In the popular music world, there lives a phenomenon which never ceases to enthrall the nation. It’s young and innocent, it’s pretty and with the help of auto-tune, it has a decent voice. It takes the country by storm. As soon as one loses popularity, another re-spawns to take its place. It is, of course, the teen pop star.
At some point, a switch flips in most teenage girls’ brains, triggering a desperate desire to prove one’s womanhood and shun the label of little girl. For most, this means a round of bra shopping and wearing lipstick for the first time. For pop stars, though, it often means diving head-first into a sea of alcohol, leather and terrible music.
Historically, when a young musician decides she needs to grow up, the definition of “mature” goes right over her head, as she loses all sense of class in her attempt to forge a new identity.
Britney Spears was the spearhead of teen pop revival in the ‘90s, filling the void left when musicians like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany lost popularity.
Perhaps her most iconic song, “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” made the number one slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and held its ground near the top for 32 weeks, while tracks like “Oops!… I Did It Again” made it to the top 10. These were her golden years, or the “good girl” stage. As Spears said herself, she wasn’t that innocent; the school girl look from the “Hit Me Baby” video mixed sexy and sweet in the creepiest possible way. Still, she was portrayed to the public as a spunky yet naïve all-American girl, the epitome of youth.
However, after the aforementioned switch flipped, she mutated from America’s sweetheart to its blow-up doll. Even as her personal life fell to pieces and the world watched, she released more and more sexually charged albums in a frantic attempt to stay in the spotlight. The sex appeal was present even in Spears’ early work, but the music produced in her many attempted comebacks, such as “Toxic” and “I’m a Slave 4 U,” simply shows her clamoring for sexual attention, not to mention setting feminism back a few decades. Her music has become irrelevant, lost in the turmoil of her publicity stunts, yet she keeps coming out with more.
Surprisingly, Spears’ downward spiral wasn’t enough to deter future starlets from posturing themselves as sluts in hopes of receiving a brighter spotlight.
Remember Rihanna in 2005? Her debut single “Pon De Replay,” a dance mix featuring the singer’s signature Barbadian influences, made number two on Billboard’s Hot 100. While not exactly virginal in her early career, Rihanna was cute and fun-loving. Now, she markets herself strictly as a sexual object. Her provocative image, not her musical talent, is what makes her famous; her 2010 album Loud was only notable for its shock value with the hit song “S&M,” which celebrates the young singer’s sexual kinks.
Her music hasn’t improved in the past year, either. In her 2011 single “Birthday Cake,” Rihanna sings, “I know you wanna bite this / It’s so enticin’ / Nothing else like this / I’ma make you my bitch.” In what way is such lack of substance mature? The only thought her music inspires is simply, “Gross.”
Talk That Talk, the album featuring “Birthday Cake,” recently received the honor of having the lowest sales in history for a number one album, according to MusicWeek. Apparently, though the world continues to find Rihanna’s singles catchy, the albums don’t have the staying power to make them worthy of actual purchase.
Miley Cyrus is another perfect example of a starlet turned skank. She started out with a much more innocent appearance than Rihanna did – what else would you expect from someone whose image was controlled by Disney? But like so many Disney Channel stars before her, Cyrus went overboard when she tried to break out of that shell.
The tattoos, the nude pictures, and the pixie cut that was poorly imitated from other celebrities all seem to show that Cyrus will do anything for attention. Almost overnight, she went from being the goofy, relatable character on her TV series to flaunting her sexuality like only an image-conscious teenager can.
For example, in 2010, when Cyrus was 17, two incidents sparked the fire of her transformation. First, at the Teen Choice Awards, she infamously danced on a stripper pole while performing “Party In The U.S.A.” Then, the music video for “Can’t Be Tamed” was released. The lyrics explain that Cyrus is an individual who can be neither tamed, blamed, nor changed, while the controversial video features the singer dressed as a skimpily clad bird that breaks free of its cage. The video is so melodramatic, so superficially symbolic, that it perfectly defines a teenager trying too hard to appear grown up.
Cyrus seems to be in denial about how drastic her transformation is. She told Prestige, “Every 18-year-old explores sexuality and experiments and tries things,” and said to the Associated Press, “I feel more comfortable dressing with a little less, which is just how I’ve always been.” She completely denies that she’s going through the same exact steps that Spears went through, which can only end badly.
The point of these transformations is to prove that the stars have grown up, but when taken to such a desperate level, they only prove that the girls in question are anything but mature.
Look to Madonna for an example of the right way to own one’s femininity. Though she forged a sexual image for herself, there was more to her than that. She was in control of her sexuality, rather than throwing it around to show the world how she had grown. Furthermore, Madonna created lasting, dynamic music, something that can’t be said of this generation of pop singers who are now attempting to become adults.
These women are supposed to be musicians. The best way for them to earn more respect would be to challenge themselves musically, pushing the envelope on their vocal performances. That would require talent, though. Instead, the music tends to become a soundtrack of sexual noises over an eardrum-puncturing bass line and dripping synth. It only serves as another way to market the musician’s “grown up” image.
You can be sexy while still wearing clothes; you can be fun without getting wasted; and, most importantly, you can get the right kind of attention without becoming a sex object or a joke.
For musicians wishing to branch out and redefine themselves, the music shouldn’t become the backdrop to a childish rebellion. Rather, it should be the priority, the means through which to show their growth. By writing more meaningful lyrics, developing a wider vocal range, or maybe even learning to play other instruments, a young musician can redefine herself in a positive way.