Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen & Janet Jackson: The Women Who Created the Best Pop Fever Dreams of 2015
When Ryan Adams covered Taylor Swift’s 1989, it seemed as good a time as any to examine the creation myth that dogs women in pop. Fans and critics alike are often inclined to believe female pop stars are dreamed up by men with vision, rather than daring to credit the artists with their own successes. That’s even true for major-league female artists including Swift, Beyoncé and Lana Del Rey.
Fans of Adams were initially inclined to write his covers off as a joke. But when he produced an earnest song-for-song take on 1989, listeners were forced to grapple with what it means for a man with indie cred to (in some’s eyes) deign to cover a young woman’s 5x platinum pop record. Often, the conclusion is that the male auteur’s rendition elevates material that’s just a cultural common denominator otherwise.
Adams’ rendition was embraced as highbrow because his status as a creator is largely accepted as a given. For women in pop, earning similar respect is an uphill battle. Swift and her peers are continually up against an assumption that they’re not the masters of their own art, but instead taking directives from producers and managers. When a man cherry-picks his collaborators, he’s praised for a keen creative eye; a knack for curating and editing. When a woman enlists producers and fellow artists to help realize her vision, her agency in her art seems to vanish.
The female artist is subject to all existing gender stereotypes, and to a straight man’s fantasy. It’s crucial that she remain compliant, demure and accessible enough that a male listener could envision himself dating her. She strictly sings about matters of the heart and, perhaps most crucially, she is still man’s biblical phantom limb. Pop’s current climate mandates that a female music star’s every move is made possible by some dude’s graciously donated rib — or a Max Martin production credit.
Three of the best pop albums of 2015 — Grimes’ Art Angels, Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION and Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable — were created by women who both recognize and reckon with that fantasy. They each created albums inhabiting their own unique dreamscapes which mimic and embrace their own myths only to debunk them.
Grimes both embodies and entirely undermines the male fantasy described above. Art Angels opens with angelic, wordless coos on the orchestral lead track “Laughing and Not Being Normal” before segueing into the sunny, cloying “California.” The album is full of moments like this, channeling every female pop star stereotype out there. Lead single “Flesh Without Blood” is a prime example. Grimes is sweet, girlish and just a little bratty in her “I just don’t like you” kiss-off. It’s the kind of pop mastery that elicits squinting and eyebrow-furrowing as we’re tempted to pinpoint a male mastermind behind its radio-ready execution, its ability to breach and make its home inside the public consciousness. The woman in front of the camera, as current pop convention dictates, is a mere vessel for that man’s creation. Grimes is acutely aware of this — it’s right there in the song title. If we are going to insist she’s just an empty skin for someone else’s art, she’ll embrace that image to its most extreme end. Even in the music video, she plays dress-up as a bloody Marie Antoinette and demon-eyed cowboy angel, subversively wearing the costumes we impose on her and other female artists.
But between all of Art Angels’ makeup-caked moments, Grimes upends the dream. She doesn’t give the listener another second to bask in “California”’s sweetness before “SCREAM” enters with its relentless, looping guitar riff. Taiwanese MC Aristophanes delivers verses in Mandarin that are visceral, honest and sadly bold in their depiction of female sexual desire, unraveling in ecstasy by the song’s end. In the midst of it all, Grimes dissolves into demented howls.
“Kill V. Maim” — a song Grimes said was loosely inspired by bro culture and gangster flicks — later exposes the dream in all of its falseness. She breathlessly flips between genders, declares she won’t behave in a cheerleader-esque chant and tells the listener he can’t possibly know her in a bloodcurdling screech.
Grimes revels in traditionally “feminine pop” only to travel to the brink of madness and back again on Art Angels — and she does it all without a courtesy warning, because we shouldn’t need one. Describing the album as having multiple personalities would be an unjust misread. It’s a single personality; women in pop are just so rarely allowed to be complex, multidimensional artists.
