Young female musicians resist the pop trend
By Elysa Gardner
|Nelly Furtado (left): 23-year-old mixes hip-hop and world beat on her CD "Whoa, Nelly!"
Pink (center): Gritty rock and hip-hop helped "Missundaztood" sell 2 million copies
Alicia Keys (right): Classically trained R&B musician won five Grammys
Keys, who just turned 21 in January, actually is one of a growing number of female artists in their late teens and early 20s who are bucking the bubble-gum trend that has mesmerized fans and frustrated critics in recent years. Creatively autonomous and fiercely ambitious, these very young women are garnering the admiration of critics and other music pros as readily as they're conquering radio and MTV.
There is Nelly Furtado, the 23-year-old winner of this year's Grammy for female pop vocal, whose double-platinum CD "Whoa, Nelly!" blends hip-hop and world-music influences. Pink, aka Alecia Moore, 22, mixed rock and hip-hop accents with feisty, confessional songwriting for her latest album, "Missundaztood," which has also sold more than 2 million copies. Michelle Branch, who is only 18, infused the pop-savvy tunes on her gold CD, "The Spirit Room," with gritty rock textures and candid introspection.
"Everything goes in cycles," says Branch, pointing to how the advent of female singer/songwriters that peaked with the Lilith Fair festival in the late 1990s laid ground for a subsequent onslaught of carefully packaged teen divas. "I think because there has been so much of a certain kind of pop music lately and it was obviously all about image kids my age were going, 'We don't care anymore.'"
Like Branch, Pink encountered some skepticism initially when she insisted on crafting her own material and artistic vision. "When you're a 16-year-old girl and you're trying to tell the president of your label that you know better than he does, it doesn't always work," Pink says of her first album, "Can't Take Me Home", which came out in 2000. "But I'm glad I had that learning experience, so that I could then make a really personal album and follow my own instincts."
According to "Airplay Monitor" editor Sean Ross, "Missundaztood," released last November, may also have benefited from more opportune timing. "Alicia and Nelly Furtado probably opened the door for people who were roughly the same age as Christina Aguilera but were presented as adults."
Changes in perception
But fewer women have garnered similar recognition so early on, for a variety of reasons that probably owe more to social and cultural factors than creative ones. What distinguishes this new crop of female talent from many earlier artists acknowledged in sporadic celebrations of women in rock is, in fact, more than just their updated musical references. The attitudes and goals conveyed by today's emerging female pop stars reflect changes in both how young women perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others.
For example, female artists traditionally have had to contend, more so than their male peers, with the prospect that emphasizing their sexual allure could throw their talent and integrity into doubt. In the '90s, new artists as diverse as Mariah Carey and Sheryl Crow took heat essentially for not playing down their looks. Even in a post-feminist era, there were a lot of men and women who weren't comfortable viewing a nubile beauty even one with Carey's vocal skills or Crow's songwriting prowess as a serious artist.
That suspicion does endure, as Furtado, whose wholesome good looks have been compared to those of a young Courteney Cox, has witnessed. "It was hard in the beginning," Furtado says. "Some people would look at the cover of my CD" on which the singer is photographed lying serenely in a field, clad in a fitted tank top "and see a young girl ... and think certain things."
Furtado feels that creativity incorporates "a new kind of feminism, where we're seeing girls who are talented and independent and confident in being beautiful in their own way." These women, she adds, are expressing their sexuality in a more earthy, comfortable fashion. "We're going back to an era where people were popular not because they put a fancy outfit on, but because they were real."
Tom Calderone, senior vice president of music and talent programming for MTV and MTV2, feels that Furtado and like-minded artists set empowering examples for his viewers. "They are who they are, and they don't have to put on a mask and be the babe in the video anymore. Young girls can see that it doesn't always have to be about a short skirt and dance moves."
When today's female artists do flaunt their looks, their fans don't necessarily see their actions as bids for male attention. "Today's teens see themselves as in charge of their own sexual power. Just because they're flaunting it doesn't mean that you get to participate," says writer Bettie B. Youngs.
Old attitudes die hard
Of course, young women trying to land record contracts can still encounter pressure to use their sexuality in certain ways. Singer/songwriter Anika Moa, 21, whose CD "Thinking Room" was released earlier this month, says that the music biz executives she met before finding her current record company "wanted me to show my stomach and my (breasts). And they wanted me to write a certain type of song that they thought would work on radio. But to connect to everyone, you have to write the songs you want to write."
Before Vanessa Carlton, also 21, signed her record deal, she dealt with suits at other labels who seemed more interested in how she looked and her willingness to work with backup dancers than the songs she presented them.
"There are these middle-aged men running the industry, and they're like, 'Let's give 'em what they want a hot chick!'" says Carlton, whose debut album, "Be Not Nobody," is due in April. "But you can be a hot chick and sing your own tunes. Sexiness is essentially confidence in who you are and what you do."
Youngs acknowledges she worries that very young women sometimes take for granted their freedom to assert their sexuality and to be independent-minded.
"Women are losing ground on a lot of things now," she says. "But the good news is that this is what generations of women hoped for that there would come a time when a girl could express herself and not have to explain it or expect to pay a price for it."
One of those girls, Branch, has a somewhat more modest wish. "I hope people my age are starting to get looked at as real musicians and songwriters. I hope there's a girl out there right now, playing her guitar for some (industry exec) who sees her that way. And I hope I've helped, in some small way, to open the door."
- From: Victoria, B.C. (via Portugal's Azores Islands, where her parents were born)
- Music: Smart, frisky, genre-jumping pop, blending electronic textures and exotic accents
- Mantra: "It's tough to be a woman and do your own thing, but I think it's getting easier. The struggle is to be true to who you are and never compromise your sense of self."
- From: Philadelphia
- Music: Hip-hop flava and rock grit poured over a solid, song-based foundation
- Mantra: "I think that we as women still have a long way to go. But you don't get anywhere by backing down."
- From: Sedona, Ariz.
- Music: Feisty rock chick meets earnest singer/ songwriter with a flair for sweet pop hooks
- Mantra: "In this business, you just have to stand your ground. The females in this business are all very strong women."
And introducing ...
- From: Milford, Pa., and New York City, where she studied at the Professional Children's School and the School of American Ballet
- Music: Lyrical, piano-based pop with classical nuances and folk-based introspection
- Mantra: "My album is called "Be Not Nobody," and that's my message: You need to be proud of your own skin, and never let a day go by without living each moment to the fullest."
- From: New Zealand
- Music: Postmodern folk-rock wistful and atmospheric, but with shivery edges
- Mantra: "People like Alicia Keys and Nelly Furtado get respect because their music is good and they can connect to everyone not just 13-year-old girls, but anyone at any stage of life. They're obviously in this for the long run."