“I don’t want to sound cocky,” 20 year-old British goth-pop upstart Charli XCX said in an eMusic interview earlier this year, “but I think girls like Grimes and Skylar [Grey] and Azealia Banks are pretty fucking rad, and I’m on their level.”
It does sound cocky of course — and thank goodness. Some of the most adventurous and infectious pop you were likely to hear in 2012 traversed not over airwaves but internet connections, thanks to a small renaissance of unapologetic, outspoken, web-savvy female pop artists congregating somewhere outside the mainstream. In addition to Charli XCX (who documented this movement in her aptly-titled zine, Shut Your Pretty Mouth) and the cohorts she mentions, there’s the scuzzy, deconstructed glam of Megan Remy’s solo project U.S. Girls; the slinky, R&B-tinged pop of London’s AlunaGeorge (whose micro-hit was the boastful “You Know You Like It”), and the electro-pop glitterbomb that is Swedish duo Icona Pop (whose gloriously hedonistic YOLO-anthem “I Love It” was co-written by Ms. XCX herself). Embracing the glamour of avant-garde fashion and empowered ethos of DIY punk in one fell swoop, these artists lead a charge to redefine what femininity looked like in 2012 — and what pop stardom did, too.
Underground music (and indie rock in particular) has a long history of privileging “authenticity” — an elusive ideal that’s often excluded female performers and rendered “pop” a dirty word. Even in the mainstream, though, “pop” often unfairly connotes something manufactured and artificial: performers who don’t write their own material and exude a kind of focus-grouped sex appeal. So with the music industry in a state of digitally-upended flux, some artists have seized this moment as an opportunity to break down those stereotypes. Out of a moment defined by viral videos, free mixtape downloads and social media-helmed charisma emerged a new kind of indie-minded, Internet-savvy pop star, one who doesn’t have to tailor (or in the case of Azealia Banks‘s late-2011 potty-mouthed viral hit “212,” censor) her message or her sexuality for mass audiences. These new tools allowed artists like the airy, Canadian synth-popper Grimes — who didn’t need a big radio hit to generate millions of views with her artful, eccentric music videos — and Charli XCX — who released two mixtapes of wonderfully bizarre, often genre-agnostic music as free downloads through her website — could cultivate a dedicated fanbase without compromising their visions.
Of course, plenty of male artists also benefit from emerging technologies, eroding stereotypes and the disappearing barriers between genres (thank you, Based God), but there’s a deeper reason why female artists have lead the charge toward this shift. Many of these musicians are coming from genres and subcultures still deeply entrenched in sexism: Remy grew up a lone riot grrrl in the male-dominated punk and indie scene, Charli cut her teeth in London’s electronic-based club world, and Banks has had to navigate the fraught situation of being a woman in hip-hop — being categorized as a “female rapper” (or worse, the shudder-inducing term “femcee”) rather than just a rapper. Maybe that’s why she took to her tumblr (where else?) earlier this year to make a dramatic declaration: “From now on [I]‘m a vocalist, and will not be associating myself with the ‘rap game.’” Then she added, tellingly, “[W]hatever the fuck that means…” In the music industry’s current state of redefinition, restructuring and whatever-the-fuck-that-means flux, a small band of intrepid, definition-averse female musicians suddenly see the word “pop” as a refuge from the stereotypes that pervade more clearly delineated genres — an unclassifiable no-man’s land rife with radical possibility. Or more simply, as Icona Pop’s Caroline Hjelt put it, “You can do whatever you want and call it pop.”
Will the anything-goes spirit of this moment last? That’s the big question mark 2013 brings for some of these artists. While Grimes and U.S. Girls seem to be sticking to their DIY guns, Banks (who also released the wildly kaleidoscopic mixtape Fantasea for free online this year) and Charli XCX are both prepping major-label debuts, and it remains to be seen whether their groundbreaking, idiosyncratic styles will find the widespread appeal that their record companies might be banking on. Judging from the confidence they espouse in their songs and interviews, though, you get the sense they’ll land on their feet either way. “We’re all pretty powerful females and we’ve all got our own styles,” Charli said. “Hopefully people like us will be able to shake pop music into something cool again.” For this year at least: mission accomplished.