In 2013, the world’s biggest artists created an unexpected amount of innovative, provocative music, often forsaking tried and true formulas. It seems this innovation race is being propelled from the bottom, largely by an extremely talented new crop of female singers.
This group has been able to take hold at a time when the most exciting music tends to transcend genre. What genre, for example, is James Blake, whose most famous song, “Retrograde,” is so compelling because it is so hard to describe?
The lack of genre in last year’s new releases can be seen in upstarts and superstars alike, as evidenced by a wide variety of artists, including Daft Punk, whose album “Random Access Memories” can be described as electronic, funk and disco; and Miley Cyrus, whose record “Bangerz” mixes hip hop and traditional pop elements.
The increased “genrelessness” of the music industry is a democratizing force, encouraging women in particular to take on leading roles at higher rates. And nowhere is music more “genreless” or democratic than within the loosely defined classification of indie pop. Rather than being a genre in the traditional sense, indie pop can best be described as sounds that tend to appeal to millennials. It includes elements of traditional pop, rock, folk, electronic and dance, among many other musical styles.
When genres were more restrictive, there was less room for women to take more substantive and creative roles in music making. Rock and hip hop, two of the most popular genres of the modern era, were almost exclusive boys clubs, with a few notable exceptions, like Lauryn Hill and Grace Slick. Pop, on the other hand, has featured many successful female singers, but usually forces them to conform to strict musical formulas and a hyper-sexualized aesthetic. The “genrelessness” of contemporary music, and indie pop in particular, has allowed women to be more experimental in their work, yielding the most artistically interesting crop of female artists popular music has ever seen.
The mainstream began to feel the ubiquity of women in indie pop in 2013. Lorde was one of the most commercially successful indie pop artists this year, male or female, overshadowing Vampire Weekend, while critical darlings Sky Ferreira and CHVRCHES dominated music blogs. Lesser-known indie pop acts featuring female singers like MS MR, Quadron, and BANKS released fascinating music last year, and will certainly be worth watching in 2014 and beyond.
The demographic trends occurring in indie pop are beginning to be reflected in other genres as well. Singers like Janelle Monáe and HAIM, who can best be described as soul and rock, respectively, released some of the most original music of the year. The quality of music these women are producing is the engine that will force established artists, particularly the sorority of pop chanteuses that seem to have a monopoly on the genre, to come up with better music in 2014. We’ve already seen it with Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” and Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want.” Although this year’s most highly anticipated indie pop new releases are from male groups fun. and Foster the People, don’t be surprised if another Lorde single blindsides the competition.
It feels good to attribute the increasing role of women in music’s progress machine to improved gender equality, but perhaps there’s more to it. The trend also raises the question, is there something about the female voice that defines the moment in which we live?