Music, like civilisations, fashion and washing machines, tends to move in cycles. Generally 20-year cycles, interestingly enough. The rock-a-billy fifties made a nifty comeback in the seventies. The stoner soul and rock grooves of the sixties backslid effortlessly into the eighties. Seventies disco funked up the nineties no end. And the eighties – well, we know all about the eighties. Which brings us neatly to our next subject: girls. Just as music moves in sequences and revolutions, so gender differences have formed their own trends within the history of pop. While there have always been men and women in the charts, different eras have shown preferences for, variously: solo female artists (eighties), girl groups (fifties, nineties), boy bands (nineties), duets (sixties, eighties), androgyny (eighties, noughties).
But not even the cleverest cultural analyst could have prepared us for the current avalanche of female acts that have been descending like brightly coloured flowers on a pop landscape rendered increasingly dreary by derivative indie rock bands. The trickle that started with Amyand Lily in 2006/2007 and continued with Duffy, Rockferry, MIA and Adele last year, has in 2009 become a veritable tsunami of talent that includes names like Little Boots, Lisa Hannigan, Lady GaGa, LadyHawke, Lykke Li, Lissy Trullie and La Roux – and they’re just the ones beginning with L. We can add Fever Ray, Florence Welch (of Florence & The Machine fame), Pixie Lott, Bat for Lashes, Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle, Beth Ditto (The Gossip), Paloma Faith to the list. Finally, there’s something in the musical air that doesn’t smell of male sweat, stale beer, unwashed skinny jeans and Ramones T-shirts!
For the moment at least, this fem-powered zeitgeist hasn’t produced the flood of homogeneous music that can occur (particularly in Britain) when one artist emulates another in order to achieve the same success. On the contrary, while there may be a preference for eighties-inspired electro pop, most of the artists mentioned have carved their own distinctive sounds.
It’d be a defective techno detective that couldn’t discern the differences between the music of, say, Little Boots and Lady GaGa, or La Roux and Lykke Li, for example. Then there’s Speech Debelle’s weightless, confessional hip hop; Bat For Lashes (Natasha Khan) and her towering, eldritch goth-pop; The Gossip’s foot-stomping post-punk; Florence & The Machine’s soul-inspired indie; and Fever Ray’s addictive, melancholic ’tronica.
“I think people and the media were getting bored of indie bands,” claims Guardian Online Music Editor, Tim Jonze. “Especially as they were becoming increasingly contrived like The Kooks or The Wombats. Another reason is cheaper technology and a generational shift in which everyone now uses computers rather than just nerdy guys. Most importantly, though, is the fact that these girls are writing great songs, which has nothing to do with gender really. You just can’t go wrong with a good tune.”
This year, the Brits managed to land a decent list of nominations for Best Female Act (Duffy, Adele, MIA) instead of the usual paucity of candidates. And more interestingly from a creative point of view, is this year’s Mercury Prize, which contains no less five female nominees – a record, pop pickers! – with La Roux, Bat for Lashes, Speech Debelle, Florence & The Machine and Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan all competing for an award famed for championing niche sounds.
Surveying the current popscape, it’s difficult to shake the impression that the more ‘trad pop’ of Lily Allen and the like has been brushed aside in favour of a more edgy, vibrant approach. Not only are most of these current stars musically adventurous, they’re also seemingly more independently minded – a point dramatically underlined by La Roux signing her label contract wearing a You’re A Cunt T-shirt. And, it must be said, more style-conscious.
Whether it’s the androgynous look of Trullie, LadyHawke and La Roux, the outlandish couture of Natasha Khan and Florence Welch or the vivid hyper-glossed appeal of New York’s Lady GaGa (who is even influencing stalwarts like Christina Aguileira), a keen fashion sense seems to define these New Pop Fems as much as their music.
“The artists that matter most are the ones that are authentic with their look,” states La Roux’s stylist Nova Dando. “The artists that impact culture most are the ones that have their own mage ideas and stay passionate to that, so they are memorable over generations. Prince, Madonna, Bowie… all of them have constantly evolved their look. Although refraining from any stylistic consistency, they’re consistently creating. Therefore, I think it is important for female musicians to be true individuals who didn’t just dress themselves up crazy for a stage show, but inhabit their look from morning until night.”
