2012 brings more of the good girls versus the bad in music

We don’t seem to know how we like them. With contemporary female artists, there seems be a spectrum of innocence and promiscuousness, and we sort of like to put a singer on one end or the other. The good girl charms us into adoration, while the bad girl shocks us until we find ourselves listening to her music just for the explicit lyrics.

2012 seems to bring more of the same.

With the release of her music video “You Da One” about three months ago, Rihanna has solidified her place as dance-pop’s bad girl. She grabs her crotch and rubs her hands over her body repeatedly, taking the seemingly innocent lyrics My love is your love/ Your love is mine and distorting them into something much more vulgar. Even though this behavior from Rihanna is almost expected today —she’s known for her “S&M” antics and for openly seeking trouble with Chris Brown in “Birthday Cake”— it’s important to remember that, when she debuted in 2005, she was hardly so promiscuous. Songs like “If It’s Loving That You Want” and, later, even “Unfaithful” show a toned-down but sexually confident Rihanna. But somehow, in between the release of Good Girl Gone Bad and Rated R, her image shifted completely, moving her from one end of the spectrum to another.

The opposite is true for pop superstar Katy Perry. When she appeared on the mainstream music scene in 2008 with “I Kissed A Girl” and “Ur So Gay,” fans expected her to teasingly challenge female constraints and sexual norms; if she wasn’t quite a bad girl, she was certainly more loose and unafraid than her contemporaries. But since then, Perry has mellowed out. Though she’s certainly not as innocent as Taylor Swift, the flawless good girl of the country-pop industry, she’s definitely not as flamboyant (at least lyrically) as she originally was. While “E.T” might give a flashback into Perry’s early days with a little sci-fi weirdness, songs like “California Girls,” “Teenage Dream” and 2012’s “Part of Me” harbor more of the generic comfort of a song that is catchy but safe. If we’re talking about growth, Perry, though highly successful, hasn’t really moved in the expected direction.

Still, even with the achievements of extreme artists like Rihanna and Lady Gaga or more comfortable talents like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, the highest amount of success seems to belong to those who can strike a comfortable balance between the good and bad, the chaste and promiscuous.

Beyoncé Knowles, for example, who has a total of 16 Grammy Awards, six of which are for her third solo album, I Am…Sasha Fierce, seems to have mastered this. The entire theme of Sasha Fierce revolves around B’s duality; disc one features slower, more vulnerable jams, while disc two features up-tempo, party songs. But even outside of her third album, Beyoncé maintains her classy but sexy image. Her 2003 songs “Naughty Girl” and “Yes,” balance each other out, while 2011 4’s “Dance For You” and “Love On Top” position Beyoncé as neither good girl nor bad, but someone independently in between.

The same holds true for country music icon Carrie Underwood. Though Underwood can destroy her ex’s car in “Before He Cheats” and complain about the late-night behaviors of a “Cowboy Casanova,” she can also demonstrate her spirituality in “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and show a little girl-next-door charm in “All-American Girl.” Her latest single “Good Girl” seems to build on that dual image. In the video, Underwood switches between a black catsuit with a garter belt and an innocent, floor-length floral dress, highlighting her ability to balance delicately between two worlds.

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with being one way or the other. But given the success of some artists who don’t seek to define themselves as good or bad, perhaps such strict roles and representations are not necessary for those who know how to produce good music.