's our goal with this list: to capture this era now, and to interrupt the history-making process before it's calcified by the status quo and the opinions of a handful of powerful men.

To make our list, we wanted to zero in on the voices of women and non-binary musicians of this particular era; that is, the artists who belong to this moment, who are making (or made) their best and biggest impact since the start of the new millennium. This meant we considered artists who released their debut albums on or after Jan. 1, 2000. (We did, however, make a few exceptions; artists like Robyn, Tegan and Sara and Kelis, who debuted before 2000 but have made their most substantial impacts in this era.)

We also wanted our list to celebrate the fact that we're in, as Ann has called it, a "golden age for women writing about music." The music writing landscape is full of young women and non-binary writers publishing thoughtful, engaging criticism across music and culture publications. Women and non-binary journalists manage, edit and write for explicitly feminist platforms; others run their own outlets to create spaces for women-centered or anti-capitalist music journalism. (This generation of music journalists is, of course, indebted to strong mentorship from women like Ann, among others.) We've watched as feminism has, over the last two decades, entered the mainstream and pushed conversations forward while long-entrenched inequalities have hardly budged. Many of us learned to write during the peak of the feminist blogosphere, which valued and gave language to women's experience — even as the Internet makes women and non-binary people more vulnerable to online harassment. Some of us came of age hearing Khia or Tweet or FKA Twigs on the radio, singing boldly about female pleasure, even as the #MeToo movement has proven the ongoing, widespread nature of sexual assault. We watched Beyoncé perform in front a giant projection of the word "feminist" at a major awards show performance. The abundance of powerful, brilliant women's voices throughout music journalism is both a source and result of this moment, and of our culture's grappling with the need to listen more closely to what women have to say.

Many of the writers who worked with us on this list grew up with the knowledge that, as feminists have taught us for decades, the "personal is political." They understand how an artist's music might reflect an experience of being marginalized because of their gender, but also how frustrating it is to have your creative work reduced to your identity. The refusal of that reduction is what makes songs like Mitski's "Your Best American Girl," Moor Mother's "Deadbeat Protest" and India.Arie's "Video" so powerful. And the ability to recognize and identify with that perspective makes the voices of these writers so vital to the project of documenting the way that this era sounds, and who is responsible for shaping that sound.

When we called on these writers to help us define this moment in a way that centers women's voices, we realized that meant more than just women. The question of what constitutes womanhood has long been debated, within and outside feminist circles, but today, much of contemporary feminism concerns itself not just with the experiences of women but with what it means to face oppression due to your gender. Sometimes this is the same thing — but not always. And this means paying particular attention to what it means to be transgender, and what it means to identify outside the gender binary. It has led to a moment when greater awareness of trans and non-binary gender identities feels closer than ever to cracking into the mainstream. During the voting process for our list, songs by non-binary artists received attention, which led us to wonder how, for example, an artist who doesn't identify as a woman would feel about being on a list of the "best songs by women." So we asked. And these conversations helped us realize the need to articulate how and why our list was inclusive of these identities; that if our goal was to challenge reflexive, discriminatory ideas about who belongs in the canon, our parameters for whose voices we include needed to be wide enough to embrace all artists (and writers) who identify as women as well as those who are marginalized for their existence outside the gender binary. It's why we added a "+" after "women" in the title of our list: to honor the non-binary artists making the most important, innovative and forward-thinking music today.

Anyone who has spent time invested in the pop hype cycle knows that the question of gender in music (like feminism itself!) comes in and out of fashion: a cover story about a game-changing woman artist or a "surprising" moment of women's pop dominance, followed by an onslaught of male-centric coverage — and then, if we're lucky, some time later we'll see another article claiming that these women are really making waves. (Writer and editor Jes Skolnik, who also contributed to this project, has given this cycle a fitting title: the "hideous persistence of the 'women in rock' issue.") Of course the truth is always that women and non-binary artists were making essential music all along, whether or not their work happens to land at the right moment in the Year(s) Of The Woman cycle. Our list proves this. Our list means there's simply no excuse for future considerations of the best music of this century not to include these contributions. The press of the future must contend with the power of these voices.

