When I first read “Show runners: The women of pop,” I thought to myself, “Self, this is an interesting article. You should share it with the world.”
Before I began writing, I reread the article. I let it soak in. I started to notice a few things that, well, pissed me off, partly because the author, pop-music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, writes for the New Yorker, of all rags, and he should know better.
Thoroughly soaked, I realized that I dislike how sloppily and condescendingly Frere-Jones analyzes these women. The Guardian’s Kitty Empire sums up his approach nicely:
You could – and Frere-Jones does, to some extent – assign roles to these three singers. He’s got Adele – classic, mature (in sound if not in age) – reserved for the soccer moms who buy CDs in Starbucks. Beyoncé is America’s sweetheart, while Gaga is, broadly, for the freaks. This is a reductivist take, but let’s examine it all the same.
Yes, let’s. Here’s how I examined things:
Let’s get Adele out of the way ASAP, just as the author does. Frere-Jones begins the piece by listing the three women “who run the world of pop right now” (in terms of album sales): Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Adele. He then says this about Adele:
Her career is likely to be long, because she is selling to the demographic that decides American elections: middle-aged moms who don’t know how to pirate music and will drive to Starbucks when they need to buy it.
So ends the first paragraph, and Frere-Jones sets us up to expect further analysis of this trinity of powerful female pop stars. He doesn’t deliver. He only mentions Adele once more, and it’s to compare her record sales to Beyoncé’s. I wonder why.
The star of this piece is really Lady Gaga. His treatment of her is fair, perhaps because she is, as Empire says, a freak, so he can’t brush her aside, as he does with Adele, or shove her into some tired old trope, as he does with Beyoncé. After all, freak is just a blanket term for someone who does not conduct his or her self according to cultural norms, and it really doesn’t mean much without further explanation.
As for Beyoncé, Frere-Jones does offer interesting insight into what makes her successful. But he ruins it for me when he anoints her “America’s Sweetheart.” What is that shit? At best, it’s condescending; at worst, as a friend put it, it’s disempowering. It’s a term that is exclusively reserved for famous attractive women who are palatable to a broad audience because they aren’t outspoken about anything. That there is no male equivalent for the term speaks volumes.
Beyoncé has earned a better title than America’s Sweetheart. She is not a beauty pageant contestant; she is an entertainer whose work can speak for itself.