While it’s difficult to imagine La Roux rocking her colossal quiff at the cinema or Khan popping out for a vindaloo on horseback, Dando has a point. Many of these ladies seem to ‘own’ their look. Or at least they don’t come off as manufactured as many nineties or mid-noughties pop icons did (and still do). The personal touch seems vital. “Working with Nova is very easy,” reveals La Roux. “We tend to like the same things and enjoy each other’s company. We met through friends, so it has always just felt really relaxed. After working with her, I really don’t think I’d trust anyone else to work with me on the look.”
Then there’s the fact that many of the current female artists are from the UK, Europe or New Zealand, thereby de-coupling the trend from the more homogeneous, restrictive (and previously dominant) Stateside industry. “All of these girls still have an indie’ feel to them even though almost all are on major labels,” points out Paul Tao of LA independent label IAMSOUND, home to Little Boots and Florence & The Machine in the States. “But in America that would never happen. Pop stars are put on pedestals and are icons to an extent, but not so much in the UK. Who knows why? Maybe it’s because the market is smaller, and press, radio and TV is a smaller pool so everyone knows each other?”
“To me, it just adds to whatever they are doing with their sound when the visual is memorable,” comments Dando. “It’s a way to see into that star’s personality as well as their music when you see what they look like and how they like to dress and project their sound with their visual persona. But also on a more serious business side, there is so much that artists do now in such a consumer market with clothing ranges, products, the whole package as a lifestyle choice, that it’s important to have a definite and distinctive style of their own. The way the music industry has been going is that people buy less records, but will still spend money on going to see a live gig, and this live show is something that cannot be replicated. An artist would be foolish to miss the opportunity of putting on a show.”
The current vogue for alternative, sassy, female stars does appear to emphasise the changing nature of the music biz. As Speech Debelle puts it: “The music industry in Britain is ‘no blacks, no females’ in my opinion, and when I say that, I mean in positions of power, anything else is for the aesthetics. Things change – so maybe they’re changing”
At a time when major labels – and even music magazines – are becoming less important, artists are busy creating direct links with their audiences. The MySpace/DIY generation of musicians, far from being passé, seems to be only just beginning. Simon Frith, chair of this year’s Mercury Prize judges, recently observed: “As genres [and infrastructures] break down, it means that women are not having to be pop stars of a certain sort. Somebody like La Roux, who creates fun synth pop, is not being pushed in a cutesy way… the rules which dictate what a record should sound like have been broken, so people can sound like anything they want. It’s much easier for people to make records without going through a whole series of hoops to get there. That means the people who are holding the hoops are losing something of their power. ”
“As an indie label, we definitely draw into the DIY/social media aspects of marketing,” comments Tao. “We are big believers in going ground-up when it comes to press and marketing – it all starts with fans who are just as passionate about the music. Lots of work with blogs, music websites, DJs and writers around the country that pay more attention to helping break new artists. I think another reason for this phenomenon is the fact that major labels are finally seeing that electro-pop, in the case of [Lady] GaGa, Little Boots and La Roux can actually make money, and isn’t just an underground trend. They are investing more money and signing more acts. With the success of Lady GaGa, as well as the fact that electronic music is one of the biggest driving forces in hip hop and urban music right now, people are just becoming more aware that this kind of music can sell records.”
There could, of course, be other factors too. Universal Music’s Hannah Neaves believes the recession could be a key influence on the contemporary fem pop movement. “I think the current economic climate means that people want more escapism from their music and art,” she says. “It’s been proven previously that Abba sales increase during UK recessions for example. People want escapism, beauty and fantasy to transport them, not something that the dour indie bands of the last few years provide in abundance. Girls do individual pop very well, and pop is in. And once one or two of them succeed, it means more will be signed and thus thrust into the limelight. It’s all cyclical though – it might be something else next year.”
But does this mean that pop girls are in and rock boys are out indefinitely? Probably not, according to The Guardian’s Tim Jonze. “People are always going to want to see great rock bands and there’s bound to be another four boys with guitars who come along at some point and change the face of the music scene. These things come in cycles, which is a bit depressing when you think about it, but if someone is truly great they’ll break through whatever else is happening. And if they’re really great, they’ll bring something unique to the table like the Stone Roses, or Oasis, or Strokes or Franz did, to the extent that it won’t matter that they’re another four guys with guitars.“