If it is songs, not albums, that are forming the soundtrack of this generation, then our playlist proves how the voices of women and non-binary artists are telling the story. What is remarkable about our list is how game-changing and celebration-worthy moments in music continue to appear throughout it, even beyond the tracks that everyone knows, the most famous names and the biggest hits. Scroll through and you're likely to find (and find again, and again) songs that evoke particular moments or spark very specific memories. Our list celebrates these victories, too. It pays homage to visionaries like Karin Dreijer, of The Knife and Fever Ray, whose cool electronic sound has become a reference point for legions of pop songwriters since. It includes musicians like Israeli sisters A-WA and Tunisian protest singer Emel Mathlouthi who both innovate and honor traditions outside the realm of mainstream Western pop. It reflects how women are central to the recent growth of pop-country, led by songs like "Follow Your Arrow," and to the creation of new Americana anthems, like Mary Gauthier's "Mercy Now." And it highlights the voices of young musicians who are redefining indie rock — Mitski, Waxahatchee and Big Thief among them — with their adherence to a gospel of intimate sincerity.

Many of the artists on our list are in dialogue — artistically and personally — with each other. Openly queer musicians like Tegan & Sara, Janelle Monae and Julien Baker have each demonstrated different ways of engaging — or choosing not to directly engage — with queerness in their music. Artists from Rhiannon Giddens to Jamila Woods to René Marie confront historical and contemporary racism by showing its extremely personal and broadly systemic impacts. Sia, whose "Chandelier" is on our list, has written songs for Beyoncé, Shakira and Carly Rae Jepsen. Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus and Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down are frequent collaborators; HAIM and Taylor Swift have appeared on the same stages and Instagram feeds. Terri Lynne Carrington's Mosaic Project album — which features the song "Mosaic Triad," on our list — also includes contributions from Esperanza Spalding; jazz drummer Allison Miller, whose song "Otis Was A Polar Bear" made our list, frequently plays with Brandi Carlile. Though the time frame of our list is just under two decades, this has been a period of rapid evolution, and many artists who emerged during this period have become inspirations and icons for others. These legacies can be traced within our list — some literally traceable, on skin: Torres' Mackenzie Scott has a St. Vincent tattoo; Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield has one for Hop Along.

When we set the criteria for making our list, we did so knowing we'd leave artists out — artists like Britney Spears or Missy Elliott, who left an indelible mark on the current sounds and styles of pop but debuted too early to be considered in our list. But there's a certain amount of exclusion inherent in crafting any canon, and questions about legacy, impact and influence rarely have easy answers. That's part of the point of this project: We had our criteria, but our rules aren't the only means by which to judge, nor do we want them to be. Our list represents the passion and thoughtfulness of a certain group of writers, but we don't want to be the only voice in this conversation. The music of women and non-binary artists in this era deserves support, debate, inclusion and passion from as many perspectives and voices as possible. Our list is meant, as last year's list was, as a challenge to the traditional way of thinking about who deserves to be remembered and why. Think of Turning the Tables as an open door in a room that has slowly filled with smoke; a clear description of a problem, not its solution.

In this moment, it can feel like music history is always being made. Someone is always setting a new streaming record or pulling off an unprecedented album rollout; the prevalence of hot take culture means superlatives are recklessly thrown around to describe it all. But we, as critics and fans, make history too, when we choose whom to pay attention to, to believe, to lionize, to denigrate. When we write or read about music, or buy tickets to a show, or fill our days with that one song on repeat, we pave the road to canonization for the things we love and we shut the door for the things we don't. The project of this list, then, is to do just that: to take history into our own hands, and make it ourselves.

Copyright NPR 2019.

Related:

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news