Pop Finds a New Spirit: Sisterhood
By Raisa Bruner, published on June 21, 2018 at Time Magazine
Bebe Rexha’s dinner party in Los Angeles wasn’t necessarily meant to be a bold feminist statement. Rexha, a singer-songwriter who has penned songs for Rihanna and Selena Gomez and will release her debut album Expectations June 22, just wanted to celebrate the female community she had struggled to find for years in an industry dominated by men behind the scenes—and by solo divas in the spotlight. “You never saw Britney and Christina hanging out, or Shakira and Britney, or Jessica Simpson,” Rexha says.
But at her Women in Harmony dinner, Rexha and her peers—including pop experimentalist Charli XCX, up-and-coming singer Kim Petras and country breakout Kelsea Ballerini—were happy to make new friends and swap phone numbers. The evening testified to a paradigm shift for women in music: this is no longer a moment of divas duking it out for a sole spot atop the pyramid. Instead, rising female artists like Rexha are finding new power in banding together.
It’s a recent change, a long time coming. “Women weren’t coming together on their own,” says Julie Greenwald, chairman and COO of Atlantic Records, about the ethos of past decades. She cites 2001’s hit single “Lady Marmalade” as a rare example of an “event record” that brought together Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink on one song. Today, though, those kinds of crossovers happen all the time: Aguilera herself tapped Demi Lovato for her recent single “Fall In Line”; Swedish pop favorite Tove Lo brought in fellow women Charli XCX, Icona Pop, Elliphant and ALMA to appear on her latest release; and Rexha was looped in with rapper Cardi B and Charli XCX to feature on a recent collaboration with Rita Ora, aptly titled “Girls.” According to Greenwald, the reason these features were once rare was due in part to a dearth of women in the marketplace to begin with: the explosion of music streaming has created more room for female artists to develop a following instead of fighting for limited airtime.
The other part, she says, comes down to consumer behavior. Instead of saving up to spend on one artist’s album, a practice that inherently encourages competition, today’s streaming model instead sees listeners paying a fixed price for access to unlimited catalogues. “It’s not like one person can afford to buy just one CD,” Greenwald says. “You pay one price for a month, and you can have all of the music, all of the time.” To get more plays, then, it behooves artists to work together and expose themselves to each other’s fan bases, neutralizing the old narratives of women competing with one another. “There’s so much good that comes out of the collaboration,” she says. “We all win.”
For Rexha, who grew up the daughter of Albanian immigrants in Staten Island and started songwriting by the time she was in her teens, the road to stardom was lonely—and mostly devoid of female mentorship. (She describes her early career as “all men, all the time.”) But now, she says, that’s finally changing. The energy of movements like #MeToo has cracked open the conversation about abusive practices within the industry and beyond, encouraging women to support each other more publicly. “It created this bond,” Rexha says. “It’s helping create this tighter-knit community, at least in my eyes. A lot of the girls are being warmer. I used to be more in my own lane—my own world. Now I feel a closeness.”
Perhaps no other artist has been better at corralling different voices into working together than Charli XCX. A British pop artist behind global hits like “Boom Clap,” Charli—born Charlotte Aitchison—is known for her punchy mixtapes, with tracks that feature diverse voices like the U.S. rapper CupcakKe, Nordic pop singers like ALMA and MØ, and Brazilian star Pabllo Vittar. “It’s fun to build a community around the music you create,” Aitchison says of her open-arms approach. “It’s good to have so much strong female energy around.” That energy has also translated into healthy streaming success, with her most recent mixtape Pop 2 generating 60 million plays on Spotify alone. But Aitchison maintains she’s not interested in strategic collaborations—she chooses these artists, she says, because they genuinely inspire her.
Tove Lo has also benefited from the good vibes in the air, and she echoes that it’s not just about sales. In 2013, one of the Swedish singer’s first releases caught the attention of the singer Lorde, who shared it on social media. That public shout-out was a prescient indication of the “supportive culture” that Tove Lo says she’s found in the industry from her start, when she was mentored by famed producer Max Martin, lived and worked with fellow Swedes Icona Pop and wrote for artists like Ellie Goulding and eventually Lorde. After featuring last year on Aitchison’s Pop 2, Tove Lo was quick to return the favor. “I was like, ‘This is so fun, why don’t we do this more?’” she says about working with friends.
Or consider Hayley Kiyoko, a rising pop voice with a particularly strong following among queer women, thanks to her early single “Girls Like Girls.” One of Kiyoko’s closest friends in music is her fellow pop singer Kehlani, who she first corresponded with on Instagram. “She had seen one of my posts and commented ‘MARRY ME’ in all caps, and was giving me love,” Kiyoko says. “We just started supporting each other.” That turned into a memorable duet on Kiyoko’s debut album.
This also reflects the way that social media has been an important engine of connections and public interactions. No longer do women have to fight for space in the pages of a magazine or onstage: they can show off their friendships and hatch partnership plans without record labels or the press playing the role of intermediary. Their narratives are theirs to share directly to their fans. “What’s been incredible about the last several years has been seeing women come together as a community and fight for their strength to be recognized, as opposed to being more individualized,” Kiyoko says. “It feels really good to be a part of that new wave of representation in the mainstream.” While she still considers herself new to her solo career, the signs so far are promising.
On the road, that spirit of sisterhood is equally important. Kiyoko chose another female artist, Gavin Turek, to open for her upcoming tour. That’s part of a broad trend emerging of women choosing women to accompany them onstage, like Taylor Swift’s tapping Camila Cabello and Charli XCX for her Reputation stadium tour, or Lorde looking to Swedish singer Tove Styrke and indie favorite Mitski in hers. It’s a marked shift: for Swift’s blockbuster 1989 tour three years ago, her main openers were rock crooners Shawn Mendes and Vance Joy. “There is a feeling of ‘Let me give back,’” Greenwald says, “because many of the bigger artists didn’t have a female who could help pull them up.” Now that they are in positions of power, their energy is being directed to help out the next generation. For her part, Rexha is eager to expand her Women in Harmony events; she imagines a songwriting camp and wants to mentor young artists, knowing how lonely the pursuit can be without a community to help you along.
The downside to this increased teamwork is that it may flatten out the soundscape. Kate Nash, a British indie-pop darling of the early aughts, worries that although the opportunities for young women to participate in the scene have opened up, the drive to produce work that is streaming and radio-friendly limits the potential for personalities to find their own space to shine. Still, she allows that the industry today has more women, a more supportive community and more freedom to be found. “I think it’s about changing how you personally measure success,” she suggests: you may not become the next Lady Gaga, but you can still make a living. “There’s not one way to be successful anymore, because everything’s changed. There’s so many different options.”
And in the notoriously cutthroat world of music media, too much ink has been spilled on the so-called feuds between Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey, or Aguilera and Spears, or Katy Perry and Swift. But Swift accepted a literal olive branch from Perry this spring with little fuss, simply posting a photo of the gift to Instagram. Who has the time for catfights?
At a New York City show the week before her album launch, Rexha strides across a glitter-strewn stage in platform boots and a studded leather jacket, swishing long, peroxide blonde hair. She always wanted to be a Britney or a Christina, Rexha admits to her rowdy audience. But growing up she knew she wasn’t like them: not blonde enough, not slim enough, not, as time went on, young enough. (She’s 28 now.) But Rexha says she’s finally O.K. letting go of those anxieties. She’s part of a more supportive generation of artists, women who know they’re more powerful together than apart. “This is a society that builds up this whole thing that we should be competitive,” she says. “But deep down, we’re all loving.”