Hey Ladies: Pop Stars Vs. Role Models : The Record Is it possible to sell a bunch of records and be an iconic female musician in 2010?

Hey Ladies: Pop Stars Vs. Role Models

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

When NPR began our series on what it's like to be a woman musician today, we surveyed over 700 women about their experiences and inspirations. Among them was 23-year-old Piper Kaplan.

Ms. PIPER KAPLAN (Musician): I don't know, it doesn't seem like there's too much to look up to these days.

BLOCK: Kaplan is a singer and bass player, and she laments an absence of female role models in pop and rock. She says she longs for the days of Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin. And that got NPR's Neda Ulaby thinking about American music's newest female icons.

NEDA ULABY: Ann Powers, chief pop critic of the Los Angeles Times, thinks Piper Kaplan is exactly wrong.

Ms. ANN POWERS (Chief Pop Music Critic, Los Angeles Times): This era is an amazing time for young women musicians, young women songwriters, young women who, to me, seem to be very involved, if not completely in charge of their own careers.

(Soundbite of song, "Bad Romance")

LADY GAGA (Musician): (Singing) Ra, ra, ah, ah, ah, roma, roma-ma, gaga. Ooh, la, la.

ULABY: Look at the charts. Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Kesha, Rihanna, Taylor Swift - young women have been dominating pop. Powers says she cannot imagine why a young musician would not want a career like Gaga's or Swift's. But Piper Kaplan remains unconvinced.

Ms. KAPLAN: You don't really know who's pulling the strings until way later, right? You know, until the biography comes out.

ULABY: Nevertheless, there are more female mainstream musicians with chart-topping careers than we've seen in a long time, says critic Ann Powers, even if their messages sometimes seem less self-actualized than some people would prefer.

Ms. POWERS: They are not necessarily making strong, overt statements about being a feminist, or about standing up for anyone's liberation but their own. And I think that's where sometimes, some women can feel disappointed in this younger generation of artists.

ULABY: But this generation can feel that cracking the charts means treading lightly when it comes to proclaiming feminist sensibilities.

Ms. MARINA DIAMANDIS (Musician): I don't want to cut anybody out - like males, for example, or women who aren't ready to think about those kind of things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Marina Diamandis says she's a strong feminist. She writes songs and sings as Marina and the Diamonds.

(Soundbite of song, "Girls")

Ms. DIAMANDIS: (Singing) Look like a girl, but I think like a guy. Not ladylike to behave like a slime. Easy to be sleazy when you've got a filthy mind. You stick to your yogurts. I'll stick to my apple pie.

ULABY: Diamandis just finished a U.S. tour. Backstage, she says she grew up in Wales, listening to American Top 40, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears. None of it inspired her to be a musician.

Ms. DIAMANDIS: That changed when I started to discover artists like P.J. Harvey and Brody Dalle - from The Distillers - because they offered me a way out.

ULABY: Brody Dalle and Polly Jean Harvey are part of a long tale of powerful women in rock, including Wanda Jackson in the 1950s, and the Riot Grrrls of the 1990s.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Critic Ann Powers.

Ms. POWERS: The fantasy was of talking back to the rock tradition, talking back to the patriarchy - screaming back at the patriarchy, you know? But that's not the fantasy right now.

ULABY: Our cultural fantasies and aspirations are reflected in our popular music. Liberation right now might be more about making money than fomenting a movement. And, Powers says, the meaning of female empowerment has changed.

Ms. POWERS: In a lot of ways, pop's youngest divas are career women. That's what they are. Taylor Swift is a career woman. She's all about, I'm a songwriter; I'm - you know - successful behind the scenes; I'm not just this pretty image. And I think that is, in a strange way, the new version of the liberated feminist - is, I've got my own thing.

(Soundbite of song, "Miss Independent")

ULABY: Getting your own thing has never been easy for women in mainstream music. Now, the industry is falling apart; it's even harder. Current women rock and pop icons reflect not only the culture, but the music industry itself.

(Soundbite of song, "Miss Independent")

Ms. KELLY CLARKSON (Singer): Miss Independent, Miss Self-Sufficient, Miss Keep Your Distance.

ULABY: What's surprising about Kelly Clarkson is that she came out of the completely fabricated pop machine that is "American Idol." Still, over the past eight years, she's managed to buck the male Svengali formula to achieve massive success on her own terms.

Ms. CLARKSON: I am not normal. Like, usually, people don't weigh what I weigh. Usually, people don't go against the grain as far as, no, I don't want this song from the most popular writer ever, and it's not because I don't like the song. It's because I would rather work with people that I want to work with.

ULABY: So how did Clarkson deal with mainstream pop expectations?

Ms. CLARKSON: You know, I come from a small town, and people always had expectations of what you should say, how you should think, and what you should wear and how you should be. And I've always just kind of been like, you know, whatever I'm happy with.

ULABY: Clarkson also stands out from many of her pop star peers in her resistance to hypersexualization. That's also one of the biggest differences between icons of the '60s, '70s, '80s and today.

(Soundbite of music)

TAMAR-KALI (Singer): (Singing) Here she comes, looking pretty.

ULABY: Tamar-Kali is a Brooklyn-based rocker.

(Soundbite of music)

TAMAR-KALI: (Singing) Here she comes, feeling fine.

There was a time where we showed a little something to get people in the room, or to get people to listen. And then it was like, ooh, look, a little something-something and then you were like, well, here's what's really going on; it's the music. And now, there is no what's really going on. What's really going on is the selling of sex.

Ms. DIAMANDIS: I was so aware of being sexual.

ULABY: Marina Diamandis, of Marina and The Diamonds, thinks about this a lot.

Ms. DIAMANDIS: It's really hard because on one side, it's like, well, I'm a 24-year-old woman and I'm not going to be like, non-sexual, because that would be a lie as well.

ULABY: In her videos, Diamandis digs through and upends the candy box of images and values that seem to define American pop culture.

(Soundbite of song, "Hollywood")

Ms. DIAMANDIS: (Singing) Oh, oh, I'm obsessed with the mess that's America, oh, oh, oh. I'm obsessed with the mess that's America, oh.

ULABY: Marina Diamandis does want to be a success here. But she says she's trying not to emulate the majority of other female pop stars out there.

Ms. DIAMANDIS: Whether they know it or not, or do it on purpose or not, they are letting sex override everything else, and I think that's a real shame.

ULABY: There is a place to find powerful female role models and icons in rock, and that's at the grassroots level - hundreds, even thousands of them. They're the counselors and coaches at the rock camps for girls that have sprung up all over the country.

Ms. SYDNEY RHAME (Vocalist and Songwriter, The Lock Outs): How's it going, Atlanta?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Ms. RHAME: We're dedicating this song to our awesome band coach, Emily Kay Foy(ph).

(Soundbite of cheering)

Ms. POWERS: I'm just hoping I'm still around to be writing about music when those girls are running the scene.

ULABY: Critic Ann Powers says those girls are coming up with a completely different sense of what they can do than any generation of female rockers before them.

(Soundbite of song, "Something More")

Ms. RHAME: (Singing) She wants something more. She wants something better. She wants something more. She wants something better. She wants something more. She wants something better. She wants something more. She wants something better.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Something More")

BLOCK: You can find out more about the musicians in this story, and our series "Hey Ladies," at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Something More")

Ms. RHAME: (Singing) She throws her book against the wall. Hey, you never know. She slams the door, runs down the hall. She wants something more. She wants something better. She wants something more. She wants something better.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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