Three years ago, if you looked for me, you would find me in a warehouse in North London, surrounded by mostly twenty-something women, thrusting my arms in the air in willful mania while singing, “You’re so damn hard to please, we gotta kill this switch / You’re from the 70’s, but I’m a 90’s bitch,” rising to a shout at the last phrase. High-pitched and synth-laden, Icona Pop were a conduit for ebullient rejection of anyone’s expectations.
That moment, played on repeat in my apartment for months, exemplified a genre that unabashedly tapped into the emotionality of womanhood, particularly young womanhood. But many are surprised by the staying power and commercial success that “little girly songs” have had. These people underestimate how strongly the populist lilt of femininity can ensure their endurance.
This year marks the 10 year anniversary of Tegan and Sara’s album “The Con.” In a letter to their fans, they wrote: “The album was written about love, death, fear, and anxiety, and 10 years later we continue to be amazed by how much it touched people.” Getting its start in 1980s power pop with Pat Benetar and Cindy Lauper, girl pop hit its stride in the 00s. “The Con,” ten years later, has found itself in a 00’s wave of pop music that is light in sound but heavy in emotion—in company with Robyn’s pop opus “Body Talk,” Jenny Lewis, and Bat for Lashes, among others—that set the stage for newer pop artists, ranging from Carly Rae Jepson to Japanese Breakfast to Shura.
But typing “girl pop” into Google will fill your screen with think pieces and listicles with variations on the title “Girly Pop Songs We’re Not Ashamed To Listen To.” The idea that femininity and themes of girlhood are shameful makes the longevity of hyperfeminine pop like that of Tegan and Sara’s “The Con” radical. Prior to its widespread popularity, “The Con” was not immune from the shame factor in its reviews. In a particularly scathing and oddly misogynistic review from Pitchfork, contributor Jessica Suarez lumped Tegan and Sara into the nonexistent genre of “tampon rock.” Following that lede, in probably the worst piece of advice that could ever be lobbed at the duo, she suggests they drop their earnestness.
The stigma of “chick flicks” and “girly songs” belies their potential for mass appeal. Commercial successes like Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepson, One Direction, and Ed Sheeran rely on teenage women as their fanbase. And while One Direction and Ed Sheeran may pulse the hearts of teens, Swift, Jepson, and their girl pop predecessors—Tegan and Sara among them—are riding in the yellow convertible from “Crossroads,” singing Shania with them. It is exactly that bravery to thrust off the cloak of cool and expose their true, sometimes cliché, feelings that makes me want girl pop with me at my most vulnerable.
It is exactly that bravery to thrust off the cloak of cool and expose their true, sometimes cliché, feelings that makes me want girl pop with me at my most vulnerable.
In a scene that sparked a New Yorker think piece, Lena Dunham dances off the end of a day of disappointments and revelations for her “Girls” character Hannah to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” She dances, arms, legs, and feelings unchained, after tweeting a shameless rejection to the stigma of finding out a partner has given her HPV: “All adventurous women do.” The questions posed and assertions thrown on “Dancing on My Own” are as much societal as they are romantic. The song unabashedly oozes the unsatisfaction and search for the limelight of young womanhood that manifests not only in the search for a romantic partner but career and social success as well. Over and over, Robyn asks, “Why am I not good enough for you?” on “Body Talk.”
And as I get older, so do the artists that so seamlessly embedded themselves into my feelings. Their surprise that the insecurities and worries of maturity so easily slip onto their feet echoes my own. In an interview with Huck Magazine, Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan expressed surprise at her anxiety about having children, noting that she never thought she’d be the one to have those feelings: “I never thought I’d be that woman. I never thought I’d feel that way, but it does just hit you. You think, ‘Oh yeah, I’d like to have kids by that point and I’m sure I will’ or whatever. But if you haven’t, then it’s visceral. It’s like a physical pain of yearning to nurture something. It’s quite shocking.”
Jenny Lewis’s “Just One of the Guys” off her 2014 album “The Voyager” is a catchy anthem that asserts that this particularly feminine anxiety is why she’ll never been the girl that can hang: “No matter how hard I try to be just one of the guys/ There’s a little something inside that won’t let me / No matter how hard I try to have an open mind / There’s a little clock inside that keeps tickin’. There’s only one difference between you & me / When I look at myself all I can see / I’m just another Lady without a baby.” With one album, she captures the rollercoaster of romance, heartbreak, friendship, pregnancy tests, and aging.
The camaraderie doesn’t end with just voicing communal sentiment. In a culmination of the body politic of girl pop, artists like Cindy Lauper have used their songs to advocate for women’s rights. On “Late Night with James Corden,” Lauper parodied her hit to the tune of “Girls Just Want Equal Funds.” Tegan and Sara will donate the proceeds of their The Con X: Tour to their foundation that works for economic justice, health, and representation for LGBTQ girls and women. The stand-by-me nature of these artists’ activism isn’t lost on their fanbase. At Tegan and Sara’s set at 2014’s Firefly Music Festival my view was obscured by a giant cardboard cut out of Betty from “Rugrats.” Betty, whose everyday sweater was emblazoned with a female symbol on it, has become a cult feminist icon.
My love letter to girl pop ends with an acknowledgement and a thank you: These artists do not shun or deny that their femininity was part of their success, but shrug off the stigma of “girly things” to, instead, revel in it.
Author: Kate Ida
Kate is the co-founder of femchord. She combines a love for music and a masters in gender policy in her work.