Oh, the unanswerables. Chief among them for me is this: Why do I always get a killer head cold right in the middle of the holidays, which incidentally coincides with my daughter’s birthday and the grueling production of end-of-year music lists? I write to you from my sickbed. I’m self-soothing with the space jams of FKA Twigs and Tinashe, two other breakthrough artists playing with the range of the female voice in this Year of Laverne Cox. You ask me what post-feminist pop would look (and sound) like; these Zoladz faves, attendants at the temple of lost R&B goddess Aaliyah—a primary influence this year, despite the atrocious biopic—offer one luxuriously soundtracked vista. LP1, the full-length debut by dancer and erotic conceptualist Tahliah “Twigs” Barnett, reclaims the perspective of the cyberpunk ingenue from familiar sources like Blade Runner and countless dystopian sci-fi romances. She turns this overglamorized figure both vulnerable and hyperaware in songs that ponder the shape of desire when it’s enhanced by biotech and expanded on the interwebs. Tinashe’s Aquarius is less psychotropic but still a rich exploration of the overconnected 21st-century consciousness. Her “Far Side of the Moon” sounds exactly like my brain feels after too many hours scrolling through multiple social media platforms.
Another significant take on the sound/vision of post-feminist pop came from the indomitable Annie Clark, whose fourth album as St. Vincent made most critics’ lists this year, including my home team’s. St. Vincent offers plenty of future shock, but its songs are also incredibly immediate and tactile, rooted in the astounding guitar pyrotechnics that Clark tosses off with the ease of someone doing something much more mundane, like opening a jar (or maybe hotwiring a car). Lindsay, in your Pitchfork review, you compared its effect on the senses to what happens when you microwave a banana. I think that’s exactly right. Playful and visceral, St. Vincent doesn’t transport us to the Matrix—instead, Clark captures the trippiness people deal with every day. And her proficiency in classic rock-star stuff, like guitar solos and running a crazy awesome live band, makes her a crucial figure: Clark shows people what a woman looks and sounds like fulfilling the traditional role of the musician’s musician, even as she does the other stuff we critics often favor, creating an indelible persona, relating her work to current sociopolitical concerns, giving great interview. Kicking ass as a musician and producer, proving that you can be both deeply nerdy and flat-out fabulous—and, incidentally, that your sex-symbol appeal can be grounded in that much-lauded organ, the brain—Annie Clark is an all-around role model. GoldieBlox needs to make an action figure based on her.
What Clark’s accomplished gets at the heart of how pop culture may become a genuinely gender-equal sphere. Women in front make a difference, claiming sexual power, embodying strength, and telling stories that resonate. But we also need to be in the band, at the soundboard, in the producer’s booth. Many of pop’s tough young queens are wielding more control than ever before over image and career matters—Nicki Minaj is a case in point—but many, too, remain protégées of male stars or producers. Iggy Azalea stands on her own skills but got where she is through the mentorship of T.I. The phenomenally gifted vocalist Ariana Grande calls her manager, Justin Bieber handler Scooter Braun, a second dad. Meghan Trainor devised her successful retro sound working with the seasoned songwriter Kevin Kadish. And Taylor Swift turned to the ultimate pop papa, Max Martin, to make the full transition beyond country. In most cases, these associations seem like real partnerships; Trainor, for example, is the one who came up with the famous “no treble” line that makes “All About That Bass” indelible.
But more women still need to move into power positions out of the spotlight, or to augment their shine by taking on—and getting credit for—other tasks. Most of my favorite 2014 releases by women were produced or co-produced by the artists themselves, from LP1 to Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Small Town Heroes to Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class to EMA’s The Future’s Void. Real barriers against women taking on such roles still exist within the music-biz culture that still largely determines what makes the Top 40; it’s a boys club, even if the women are standing in the window. I’m hoping that as the new generation matures, its members will make it a priority to take charge of all aspects of their music. Equality will only hold if it permeates all corners of pop.
This is what excited me about 1989: Co-producer Swift is so obviously engaged in her transformation on a deep musical level, eagerly embracing new ways to use her voice and structure her songs in league with the men she has employed. Whether the songs are about Harry Styles or some other convenient himbo, I couldn’t care less, and honestly, though I enjoy the “Blank Space” video, too (especially its satirical nods to Lady Gaga and Queen Bey), I don’t care all that much about Swift’s relationship to fame. I just like to hear her messing around so expertly, using the new tools synth-pop offers her to enhance that brilliant conversational musicality that made everyone love her in the first place.
I had a similar reaction when I first heard “All About That Bass”—this may be hard to believe, but I actually didn’t fully grasp the lyrics for a few weeks as it played on the car radio while I drove home from my kid’s school. What impressed me was this young voice expertly invoking the 1960s sugar pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lulu. That took smarts. Trainor’s Title EP reminds me, soundwise, of some of my favorite indie-pop clever ladies, like my beloved Jenny Lewis and Neko Case when she’s hanging with the New Pornographers. (In fact, any Trainor fans reading this, go buy Lewis’ The Voyager and the New Pornos’ Brill Bruisers immediately and thank me later.) I don’t mean to derail the important debates about racial appropriation and body-image competition that “All About That Bass” soon stimulated. But hey, fellow Twitter-based debaters, let’s listen to the thing, too! We’re never going to hit gender-neutral nirvana until we talk about women in pop as musicians as well as icons. One of my favorite tidbits of 2014 was something my good friend, the excellent Nashville writer Jewly Hight, told me Miranda Lambert said when she interviewed her. When she first started out, Lambert always insisted on posing for photos while holding a guitar. She wanted people to know that she’s in this game to play.