Grimes refuses to accept this. She’s not “a frail and silly thought in your mind,” as she posits on “World Princess II.” She’s her art’s sole proprietor, and she’s going to make sure you know it.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s origin story makes her great third album, EMOTION, all the more improbable. She was the Canadian Idol contestant turned “Call Me Maybe” YouTube sensation we all loved to hate or hated to love (and sometimes secretly loved to love). It also makes her particularly vulnerable to the “incubated pop star” trope. EMOTION’s novel-length list of production credits — spanning Shellback, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Sia, Ariel Rechstaid and beyond — doesn’t exactly curb that perception. But Jepsen’s whole shtick — the blissful ignorance of a crush; falling hard without concerning oneself with the reality of flawed, complicated human relationships — necessitates the sleek perfection her small army of collaborators affords.
EMOTION’s predecessor, 2012’s Kiss, doesn’t resonate in the same way, because it’s made up by single, fleeting moments: “Call Me Maybe”’s lust at first sight, the Owl City-featured PG-rated house party of “Good Time.” But with EMOTION, Jepsen was calculated in choosing her collaborators, and though they’re many in number, Jepsen and her team ultimately came up with 12 coherent, engrossing tracks.
To be fully transported into Jepsen’s dream world of pure-of-heart puppy love, she must convince listeners of her saccharine professions of love — that she doesn’t like you; she really, really, really, really, really, REALLY likes you. EMOTION succeeds, and it’s all in the butterfly-inducing details: dimming lights, arguing about boys with best friends over the telephone, running away together, dying in each other’s arms, promises of forever.
Anyone on the other side of 15 would probably roll their eyes at Jepsen’s John Hughes fever dream, but the nostalgia-imbued EMOTION and Jepsen’s bubblegum delivery make it all feel within grasp. From the hazy opening saxophone notes on “Run Away With Me” and “Gimmie Love”’s bubbling synths to the moody, shimmering “All That” and “Warm Blood”’s sighs and whispers, Jepsen whisks the listener away on her infatuation rollercoaster.
Meanwhile, the dream Janet Jackson poses on Unbreakable is the same she’s been chasing since Control.
On her 1986 album, Jackson stepped out of the shadow of her own creation myth — the one built into her last name. While Control established Jackson as her own person and pop force, she’s spent the intervening 30 years facing the very same sexism inherent to the industry (notably in her 2004 Super Bowl performance with Justin Timberlake, she was vilified for giving a hungry audience exactly what they typically demand while others let her take the fall).
“I had this great epiphany / And Rhythm Nation was the dream / I guess next time I’ll know better,” Jackson resigns on Unbreakable’s “Shoulda Known Better,” acknowledging the mission she set out on with Rhythm Nation is still the one she’s on today. Jackson has stumped for social consciousness and feminism via dance floor for nearly her entire career, yet it feels just as vital in 2015.
Unbreakable — Jackson’s first album since the death of her brother Michael and her third marriage — naturally fluctuates between the joy heard on its mammoth club bangers (the wry “Dammn Baby,” the Missy Elliot-featured “BURNITUP!”) and the work of a time-weary artist who’s seen just how futile chasing the dream of Control and Rhythm Nation can be.
But Jackson doesn’t balk. “Dream Maker / Euphoria” — which introduces the second side of the double-LP — is Unbreakable’s heart for a reason. Jackson still, resiliently, wants to “create a perfect place / without jealousy, abuse or hate.” Unbreakable delivers on this utopia in Jackson’s airy R&B instinctively handled by longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; her permeating giggle; the ascending triumphs that are the title track and “Take Me Away”; and the Sly and the Family Stone-esque celebration heard on “Gon’ B Alright.”
But Unbreakable is tempered with a pragmatism that’s unavoidable in time. Later on “Shoulda Known Better,” Jackson admits she doesn’t want to be “the poster child for being naïve.” She’s still after all those rose-colored tomorrows, but it’s balanced with the perspective of a woman who’s been after them for years. And that’s an even better dream because it’s attainable.
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