Off The Charts: Women in Music

  Tove Lo. Photo by abi.d on Flickr,

The year 2013 had looked, for a long time, to be shaping up to be a thoroughly dispiriting time for female representation in music. Robin Thicke’s ode to misogyny “Blurred Lines” was dominating airwaves everywhere and of the top 10 chart-topping singles of that year, only two (Katy Perry’s “Roar” and P!nk’s “Just Give Me a Reason”) were by female artists. At the same time, Miley Cyrus was prompting critics from every side of the political and social sphere, primarily due to a VMA performance that (perhaps knowingly) reveled in the self-exploitation of a former Disney Star. Taylor Swift’s Red unsurprisingly dominated album charts earlier that year; however, increasing attention was drawn to Swift’s dating habits, arguably simplistic lyrics, and public persona as a habitual dater. Even seemingly surefire victories, like Lady Gaga’s Artpop, were met with tepid reviews and lukewarm sales.

Then, on Dec. 13, 2013, Beyoncé, the whizkid supreme of modern pop, dropped her surprise fifth album, the self-titled BEYONCÉ, overnight with no promotion and no pre-album hype. Apart from being, easily, one of the strongest, most surprising albums to be released this dreary year for music, Beyoncé’s self-touted “visual album” prompted a web-wide discussion about the status of female artists in the modern music scene. Finally, after proudly announcing she was, in fact, “a feminist,” Beyoncé threw 2013 for a loop, providing the year of “Blurred Lines”’s chart-stomping success a much-needed feminist wake-up call. Critics were quick to point out that Beyoncé’s lyrics and music videos were sources of potentially problematic imagery and messages that stood in stark contrast to the feminist label she was now espousing. However, wherever you stand on the Beyoncé debate, it’s hard to argue against the fact that BEYONCÉ prompted a series of provocative and important discussions about sex, race, and capitalism in modern music.

So, where do we stand, in the wake of Beyoncé’s feminist call-to-musical-arms, in 2014? Well, if this year proves anything thus far, it’s that Beyoncé truly reigns supreme when it comes to shaping (or at least predicting) musical trends and ideology in the modern music sphere. Because, after the consequential outcries in response to Miley Cyrus’s 2013 fiasco and Robin Thicke’s refusal to acknowledge “Blurred Lines”’s inherent misogyny, 2014 is shaping up to be a pretty fantastic year for female artists. This summer alone saw the chart-sweeping success of a number of female artists’ singles such as Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” and Sia’s “Chandelier.” Elsewhere, formerly “invisible” female artists bubbling just under the pop radar finally found their way into the iPods of everybody and their mothers; Charli XCX not only scored a sizable hit with this summer’s “Boom Clap” but is also featured in perhaps the summer's definitive rap-lite anthem, Azalea’s “Fancy.”

Sia, the past few years’ hit-girl when it comes to singing and/or penning hot-topic choruses (Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones,” Rihanna’s “Diamonds), finally released a collection of her own, the fantastic 1000 Forms of Fear. The album touched upon darker themes of alcoholism and the destructive nature of fame. Previously forgotten, but no less-talented, artists like Kelis returned in fighting form, with her album Food sounding unlike anything else the “Milkshake” singer had ever produced (and, in many ways, sounding a whole lot better). Jenny Lewis, whose gently feminist video for single “Just One of the Guys” featuring Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, and Brie Larson became a meme-ready moment if there ever was one, released the focused, lovely The Voyager to high praise. Even controversial artists like Sinead O'Connor (one of the most vocal critics of what she perceived to be the music industry’s exploitation of Miley Cyrus last year) had a bit of redemption of her own, in this case in the form of the awesomely-titled comeback album I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss.

Lana Del Rey, who visited our own hub of Boston this past May, dropped her second full-length album Ultraviolence in June, a bruised, brooding, provocative and darkly beautiful collection of love (gone sour) songs which effectively rewrote what female pop artists in 2014 were allowed to say. The albums features song titles like “Fu**** My Way Up to the Top” and the echoes of domestic violence on the title track “Ultraviolence” (“he hit me and it felt like a kiss”) dripped with the deadly satire of American culture and ideology that Del Rey has become known for. Her story became emblematic of the kind of year 2014 would become; one in which the previously dismissed, in some cases savaged, female artist (Del Rey of Born to Die) was finally shown some grudging respect from the same critical outlets that had previously dubbed her, or at least her music, as “the equivalent of a faked orgasm.”

Boston is now lucky enough to be a host to a number of these interesting, talented up-and-coming “it” girls of pop. Lykke Li, whose album I Never Learn was released in May of this year, will be coming to the House of Blues Boston on Oct. 3. I Never Learn is a stirring though darkly shaded break-up album, a peek into what Li has described as the most painful break-up of her life. The songs, with titles like “Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone” and “No More Rest For The Wicked,” revel in the kind of pain that Li seems to wear as a personal shroud. On “Heart of Steel,” she croons, “Don't leave me dying, without a lover to hold” like she really, really means it. It’s a bleak, taut ride through her personal hell and she comes out of it sounding just about as you’d expect after a painful break-up: ravaged and world-weary, but with just enough reserves of strength so that the album isn’t a totally undiluted downer.

Elsewhere, rising star Tove Lo, a Swedish singer whose single “Habits (Stay High)” has climbed the top 40 charts this summer, will be performing at the Brighton Music Hall on Oct. 5. Lo, whose debut EP, Truth Serum, was released on March 3, has become the kind of potential pop sensation that only comes around every few years. Lo’s style fuses the pop hooks and seemingly inane party-rock lyrics of Ke$ha (“I eat my dinner in my bathtub/Then I go to sex clubs”) with a lingering sadness that transform the songs’ meanings (“I’m numb and way too easy/You're gone and I gotta stay/High all the time/To keep you off my mind”). The song’s accompanying video is inspired by Lo’s real-life struggle with a painful break-up. In its case, it shows the harrowing night at a bar when Lo realized she and her ex really weren’t getting back together. It’s one of the few videos to truly tap into the ways that alcohol dislocates us from ourselves; despite an array of drinks and make-out sessions with male and female friends alike, a drugged-looking Lo ends the night in tears, stumbling back into bed. “Die Young” this is not.

Even older favorites are back for another round. Stevie Nicks, the den-mother to any witchy, ethereal female singer to come out of the gates nowadays, will be releasing her long-awaited 24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault, a collection of demos recorded between 1969 and 1987. Nicks, who will be performing with Fleetwood Mac on Oct. 10 at TD Garden, has already released two singles from the album. The second single, “Lady,” shows off Nicks’ decidedly unpolished vocals as still full of character and experience and her usual lyrical inquisitiveness with lines like: “And the time keeps goin' on by/And I wonder, What is to become of me?” It’s a moving testament to an artist, who, since her debut debut album Bella Donna, has been blazing a trail for interesting, idiosyncratic female artists who don’t quite fit the usual pop formula.

Boston is therefore the perfect site for all influences, old and new, established legends and rising up-and comers, to come together. Because if the lineup of female artists visiting our own city this month has anything to say, it’s that 2014 has only seen the beginning of a wealth of female talent ready to make their way into the world.