By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
By Michele Eve Sandberg
By Abel Folgar
By Ashley Zimmerman
She shows no mercy. Audacious and unrepentant, she seeks revenge when provoked: the aggressive, emasculating Kate Gosselin of this bitch. She might just sport black nail polish and strut around stage — nay, life — wearing panties as pants. She. Will. Definitely. Cut. You. And perhaps set your bed ablaze and lie next to you as sparks shoot from her brassiere. The lady is a tramp, but she knows it.
In 2008, Beyoncé sang longingly of becoming a boy — impossible, or at least profoundly unlikely — so she could "put myself first and make the rules as I go." But the leading ladies of the past year have gotten the job done sans testosterone, crassly exploiting their sexuality via songs in the key of Angry.
The abused has become the abuser, the victim the victor — personally, if not commercially. While the scorned-woman archetype has always fueled pop, few have been successful and believable at selling aggressive sex as performance art. The few: Madonna, Janet, and the way-more-warped Lady Gaga, who, in 2009, was accused not just of being ballsy but of secretly possessing a penis.
A hermaphrodite she's not, though her blurring of gender lines perhaps makes her one in theory. The success of Gaga's late-2008 debut, The Fame, has carried over into this year via mammoth singles, absurd theatrics, multidimensional drag garb, and, late last year, a deluxe version of her debut (via the Fame Monster EP). She's consequently a mainstay on both the iTunes and (singles-wise, anyway) critics' best-of lists.
Why all the love? Because Lady Gaga is comfortable with the concept of Lady Gaga, even if you're not. Her way of shunning feminine ideals is to embrace them to a repulsive extreme. Just see that bloody MTV Video Music Awards performance, the restricting corset in her "Bad Romance" video (unfortunately giving new life to the ghastly anorexic-model look), and an underlying theme of surrendering your personal life in exchange for public adoration. Hers is the type of self-awareness most other artists — those who take themselves too seriously — unfortunately lack. Gaga's subject matter is serious, partly because she's not.
Silly as she is, her songs often attempt to bestow power upon the powerless: tales of triumph disguised within glossy pop packaging. Even as she's pointing out the evils men do (men-men, not humanity), it's countered with aggression and the sense that women can be just as conniving. Note how the male leads in the "Paparazzi" and "Bad Romance" videos stay oblivious to their impending death via poison and explosives, respectively. The latter, RedOne-produced single finds Gaga drawn to a toxic relationship: "I want your horror/I want your design/'Cause you're a criminal as long as you're mine." But she's also lethal herself while in pursuit of him — both a man-eater and -killer.
It's the same sick desire for torture that Rihanna embraced, except her bruises were real and publicly documented. After her tabloid-fodder assault at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown, she refused the victim role and instead attempted a Twilight version of her former bad-girl self: "While you're getting your cry on/I'm getting my fly on" and so on. In lieu of pounding pop-reggae anthems, her album Rated R opts for gothic overtones and dark, violent imagery. Her weapons of choice: a grenade and a potty mouth: "I'm such a fuckin' lady/You don't have to be so afraid." Meaning, you so should be.
As with Gaga, Rihanna's visuals complete the narrative: bondage gear, spikes, and barbed wire recast as empowering fashion statements.Too bad it hasn't really worked. Blame it on both the lack of hard-hitting singles and a visual aesthetic deemed too risqué (read: disturbing) for the broad pop crowd whose attention she captured with her first edgy makeover. More naughty than threatening back then, she wielded an umbrella, not a grenade, and watched her album sales more than double. But this new Rihanna, unlike Gaga, is simply lethal, without the arsenal of radio bangers to back it up.
As bad as "Obsessed" — detailing her battle with an obsessive stalker we'll call "Creminem" — truly was, that failed Mariah Carey single was as entertaining as ever. It's a shame her Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel went primarily unnoticed on account of a poor first impression. There was no glorious emancipation this time and nothing newly appealing about Mariah's personal life (sorry, Nick), especially for those already turned off by her slutty-sloppy act and newfound menace.
Still, payback is a consistent thread on Memoirs, its romantic odes often undercut by idle threats and hostilities. Consider the album's caught-you-cheating-now-I'm-gonna-kill-you-haha intro: "Go to sleep and I'll be fine/But if you only knew what was in the back of my mind/You already stuntin' but you really gon' find out in time." Carey stopped acting like a schoolgirl for once, offering the perspective of a woman who's been through some things... and will now proceed to cut you.
Actual schoolgirl innocence has been bliss for Taylor Swift, the red-state sweetheart made all the more innocent by Kanye West's interrupting-cow bit at the MTV Video Music Awards. (The incident even managed to overshadow Gaga's own bloody theatrics.) Straight from the school of Mad Men's Peggy Olson, Swift commands attention through virtuosity, not sexuality, her teen rebellion cloaked in giddy couplets. By casting herself as Juliet in the blissful "Love Story," she reduced a Shakespearean tragedy to a dreamy, doe-eyed lunchroom crush: "Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone/I'll be waiting, all that's left to do is run/You'll be the prince and I'll be the princess."
Does she know what she's doing? Not really. At just age 20, she's merely playing to her strengths. But Swift, like Peggy, is increasingly aware of her power. She certainly owns the coyness, as was evident during her Saturday Night Live opening monologue, wherein she (adorably) sang "I like writing songs about douchebags who cheat on me" and referenced "that guy, Joe [Jonas, you'll recall], who broke up with me on the phone." She even offered a quick shoutout: "Hey, Joe, I'm doing real well." It's true, Joe. Swift had a great year, the alpha female in sales and accolades if not aggression.
We know that most of America prefers its pop stars provocative. It's the reason Madonna and Janet and now Lady Gaga found success as sex goddesses constantly offending the status quo. But the constant in those cases is great songs — sexuality is secondary, though it's made to seem prime. Because there's a thin line between dangerous and domineering: Gaga straddles it, Rihanna crossed it, Mariah's just happy to be there, and Taylor has no use for it. (Yet.)
A woman in control of her surroundings shouldn't be jarring, and yet she inevitably is: We're all still apprehensive, whether she's a villainous pop queen or a harmless country star (or a first lady as feisty as her husband). Ultimately, Gaga and her ilk, by suggesting that women can be both helpless and supremely powerful, are slowly peeling off the layers, until all that's left is panties.