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Rihanna, Taylor & Miley: Not their grandma’s type of feminism

December 12, 2008 |  5:14 pm

But it is empowering nonetheless. By going their own way, ingénues and tweens made it the year of the young and female.

Young women are often treated like the empty calories of American culture -- they're as hard to resist as a forbidden sweet, as guiltily denied and as easily forgotten.

This truism applies to this suddenly very serious year as much as it did in the teeny-bopper-dominated 1950s and the flapper-fueled 1920s. As the more significant stories of a historic election and disastrous economic collapse unfolded, the buzz in the background was often generated by undone ingénues and excitable tweens, from Lindsay Lohan and the Spears sisters to the fans behind the Jonas Brothers and “Twilight.” (And then there's pregnant Bristol Palin, now out of sight but not forgotten.)

The pop history now being recorded in year-in-review essays and lists are mostly focused on other forces: rock's commercial savior, Coldplay; hip-hop's new jack king, Lil Wayne; indie's sensitive souls, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. But in a moribund year for pop, young women provided much of the spark.

Katy Perry released the most talked-about single, the bi-lascivious “I Kissed a Girl.” Jordin Sparks had the sleeper with her Chris Brown duet, "No Air." Miley Cyrus transcended her Hannah Montana character with her summer debut, "Breakaway." Taylor Swift crossed genres with "Fearless," the album of the winter. In R&B, 20-year-old Rihanna was unstoppable, and 21-year-old Jazmine Sullivan emerged as the genre's hottest new voice.

Among critical favorites, retro-soul singers Adele and Duffy both got major Grammy nods, while teen singer-songwriter Laura Marling won blogger hearts. Bassist Esperanza Spalding, 23, made waves in the jazz world, and hard country warmed to Ashton Shepherd, who's 22 and already a married mom.


More than just 'it'

Pop culture has never wanted for "it" girls, but the authority these fledgling artists claim is a great sign of feminism's ripple effects. Swift might play a princess in many of her songs -- in fact, the best parts of "Fearless" meditate on the princess myth and how reality subverts it -- but in the studio she's her own boss, writing and producing those fairy tales.

Swift is exceptionally precocious, but cowriting credits are the rule in this bunch, and Svengalis are rare. Whether they've actually spent time listening to the Ronettes, the Runaways or Lauryn Hill or not, these women have benefited from their elders' hard-won lessons.

Yet if empowerment is a given for this new generation, it's also a hotly debated concept. Women born after 1984 are not only young enough to be the granddaughters of second-wave feminists, their mothers are the ones who took sides in the "culture wars" of the 1980s and, as Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton so aptly demonstrated, are still fighting about what it means for a woman to be truly on top.

The controversies that clung to this year's ingénues, whether fictional or real, represent a collision of old mores and new freedoms. At first glance, it seems that they've simply flipped the script on what "choice" means. Some, like Britney Spears or Ashlee Simpson, have married and become mothers at an age when their grandmas were burning their bras and their crazy aunts were getting women's studies degrees.

Others are ferociously embracing the beauty myth through breast enhancements and nose jobs or at the very least corsets and Playboy bunny clothes.

To women who've spent time in the feminist trenches, this mix of values can seem delusional or just plain wrong. It's hard to take in the tabloids and even tougher to stomach as a mode of artistic expression.

Bad Example No. 1 might be Perry. Her debut album, "One of the Boys," is as potent an expression of what conservatives are calling "new feminism" as anything Sarah Palin uttered on the campaign trail. (Critic Michaelangelo Matos connected the dots between the two in a September column in Seattle alternative weekly the Stranger.)

Perry's genius move was to use the look and feel of New Wave to express retrograde attitudes. Her lyrics trump up traditional gender roles, detailing her desire to escape a tomboy past and become homecoming queen or railing against effeminate, overly sensitive boyfriends. Even "I Kissed a Girl," which offered the frisson of sexual experimentation, tread back on its own message: "Hope my boyfriend don't mind it," Perry murmured in the chorus.

The singer's sound, however, is hiccup-rough and neon-bright, an obvious homage to Cyndi Lauper and Blondie's Deborah Harry. She's a rock chick with the heart of a housewife.

That's the edge Perry walks, just as Lauper and Harry planted their high heels on another divide. Those post-punk calendar girls explored how the sexuality of the pin-up might be employed to express women's independence and strength. Perry's songs explore how New Wave sauciness and camp might be used to fight against political correctness -- including liberal feminist values.

If young women suspect that feminism itself might be a trap, they're feeling no safer on the other side of it. Courage in the face of risk, and an overwhelming vulnerability, vie with hopefulness and sass in the music of these teens and ingénues.

It's the same blend that's made "Twilight" such a powerful franchise. Bella Swan's erotically charged chastity recalls the sexiness Sparks embodies, pulling back from Brown in the video for "No Air." Her belief in a stupidly risky love is as pitiful as the crack in Swift's voice as she mourns her own Prince Charming in "White Horse" or the sob in Sullivan's as she begs her man to take her back in "Need U Bad."

These are perennial adolescent emotions. "When you're 15, and somebody tells you they love you, you're gonna believe them," Swift sings, distilling the riskiest and most beautiful aspect of adolescence into one blunt truth.

In “Twilight,” Kristen Stewart’s Bella is tongue-tied and passive, but she bursts through her own walls once: when her vampire lover tries to break up with her. "You can't ever say that to me!" she sputters, with the desperate surety of a child who knows that both monsters and the knights who slay them are real.

Adolescence is the time when a person's convictions wage their first and fiercest battles with reality. For girls, the struggle is often heightened by the risks their own bodies present them. In 2008, when all of us are feeling uncertainty creep up above our necks, the passion and fear of romantic youth is all the more powerful. Young women's voices, like their fetching forms, attract us all the more now; let's hope we can take the warnings they offer seriously, along with the promise they still contain.

--Ann Powers

Miley_90 Related: Carrie Underwood vs. Taylor Swift CMA gown battle

Related: Grammys: Even without a nom, Taylor Swift wins big

Related: Miley Cyrus: Life in pictures (pictured,courtesy of Associated Press)

Related: Supremes to Destiny's to Dolls: Girl group evolution

Related: Tweens: Song by song, lesson by lesson

Related: Who's the next Miley Cyrus?


RIHANNA: The 20-year-old singer flexed her muscles in concert and her power in R&B. Associated Press.

TAYLOR SWIFT: Country princess writes and produces her songs. Associated Press.