how pop's most iconic women reclaimed their seats in 2018
From Lady GaGa to Janet Jackson, the late career renaissance had never been more in.
Photo via Instagram.
Watching A Star Is Born this year, and the transformative power of its two central performances, my mind kept returning to a Huffington Post hot take from 2015 that asked, with abject sincerity, whether Lady Gaga was over. The piece stipulated that publicly talking about her own artistry and collaborating with noted oldie Tony Bennett had dented Gaga’s career, prematurely aging her out of relevancy. Three years later, with an Oscar nomination pretty much assured, and a static, even-stagier-than-usual 73 Questions video for Vogue, and endless repetition of the same overly-earnest platitude very much part of Gaga’s camp “serious artiste” appeal, the piece reads like something from a different universe entirely.
But the story also spoke to a wider problem that has plagued every big pop girl in the years when she stops hitting number one on the Billboard charts. Namely that people are quick to declare that they’re done. In music criticism circles it manifests in the form of hasty think pieces and wild presumptions, while stans translate it into mean GIFs, and running jokes. Anyone immersed in stan culture will have encountered gags about Christina Aguilera’s Bionic, for instance — the Holy Grail of apparent flop albums.
Around this time last year, observers began to question whether the #MeToo stories lighting a fire under the film industry would be replicated in music — an industry just as rooted in misogyny, slut-shaming, and persistent rumors of sexual misconduct. It didn’t happen. And tragically it has felt at times that the very worst of behavior within the music industry has only been emboldened this year, with literal child abusers heralded as kings.
But several elements of the Hollywood #MeToo narrative were replicated within music this year, particularly the way many of the women we had gossiped about or written off as has-beens were revealed to have been silenced or blacklisted by predatory and egomaniacal men, or unfairly dismissed by the rumor mill. In pop music, that manifested in a shifting cultural landscape in which raw, often legendary talent finally overshadowed the cruel, largely gendered narratives designed to minimize their individual worth.
Gaga has been the most visible comeback story this year, A Star Is Born reminding casuals that there was always incredible talent and creative daring built into her bones. Along with featuring a number of the year’s greatest songs, the Star Is Born soundtrack album is a perfect distillation of Gaga’s place in the world today, nodding to her creative history, while pushing forward into new and exciting spaces. There’s a little of the emotive country twang of Joanne in the euphoric "Shallow," the chilly autobiography of ARTPOP in "Hair Body Face," and through the lyrical cringe of the infamous SNL “butt song” "Why Did You Do That," shades of some of the less-refined bops on The Fame – an "I Like It Rough" tea, if you will.
Elsewhere, Mariah Carey emerged from the wilderness to deliver one of her all-time strongest records in Caution, a rich, vibey album that played to her modern vocal strengths and her strongest creative impulses. Lambs always knew Carey was more than a E! reality show or a misfiring New Year’s performance, but culturally Carey had been long undermined, magnetized to work that was beneath her and written about as if she were a cartoon.
On Caution, she takes a stand by declaring her eternal relevancy, tracks like "Portrait" and "Giving Me Life" playing like direct sequels to Mariah classics, but bubbling with a borderline sinister quality that feels decidedly 2018. It’s a tight, rich masterpiece. Additionally, there’s been a more visible groundswell of appreciation for Carey’s songwriting this year, her legacy of writing her own era-shaping bops so often unfairly discounted. “It’s something that I think a lot of people don’t give women enough credit for,” she told V Magazine in April, “unless they are known visually as someone strumming a guitar, or they’re behind a piano most of the time.”
A similar late-in-the-day reappraisal happened with Christina Aguilera. Like Carey, Aguilera had been waylaid for years by non-musical work that felt decidedly beneath her, while her last bits of musical output felt like faceless attempts to jump-start streaming-era success. Jokes at her expense inevitably followed. But with her album Liberation, Aguilera returned to her roots as a killer vocalist with an experimental, forever-intriguing artistry.
