Best of 2014

Tay and Bey shifted the zeitgeist. Let's discuss.

Looking back on a watershed year for women in pop music

Singer Taylor Swift performs during the annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in New York

Colin Horgan looks back on a banner year for women in music, as part of our Best of 2014 web series on the year in arts and culture. 

I’m going to tell you why I like Taylor Swift, and why I’m not the only one.

For years, Swift built her popularity around rather treacly, clichéd lyrics about high school love affairs and, although that in itself was immensely popular, it wasn’t a shock to anyone if a 31-year-old heterosexual man didn’t buy it. But now, things are different. Men like me are singing along with Swift. In November, Vulture talked to a bunch of them. I noticed this, too, when I tweeted that I’d spent a large amount of time listening to Swift’s new record, 1989. I heard from guys who confessed to the same; Swift was also on high rotation for them.

It was similar in the weeks following the surprise release of Beyoncé’s self-titled, fifth, full-length album last December, even though, on it, Beyoncé explores her own maturing sexuality, the complications of marriage, and miscarriage—in other words, not the kind of thing men my age stereotypically enjoy. (Or, at least, not the sort of thing they’d admit to enjoying without dismissing said enjoyment, and blaming knowledge of its existence on the girlfriend/wife with a “what-can-I-do; that-s–t’s-on-all-the-time” shrug.)

Now, men liking women artists is not unheard of. Joni Mitchell, Sleater Kinney, Norah Jones, Tegan and Sara—there is a long list who’ve attracted cohorts of male fans. But, with a few exceptions, they’ve retained majority-woman fan bases. The idea that fraternity brothers would create a lip-sync video to a Joni Mitchell song, clearly enjoying it a lot, and post it online for thousands to see, is a stretch of the imagination. Now? It happens with Swift’s songs. When I went to a Miley Cyrus concert this year, I didn’t see dads; I saw bros.

Why the shift? I can think of three possible reasons, but one stands out as the most plausible.

Is it because of pure saturation? Swift’s impact here is well-known. In its first week after release, 1989 sold 1.3 million copies. That figure represents 22 per cent of all album sales in the U.S. for 2014. A large chunk of the remainder would be eaten up by Beyoncé, who sold 2.1 million copies of her latest (and five million worldwide). But if it were just about sales, wouldn’t Pharrell Williams, who sold more than six million copies of his song Happy in the U.S., or John Legend, whose All of Me sold five million copies, be the conversation-getters? Nope. Neither of them got quite the attention Swift and Beyoncé did.

Is it because the music itself is just so good? You could point to the people who collaborate with Swift, for that argument. Max Martin and Johan Karl Schuster (aka Shellback) helped to craft 1989, and they usually create some very catchy stuff. But Martin is also the man responsible for Katy Perry’s Dark Horse, a song that’s been seen on YouTube more than 700 million times and sold 5.4 million copies in the U.S. alone, yet still didn’t manage to place Perry in quite the same cultural space as Swift—or Beyoncé. So it’s probably not that, either.

It must have something to do with the lyrics.

Beyond what I listed earlier, in Beyoncé’s case, she tells us how Pretty Hurts, and follows it up a bit later with samples lifted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk called “We Should All Be Feminists”—including the portion in which she explains that: “We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You can aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise, you will threaten the man’ ”—before she goes on to give a literal definition of feminism.

Swift isn’t quite as blatant in her assessment of the patriarchy, but she gets there in a different way with Blank Space, a send-up of the way she’s portrayed in the mass media as a voracious, crazy maneater. To a lesser extent, the same message is achieved with Shake It Off. Criticizing the inherent structure that allows this portrayal of her to continue to be an avenue of seemingly legitimate inquiry is interesting, if not noteworthy.

How different are these two than the women who came before them? Lyrically, perhaps they’re not. After all, when we’re talking about progress in this case, the onus isn’t necessarily on women; it’s on men. Still, when Britney Spears sang My Prerogative, something was amiss. How progressive was a woman singing a song performed originally by a man known mostly for beating his wife? To be blunt, Britney or Christina Aguilera always felt like someone else’s product. Swift, Beyoncé, or even Nicki Minaj, don’t. They simply exercise their prerogative, rather than singing about it.

While they’re not alone, it’s Tay and Bey leading the way. What Minaj, Miley and others say obviously counts, but the attention afforded Swift and Beyoncé before their music is even heard is the difference. They are not so much zeitgeist-grabbers as they are zeitgeist-shifters. It matters what they have to say, for everyone, from young women to grown men. That they reached the former was always assumed. That they’re reaching the latter with the exact same message wasn’t. Yet, they are.

At this juncture, you could say I’m ruining everything by placing the success these women have enjoyed back into the very patriarchal structure from which they are both, to varying degrees, looking to depart. That is, focusing on Swift and Beyoncé’s ability to break an anecdotal barrier wherein their music is suddenly openly enjoyed by a bunch of guys I know unfairly reframes and re-contextualizes what should be success in and of itself, as success, because men say so. I get that.

And yet …

The year 2014 was empirically a good year for women in music. For the first time in its 56-year history, Billboard had five women occupying the top five spots on its “Hot 100” list for six consecutive weeks. That didn’t happen in the Madonna era. It didn’t happen in the Britney age. There must be a reason it happened this time.

I’m guessing I heard from other guys about the Beyoncé and Taylor Swift albums, not because they were at the top of Billboard, or because they had a lot of hits on YouTube, or were on the radio a lot. I’m guessing we all like the albums for the exact same reasons our girlfriends, sisters and wives do: We like what they’re singing about. Personally, I like Taylor Swift because she sings about themes I generally enjoy in pop music: love, loss, uncertainty about the future. I like Holy Ground. I love Clean. I like Beyoncé for the same reasons, but even more so, because she adheres less to formulaic pop structure and is a bit more existential in places. My iTunes tells me I’ve listened to Rocket and XO hundreds of times each.

Taken as individual cases, men openly accepting these two women might not mean much—just a bit of enjoyment of pop music—but, taken all together, that collective empathy and identification with what these women are saying seems significant. For lack of a better term, it signals a shift in the zeitgeist.

So, what will that mean? If nothing else, it may simply mean that, after 2014, we will never have anyone again look back each year and remark just how great a 12 months it was for women in music. As it always has been for men, that success will seem entirely unremarkable.

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