Pop Girls Gone Bad To Save Their Dying Music Careers

Artwork by Max Kolomatsky

Artwork by Max Kolomatsky

by Nada Alturki

Let’s get physical. That’s how it all starts, am I wrong? Well, it did in this case. If your mom wasn’t cool and didn’t blast “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John and Elton John at every car-errand you ran together, here’s the run-down. Newton-John became one of the most popular actresses and singers amongst Baby Boomers in the late 70s and early 80s, and her name still carries the same weight to this day. She was the star of the movie Grease (1978), alongside John Travolta: the soft and sweet Sandy from Australia has a summer fling with a rebel-without-a-cause type, Danny Zuko. After the fling is over, they find out that they end up attending the same school after the summer break, and Danny realizes he has an issue being seen with a girl so “good.” Sandy decides to adopt a “bad girl” persona in order to be good enough to be with him. This sing-a-long poodle-skirt packed movie is an exemplary form of sexism beyond possible explanation, and it doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. Emphatically in the pop music industry.

The world of music has been a monstrous, ever-growing, and ever-evolving sphere. It has been an interesting ride for the most prominent women in music currently as well. Pop R&B artist Rihanna has had one of the most interesting careers in music history, paving her way through the industry from a heartbroken-hearted girl to the “only [badass] (in the world).” According to Bianca Gracie, a writer for Vibe, Rihanna’s shift of direction with her Good Girl Gone Bad album (2007) acted as insurance for her long-standing career. “Just when critics were ready to categorize Rihanna as a throwaway artist who wouldn’t last, the singer proved she was here to stay with a single defiant chop of those Disney princess locks.” Although her debut album Music in the Sun (2005) reached number 10 on the Billboard 200 after merely a month of its release, it seems to be the least memorable of all her albums in retrospect. Her second album, A Girl Like Me (2006) sold almost twice as many copies as her first one in its first week. The album featured classic Rihanna tracks such as “SOS” and “Unfaithful.” None of those could really seem to kick high enough for #1 on the charts, however. “Umbrella,” the most popular track off her Good Girl Gone Bad album, got her there.

But the pop princess doesn’t seem to be the only one who has taken that rite of passage. Disney stars have been notorious for redirecting their path after they have left their sitcom career behind. Pop Princess Selena Gomez has taken her persona from the saccharine and wholesome to sleek and sexy in a matter of 4 years with her solo album Stars Dance (2013).

America’s Sweetheart Miley Cyrus had a more striking transition when she decided she didn’t want to be seen as the girl with the blonde wig and innocent smile. She left the best of her both worlds behind and started a new one, chock-full of weed and “Dead Petz.”  The world first got a blast of her new career physique in her 2010 Can’t Be Tamed album release. Besides the leather crop-top ensemble and ruffled hair that plastered the front cover of the album, the record featured risque lyrics about lust and sex (something that only seems natural now in mainstream entertainment media). The music video featured an “exotic” Miley-bird, trapped in a birdcage, to show what seemed to be an elite art exhibit. Cyrus explained to MTV News that the premise of the video is “about the core of 'I don't wanna be in a cage. I want to be free and do what I love.’" Her performance at the MTV Music Video Awards in 2013 created a national uproar at the seeming loss of innocence of the leading role model for pre-teens everywhere. Her sexualized performance in a bedazzled leotard escalated until she stripped down to her undergarments. It prompted a puzzled and shocked response from viewers, even more so when Robin Thicke joined in on the set. Cyrus was seen grinding on him, occasionally touching her crotch area in a humping manner. Although in retrospect, there is nothing wrong with her performance, it was a shocking transition from her “good girl” phase. However, after her transition from the “good girl to “bad girl” phase came another transition to “simply a girl.” And here’s to hoping it’s not a phase. It is also an interesting one to track: In 2010, her character seemed utterly curated. Although she was a subject of conversation, prompting new conversational content every other day with her antics, it seemed pretty disingenuine. The public seemed to be able to tell that she was doing whatever she was doing just for the sake of erasing the affiliated “Disney Girl” reputation. 7 years later, she goes back to her roots--quite literally. She let her hair grow and released her single “Malibu” (2017) after a two-year hiatus. The sweet and mellow tune features indie rock elements as well as some hints of folk-country. She finally seemed comfortable with the way she is seen and seen as the person she wants to be. Now, Cyrus is ironically predictable for her avant-garde and unorthodox nature. And although her Disney days are long forgotten, she still acknowledges that it is a part of her life and made her the person she is today.  

Taylor Swift is another prime example. After exhausting her girl-next-door image, she stunned her fans, and the rest of the world, with her Reputation (2017) album release. The ex-country artist implied through her “Look What You Made Me Do” single that her good-girl persona was basically a facade, and that she had to kill her off in order to get back into the game and retain her pop-royalty crown. This album is said to be a reveal-all, exposing relationships with past lovers as well as arch nemeses including Katy Perry and Kanye West. Her days of innocent love stories and waiting for a knight on a white horse to come along are long gone. Swift has gone from a sweet wallflower to a fierce and raging bull, stomping down anyone or anything that crosses a line. She is taking the “either kill or be killed” approach, and it seems to be working for her, for the most part. Similarly to other artists, she has realized that sweet and innocent will only get you so far. However, she leaves behind the good-girl persona in a different way than Miley or Rihanna do. They all break out of their mold, but she does it with a more abrupt nature. People were so used to her girl-next-door image, that some were taken aback when she she took a “middle finger in the air” approach. With every phase, she seems to be heading towards a more disheveled path, and it is unclear if she is in a path of evolution or confusion. As I have heard from many of my close friends, Taylor is too old to be acting 22-- that was 8 years ago. Objectively speaking, she does seem to have receded in maturity with her music as well. She goes from singer-songwriter, pour-your-heart-out kind of music, to EDM-driven, sellout, earworm tunes. The “old Taylor”, the one who let herself sing about heartbreak regardless of how “mean” critics can be, is dead; she has been replaced by a new and improved version, a one that is so hate-driven that she would “kill” her old self just to show the world that she can. BUt most importantly: to show the world that she is done with that phase of her life. She has lost the “relatable” element that expanded her following and made her so lovable in the first place. Understandably, though, that was her way of cutting herself loose from her “Love Story” days of innocence. It just seems as though she is in the same “corporate” phase that Miley was in. Only time will tell if she will ever move on to her more genuine self. But for now, regardless of criticism, she remains at the top of the charts.

In a world where women empowerment is a major theme that overshadows the persona of younger generations, it is definitely interesting to see how this notion plays out. Some seem to do it more genuinely than others: some will tell the world that they are no longer doing business with their younger self, and others choose to show it. Rihanna, Miley, and Taylor aren't the only examples in pop music today. Top-charter Ariana Grande has dubbed herself a “Dangerous Woman” (although, it is important to note that Grande’s career was never really dying). Is the adoption of the “bad girl” image the only way to save an evidently dying music career in pop music? According to the most prominent pop artists of our time, the loss of innocence seems to be the only way to keep your career alive.

WECB GMComment