On the cover of her June release Platinum, Lambert breaks her own rule—she’s only holding open the door of her famous Airstream trailer. Maybe she feels that as the much-feted current Lone Star Queen of Country, she doesn’t have to convince anybody of anything. I find it distressing that Lambert’s rarely included in the women-in-pop overviews we journalists (mea culpa) endlessly produce, because her work is just as eclectic, assertive, and relevant to pop-style liberation as any bang bang more native to the province of the MTV Video Music Awards. Check out “Bathroom Sink,” my favorite Platinum track. No better song was offered this year about the beauty habits that keep women tethered to damaging concepts of a woman’s worth, or the way in which those addictions to age serums and self-laceration are sustained through exchanges between mothers and daughters, friends, and yes, pop stars and fans. Lambert’s not free of the game; Platinum’s title track is, in part, about how much she likes to dye her hair. But like Beyoncé (and I don’t think it’s an accident that, like Beyoncé, she’s in a very visible marriage to a powerful male partner, making her desirability unimpeachable), Lambert has reached a point where she can throw wrenches into the very process of construction that made her one of America’s sweethearts.
Speaking of sweethearts, before we turn to that sweetie Chris for some genius charts analysis, I’d love to mention a few male stars who played a role in reconfiguring pop’s gendered landscape this year. Carl, you mentioned Pharrell but dropped him quick—and I agree with you that Girl, though well-intentioned, wasn’t that memorable. But “Happy” was the singles equivalent to Beyoncé: a late-2013 release that made a huge impact for months following its release. I think it fits in with what Lindsay was saying about Kendrick’s “i,” preaching radical joy exactly when we as a nation—as a world, considering the splash the song’s viral video campaign made—really needed it. (Tragically, the response of the Tehran police showed the limits of such symbolic gestures.) Pharrell didn’t really achieve the solo stardom he might be craving, despite this smash; more like he had a great vacation in the spotlight. But his ever-so-soft persona continued to give pop machismo a cool androgynous twist, and he made a few moves—like enlisting older dancers for his “Come Get It Bae” video—that felt very Alan Alda. I’ll take it. However, he should probably leave the nonmusical political commentary to Killer Mike.
And then there are my two favorite Sams. One, young Mr. Smith, made a massive splash on the charts but was pretty much pooh-poohed by critics. I don’t really understand why. Yes, the arrangements on In the Lonely Hour were fussy, and the songwriting is sometimes openly cornball. But that voice—it’s a gift to our ears, angelic and verdant and still forming, which is exciting. Plus, I like Smith’s lack of posturing in performance; he really doesn’t know what to do up there except sing, and while I hope he learns a few smooth moves eventually, it’s refreshing to witness a major new talent in this unpackaged form. Smith’s prim attitude toward sexuality caused some controversy—he’s gay and out, but proudly inexperienced—but let’s admit that it’s groundbreaking for a new major figure in music to be out at all, much less to make a video hard-selling polyamorous relationships. (Yeah, I know, Britney did it with “3,” but “Leave Your Lover” is so tenderoni.) Smith’s so normcore, and that’s his power. I love the freaks of rock ’n’ roll and funk and disco, but in the Top 40, relatability can move mountains.
Finally, don’t sleep on the other new Sam in town: Mr. Hunt, the fastest rising star in country and a walking, crooning, formerly-football-playing antidote to the bro crap that’s been bumming out many fans of the genre in recent years. Hunt’s album Montevallo is a Southern combo like nothing before, blending R&B production techniques and hip-hop flourishes with straight-up Nashville balladry and Alabama-style plain talk. Hunt worked with Kacey Musgraves pal Shane McAnally on his major-label debut, and there’s depth in these songs, along with plenty of goodhearted fun. In good-time tunes like “House Party” and R. Kelly–influenced crooners like “Ex to See” (hear both on this EP), Hunt does naturally what the trucker-cap crowd has forced: reflects a version of the South that acknowledges its city streets and interracial friendships as well as its tailgates and Solo-cup soirees. He plays a taxi driver in the video for “Leave the Night On” He writes lyrics about letting women take charge of their own love affairs. This isn’t Jason Aldean’s dirt road.
Well, I’ve written all day, and my physical malaise seems to be lifting. That’s what happens when I take the remedy of pop, which even in a rough year like this still has the power to plunk down little utopias in the midst of our lives. Chris, it’s your turn: Tell us how this year’s confections spun out. I really wanna know how that Katy Perry song nobody’s talking about ended up at the top of nearly every year-end chart.
See all of Slate’s coverage of the best culture of 2014 here.