Show runners: The women of pop”

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.


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