End of the decade: women in 2010s pop music

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As the 2010s come to an end, major publications are weighing in to give their takes on the best music of the decade. When looking at the music that filled the decade, one may notice that some of the most enduring hits were made by women.

This is backed by decade-end numbers for album sales, in which Taylor Swift sits atop the likes of fellow heavyweights Drake and Ed Sheeran, selling an estimated 32.5 million albums. Also featured on the list are Adele and Lady Gaga, having sold 23.3 million and 8.1 million albums, respectively.

While numbers are certainly an important metric of measuring an artist’s success, their cultural capital is essential in a largely saturated media market.

Pop music seems to be the one common thread we all share in the age of ultra-niche media,” said Dan Bashara, an adjunct instructor of media and cinema studies at DePaul “…But everybody at least knows who Taylor Swift is, or has at least ambiently heard Rihanna, even if they’re not a fan.”

There were certainly a great number of successful, influential men in the world of popular music in the 2010s—the aforementioned Drake, Ed Sheeran and Kanye West, to name a few.

In terms of cultural significance and enduring legacy, however, it is women of the genre who reign supreme. 

Much of this has to do with image. When one thinks of Katy Perry, they also probably think of her neon-colored wardrobe and effervescent aura. When one thinks of Rihanna, they probably think of her tough-girl swagger and aloof persona. And when one thinks of Lady Gaga, they probably think of her role as a provocateur, from her iconic meat dress to her showing up to the 2011 Grammys being carried in a large egg.

I also think pop music tends to be at ground zero for our contemporary discussions of identity and representation, perhaps because of how powerfully central the pop star’s image is, as opposed to a cast of actors, plus the overlay of fictional characters, plus writers and directors, as you have in TV and film,” Bashara said.

A common thread between popular female artists with the genre is the ways in which their work—as well as their image—has transformed throughout the decade. 

Taylor Swift began the decade as the darling of country music, fresh off her Album of the Year win at the 2010 Grammys for her sophomore album, “Fearless.” At barely 20 years old, Swift cemented her status as America’s latest ingenue, with her girl-next-door charm and adolescence-tinged discography establishing a clear brand. 

As the decade went on, however, good faith toward Swift began to decline. It seemed that the world could not go five minutes without Swift dominating headlines, from her series of highly-publicized relationships—and breakups—to her feuds with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

Swift’s metamorphosis seemed to reach a peak with 2017’s “Reputation,” in which she plays into the bad press that had followed her for years. The album featured a much more electronic, aggressive sound, with Swift appearing in dramatic black outfits in live performances.

On one hand, it is easy to view Swift’s stylistic transformation as a routine tried on by many divas prior to her: changing one’s sound or style in order to keep up with trends. On the other hand, Swift’s journey as an artist can also be viewed as her coming into her own as a woman.

“[Swift] went from country music star, to bubblegum pop star, to angry sexy lady seeking revenge,” senior Madeline Mason said. “Her newest album, ‘Lover,’  reverts to that bubblegum pop star persona, but it’s truly amazing how she’s been more than one thing. But, she’s heavily scrutinized for it. It’s almost as if people don’t get that women contain multitudes, can be mean and sweet and kind and rude all at the same time.”

Ariana Grande kickstarted her music career in the mid-2010s, with her Mariah Carey-esque vocals and signature high ponytail being essential components of her image and success.

Grande’s career came to a dramatic turn following the 2017 bombing of her concert at the Manchester Arena. The attack left 23 people dead and over 100 injured, with a white-hot spotlight on Grande’s response.

Grande rose to the challenge, putting together One Love Manchester, a live benefit concert with a star-studded lineup, which is poised to be one of the most iconic moments of the decade.

Grande eventually became something of a symbol of resilience following the 2018 death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and subsequent breakup of her engagement to comedian Pete Davidson. Amid the personal turmoil, Grande released some of her best and most popular work, including the hit song “thank u, next.”

It is impossible to talk about popular music or culture of the last decade, however, without talking about Beyoncé.

Within the last decade, Beyoncé has transformed her image into an otherworldy icon, or “Queen B,” as her fans refer to her. 

This is in part due to her undeniable talent, which seems to have only increased throughout her decade-spanning career.

More important is the number of bold statements made by Beyoncé that demanded the world at large pay attention, from placing a large sign bearing the word “feminist” behind her during her 2014 VMA performance to releasing her self-titled 2013 album with no prior promotion.

“Beyoncé’s surprise – dropping her self-titled, visual album – impacted pop culture because everyone was shocked you could just drop an album without leading up to it with a release date,” junior Lesley Perales said. “It influenced other artists to start doing surprise releases with singles or albums.”

And, of course, “Lemonade.”

As one of the most strategically private celebrities alive, Beyoncé’s 2016 album accusing her husband, Jay-Z, of infidelity shook the world of pop music to its core.

“Lemonade” showcased a side of Beyoncé not yet seen to the public. While she had released a number of songs about breakups and men who didn’t deserve her, “Lemonade” made everything a bit too real and personal to consume without a second thought.

“Lemonade” revealed Beyoncé in her most human, vulnerable form, as well as showcased her love and pride in black culture with songs like “Formation.”

Beyoncé later cemented herself as the most relevant artist of the decade with her 2018 headlining Coachella performance being dubbed “Beychella” by fans and popular media alike. The performance was a celebration of black culture—specifically historically black colleges and universities—made all the more relevant by the fact that Beyoncé was the first black woman to ever headline the music festival.

“It’s hard for me to think of another artist after Madonna who has achieved such cultural power and who has shifted the public conversation so thoroughly,” Bashara said. “I do think her legacy will endure, though I also think it will come in for some re-evaluation; there was a period, the ‘Beygency’ period when it was impossible to criticize her, and I think that as we look back we’ll see some more complexity in our assessment of her. And that’s a good thing! We like to flatten out our pop stars and make them all-or-nothing images, heroes or villains, and it’s easy to forget that there’s a complicated person underneath that image.”

As the decade comes to an end, there appears to be a new crop of pop stars on the horizon, like Billie Eilish and Lizzo. These two seem to know the rules of the game and are sticking to a tight, identifiable image: Eilish as a morose, street-style adorned waif and Lizzo as the unapologetically loud, proud life coach everyone needs. 

When examining women in pop music, it is clear that a great deal of effort is put into sustaining one’s career and, ultimately, their brand. It is not enough for a woman in pop to have a good voice and sing a few good songs; their image is ultimately their empire. 

“I think female pop artists are held to a higher standard; they’re expected to sing, dance and write their own music when male pop artists are not,” Perales said. “For many of these women, it was expected of them to have a clear image to attract their audiences. Recently, though, I feel like these women are taking control over their careers and defining pop in their own way.”