Pop music came to a ringing conclusion this year: Girls rule and boys drool. The lasting image will be Beyoncé posing defiantly in front of the word feminist at MTV’s Video Music Awards. Its comedic corollary was Drake, on the receiving end of history’s most emasculating lap dance, in Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video.
This isn’t about proclaiming yet another “year of the woman.” Female-led chart pop has been the trend ever since mainstream rock’s decline — although it was a milestone when women owned the Billboard Hot 100’s top five for seven weeks straight this fall. More striking was the discourse: a self-conscious, new-gen, girls-to-the-front attitude that outfoxed stale masculine postures, as if in counterstrike to the sleazy come-ons of 2013’s “Blurred Lines.”
Consider the women whose names topped the charts: Minaj, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, Iggy Azalea, Rita Ora, Charli XCX, Tove Lo — most were unfamiliar to the public a year ago, but now they’re leading a definitive millennial-and-under pop takeover. They banded together on hits like “Fancy,” “Bang Bang” and such femme-forward songs as “Problem” and Minaj and Beyoncé’s remix of “Flawless.” Country’s top two female stars, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, partnered to threaten dudes with “Somethin’ Bad.” Trainor’s “All About That Bass” led the Hot 100 for eight weeks with a PSA for positive body images.
A similar spirit drove Swift’s 1989 self-update — less from country to pop than from victimized girlfriend to sassy mastermind, backed by her feminist affinity group of Lorde and Lena Dunham, and symbolized by her revenge-fantasy video for “Blank Space.” Meanwhile, Harry Styles, the rumored object of many 1989 songs, still travels under One Direction’s infantilizing “boy band” label. And then there’s Justin Bieber, whose immature pranks and arrests eclipsed his music in 2014.
This generational spate of man-child syndrome is familiar not only from Hollywood weed comedies but also Hanna Rosin’s much-talked-about article and book The End of Men. Pointing to young males’ educational deficits, she argues that traditional masculinity is becoming obsolete. But she also speculates the shift will liberate men’s repressed expressive, nurturing, cooperative sides. Pop made room for such men in 2014, from Swift’s soft-spoken bud Ed Sheeran to the leading new male artist of the year, Sam Smith. And in rap, Kanye West and Drake’s half-turn away from the hyper-alpha stance is being completed by the weirdo/emo-rap camp of Future and Young Thug (who sometimes rocks a dress) or, in another mode, by the fiery but sensitive Kendrick Lamar, Logic and J. Cole.
That said, just as End of Men has been criticized for presenting too sunny a picture for women, let’s not overpolish the pop-grrrl shine. There were still retrograde hits, e.g., from Canadian ragga-nothings Magic and “Wiggle”-demanding Jason Derulo. In Nashville, despite the efforts of Lambert, “Girl in a Country Song” protesters Maddie & Tae and others, “bro country” kept rolling, mirroring a sometimes dangerous drunken rowdiness at shows. Cee Lo’s sexual-assault case (and clueless after-tweets) and the charges Kesha made against mentor Dr. Luke reminded that male backstage power can be reinforced with menace. Meanwhile, women remain rare among top producers, helping sustain the stereotype that female acts are inauthentic “products,” even with creators so clearly self-possessed as Swift, Lorde or Lana Del Rey, whose Ultraviolencetopped the Billboard 200 despite its lack of radio play.
Such dusty authenticity issues are dredged up when U2, Bruce Springsteen or Foo Fighters (with HBO series Sonic Highways) set themselves up as guardians of rock’s sacred flame. No wonder the Internet burst into collective laughter when Rolling Stone declared U2’s spam file Songs of Innocence album of the year when women are reconceiving rock for a new century — from Lorde and Del Rey to St. Vincent, Jenny Lewis and more, not to mention Against Me’s trans frontwoman, Laura Jane Grace.
The 2014 feminization swing is not a literal end to musical men, but it does demand a reboot. Much as it might sting guys to admit, centuries of mansplaining have worn thin, and there comes a time to shut up and #listentowomen. Especially when so many of them sound so damn good.
This article first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of Billboard.