In hindsight, first single "Accelerate" was a ballsy, unexpected move — jarring, distorted, and wonderfully deconstructing of the Aguilera we thought we knew, while the album’s strongest tracks, among them soft, autobiographical R&B like "Fall in Line" and "Twice," carried significant and compelling emotional weight, the kind only a woman of Aguilera’s experience could truly sell. It felt so good having her back.
That reminder of “big pop girl” power was emulated throughout the year, in both pop veterans and relative newcomers. Jennifer Lopez’s Video Vanguard awards performance at this year’s VMAs condensed her staggering skill as an all-round entertainer into 10 incredible minutes, only confirming how often she has been slept on as a dancefloor icon, while Azealia Banks’s "Anna Wintour" was a resuscitating triumph, showing off Banks’s brilliantly unpolished scope as an artist. To enjoy Banks is to often have to extract her from the noise that surrounds her, but tracks like "Anna Wintour," and its genre-defying fusion of house beats, pop melodies and gospel high-notes, make it so much easier a task.
Rita Ora, too, mounted a furious pop comeback. For years she had been a pop music punchline, stuck in a record label quagmire and unable to release material, but strong-arming her way into every element of pop culture to make up for lost time. Somewhere along the way it became its own meta commentary on pop star branding — a big pop girl who barely released music, but was in movies and fashion campaigns and Tyra Banks’s shoes for a season of America’s Next Top Model.
After so many jokes, Phoenix, Ora’s second full body of work in a six-year career and first to be released in the US, was a comforting exhale of an album — building on the shimmering airiness of 2017 singles "Anywhere" and "Your Song," and confirming the entirety of Ora’s pop star range. And for all its vaguely queer-shaming controversy, "Girls," her collaboration with Cardi B, Charli XCX, and Bebe Rexha, turned out to be one of the bops of the year.
And then there’s Janet. Despite only releasing one track this year, the Escapade-sounding block party jam "Made for Now," Janet Jackson made headlines via a Huffington Post article that alleged her infamous media and radio blacklisting in the late-aughts, a gonzo punishment that still plagues her today, wasn’t a product of widespread vitriol over her Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004, but carefully engineered by one man.
According to multiple sources, the former CBS chief executive Les Moonves, currently embroiled in a series of sexual misconduct allegations that he denies, had for years perpetuated a personal vendetta against Jackson in the wake of that Super Bowl, exacerbated after she refused to apologize to him personally for the performance — something her on-stage collaborator Justin Timberlake apparently did. And while Timberlake flourished, even returning to the Super Bowl this year as the headliner of its halftime show, Jackson stalled. The grudge reportedly went so far that Moonves reportedly raged over the publication of a Janet self-help book by CBS affiliate Simon & Schuster in 2011.
Nipplegate was already a comedically stupid outrage, laid at the feet of vague representatives of the Christian right, but the piece alleged that its strangely sustained power over the years, that effectively turned Jackson into an industry pariah, was based on a grudge and little more. Wrote journalist Yashar Ali: “CBS insiders who spoke to me felt strongly that Moonves played a large part in how Jackson was perceived by the public.”
The Janet revelations only furthered the feeling of inequality leveled at women in the music industry. While we always recognized the unfairness of Jackson’s decline, she more often than not became synonymous with irrelevancy, the worst elements of standom making sure her smaller sales or new creative pursuits equalled an artist not worth talking about anymore. Similar narratives have engulfed Gaga, Carey, and Aguilera over the years, too — every underperforming album serenaded by mockery, or used to prop up the comparative success of others.
But the revelations about Jackson’s engineered downfall spoke to how little we truly know about the people we idolize; that the stories we hear about our favorite female artists, of diva tantrums, of “difficult” working relationships, of the flop albums and tours, aren’t necessarily spread by a form of word-of-mouth that slowly gains traction, but sometimes are carefully plotted and maneuvered into being by individuals determined to bring them down.
One of the great victories of this hellfire of a year has been that many of the women once mocked and undermined by music media and Twitter’s worst stans have emerged as survivors, producing work that can easily slot alongside the output of their individual commercial peaks, while still speaking to the sonic trends of today. In the process, they’ve made every person to take glory in a mean GIF or write a dismissive hot take hang their heads in shame. And those of us who knew the truth all along? We can just sit back and smile.