When you think of pop stars, does old-school Britney Spears come to mind, snake draped haphazardly over her impossibly perfect Photoshopped body? Or were you more of a Christina Aguilera girl, grinding to “Dirrty” or gyrating to “Genie in a Bottle,” while she writhed around in crop tops? When it came to lesser pop sensations in the early 2000s, there was Jessica Simpson for the religious ladies and Mandy Moore if you wanted to sing along without your parents questioning the salacious lyrics. No matter what your poison was, there was a pop star to relate to.
Unfortunately, looking back, those girls seemed to be hyper-controlled by tastemakers and record execs. It’s doubtful that as teens they were given the freedom to create their own images without help from a label — especially since their images seemed entirely made up of what a forty-something man would want, instead of what a fourteen-year-old girl should aspire to be.
Whether social media is the bane of your existence because it makes you experience excruciating FOMO, or you can’t get enough of it because it allows you to stalk your exes regularly, it has connected everyone. Best of all, Twitter, Tumblr, and even Facebook (although everyone says it’s for olds now), allow girls across America to experience different types of music, not just what’s on pop radio.
Growing up in South Florida, I was surrounded by top 40, reggaeton, and a little bit of country. It was only later that I started to listen to emo, which, while relatable, had almost no female frontwomen (unless you count Paramore’s Haley Williams, who was a little too misogynistic for me).
There was Gwen Stefani, along with other superstar icons I looked up to and emulated (I mean, we did have braces at the same time, although my parents would’ve killed me if I dyed my hair blue), but they seemed aspirational, unreachable with their A-list celebrity status.
While I loved the emo boys — and not only for their skinny jeans, although I loved those, too — their music was about women, not by women, and it wasn’t always kind. Their songs were about saving women (see: Something Corporate, “I Want to Save You”), heartbreak at the hands of evil women (see: Brand New, “Jude Law and A Semester Abroad,” see also: their entire discography) or how women are the worst (courtesy of Paramore’s “That’s What You Get”). There were few female indie artists that a suburban teen could easily be exposed to, even in the days of Myspace, when it seemed like everyone’s garage band was on the verge of becoming wildly famous on Warped Tour.
In the last couple of years new alternative pop stars have emerged, and middle school and high school girls can find them easily on social media platforms, giving them pop icons that are bolder and less bubblegum.
There’s Halsey, the New Jersey teen born Ashley Frangipane, who used Tumblr to grow a following and eventually become famous for her raw lyrics and openness about her experiences. Her teen fans tweet that they’ve become feminists because of her lyrics. She’s open about her struggles with bipolar disorder and her bisexuality.
In “Is There Somewhere,” she says, “I promised myself I wouldn't let you complete me,” which is entirely different than the message in every other pop song ever. In “Hurricane,” she sings, “I'm a wanderess, I’m a one night stand, don’t belong to no city, don’t belong to no man,” which is the exact opposite of Britney Spears asking people to hit her, baby, one more time.
Niykee Heaton, an even poppier version of Halsey, has been called out for “thirst trap” behavior on Instagram, when the reality is that she’s just owning her sexuality and making people uncomfortable with that. In her song “Bad Intentions,” she flips the script — she’s the one with the bad intentions, not the passive victim — and suddenly she’s the one on the power trip.
Elle King, Tove Lo, Banks, and Rozzi Crane also offer alternatives to modern-day pop princesses like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. While T. Swizzle veers more towards feminism daily, she’s still not exactly discussing sex openly, and you know her label would have a field day if she ever went off script. Katy Perry is basically as much of a lost cause as Left Shark these days, flailing around wildly when it comes to feminism.
Artists like Halsey and Niykee Heaton are basically younger and more relatable versions of FKA Twigs. They’re musicians for the Tumblr generation, creating music that’s equal parts inspirational and realistic, but even better, they’re creating it on their own. Sure, they have PR people and social media teams behind them, but they’re singing, and saying, what they want for the most part. They’re creating a new wave of role models for young girls — women who are open about what they want sexually and able to express that.
I wish these girls had existed when I was growing up. While female musicians like this did, they weren’t exactly everywhere, and there was no way to find them if you only had access to top 40 hits. The rise of social media may have its pitfalls, but it has allowed people to find music they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
Music lets people feel a little less alone, and if you know there’s a female musician out there who’s speaking to you, not at you, it can make you feel like someone just gets you, which can be difficult when you’re an awkward adolescent. Tweens and teens today are lucky to have these young women speaking to them directly via Twitter and Tumblr, and through their lyrics and videos. They’ll grow up believing that feminism is not only cool but important, and knowing the importance of agency and independence.