Male Critics: Female Pop Stars Don't Need Your Backhanded Compliments

Image for article titled Male Critics: Female Pop Stars Don't Need Your Backhanded Compliments

By all accounts, 2014 was a very, very good year to be a woman in music.

Nicki Minaj set a new Vevo record with "Anaconda" after it racked up the most views in a 24-hour period upon its release. Beyoncé continued to tour like a machine behind her 2013 self-titled visual album, taped the On The Run HBO concert special and released the platinum edition of Beyoncé complete with new material (namely that elevator incident-addressing "***Flawless" remix featuring Minaj). Iggy Azalea now holds the title for the longest dominating reign a female rapper's ever achieved with the six-week No. 1 run of "Fancy" on the Billboard Hot 100. Meghan Trainor lit the match to her career with the curves and pastel-embracing body positive (albeit debatably problematic) anthem "All About That Bass." Taylor Swift's 1989 was a veritable goody bag of better tidings: She delivered the first album to not only crack and surpass a million units this year in its first week of sales, scored a new (cheesy as hell) gig as a New York Ambassador as part of the album's promotional cycle and became the first woman to succeed herself at the top of the charts with 1989's first ("Shake It Off") and second ("Blank Space") singles.


And the cherry on top of all that? For seven weeks this fall, the leading five spots on the Billboard Hot 100 were occupied and maintained by women, a first-time feat since the singles chart's inception 56 years ago.

While 2014's favor has leaned towards the feminine, it hadn't been dubbed the Year of the She-Woman Man-Eating Club. But on Wednesday, Billboard's Carl Wilson went ahead and did that, in so many words.

On the surface, Wilson's "Why 2014 Was Pop's 'End of Men' Moment" is yet another op/ed traipsing through the numerous successes of pop's most prominent lady players that politely golf-claps over their achievements. In the essay's estimation: Lana Del Rey didn't even get that much radio play, yet Ultraviolence did so well it bested the boys on the Billboard 200! Beyoncé projected FEMINIST on the backdrop of the performance she delivered before receiving the Video Vanguard award at the VMAs—and isn't that just a pretty picture? Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood clicked the heels of their cowboy boots together to "threaten dudes" in tandem on "Somethin' Bad," so take that, y'all. Taylor Swift went from "victimized girlfriend" to "sassy mastermind" with her elaborate, eccentric video for "Blank Space." (Since when do the two have to be mutually exclusive?) All of these gal pals in various arrangements—Iggy and Charli ("Fancy"), Iggy and Ari ("Problem"), Ari, Jessie J and Nicki ("Bang Bang"), Nicki and Bey (the "***Flawless" remix)—"banded" together to preach the gospel of girl power, one hit at a time.

But that's not all: By Wilson's logic, these women received these accolades at the expense of their male colleagues, who were "emasculated" by lap dances in music videos (Drake via "Anaconda"), "threatened" (even though Lambert and Underwood don't mention a guy once in their hugely successful duet), used up and discarded for lyrical gain (Harry Styles in 1989's songbook) or laughed off as "dusty" (U2) and "sleazy" (Robin Thicke) relics, while pop's popular girls donned outfits straight out of the Clueless costume closet for their music videos and acceptance speeches.

Wilson uses Hannah Rosin's The End of Men to prove his point, a text that perpetuates the idea that men are no longer the culturally dominant sex, one that describes "clinging to the dreaded patriarchy" as a wish and necessity for those who strike out on their own without finding financial success in its closing chapters. For Wilson, these pop stars aren't clinging to the patriarchy, but hinging their success upon its demise as though they can only succeed when men are incapacitated. He just casually forgets that, y'know, Drake's still the one in the chair receiving the aforementioned lap dance. And Taylor's face is streaked with tears because, well, she just overreacted to that nasty boyfriend of hers in the "Blank Space" video. But anyway.

With every compliment thrown a female musician's way, Wilson frames it by calling out the diminishing manhood of their male counterparts, introducing them as passive supporting characters instead of hugely successful talents for the sake of a convenient argument. As he puts it, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith are merely friends of Swift's here, with one of them (Sheeran) "soft-spoken" at that. (Apparently Wilson missed "Don't," the scathing, scorned single off Sheeran's X that spat fury Ellie Goulding's way after she purportedly cheated on him with One Direction's Niall Horan.) Despite the fact that Styles and the rest of One Direction were the first act to debut at No. 1 with their first four albums, and FOUR follows 1989 as the second-best performing record in its first week of the year, Wilson sneers at Styles' boy-band member status and dubs his occupation "infantilizing." He goes on to credit Lana, Lorde, St. Vincent, Jenny Lewis and Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace for "reconceiving rock for a new century," but not without crushing the lucrative and industry-shaking endeavors of U2, Bruce Springsteen and the Foo Fighters all in the same breath.


For Wilson, the musical achievements and historical successes of these women don't stand on their own, but on the trampled egos and masculinity of the guys that collectively signify the "end of men" in popular music—and he completely ignores the fact that, yes, it's an awesome thing for a woman to be taken as seriously and awarded for her endeavors on the same scale as a man.

The condescending juxtaposition of Swift's "victimized girlfriend to sassy mastermind" transition to Styles' lowly boy-band status is another manipulation. Instead of knocking Styles, Wilson brings Swift down by skewing her success with an artificial angle. Swift is kicking ass with 1989 and it's got a few songs on it that are rumored to be about the British boy-bander with the bad tattoos, sure. But to paint Styles, Drake and even the Cool Dads of the Foo Fighters and U2 in a pathetic light as clueless, passive musicians who didn't have a prayer of ousting their female competition on the charts because they're losing to a cultural construct is inaccurate and damaging. It's a compliment to have St. Vincent and Dave Grohl mentioned in the same sentence during a conversation about success in rock and roll, not because he's the standard, but because he's a guy who enjoys privileges she doesn't in this sausage fest of an industry, one who's been at it for longer and who's made more records. It's an insult when facts are misconstrued with the intent of favoring St. Vincent through tearing her "competition" down, when Wilson doesn't believe Grohl's her competition at all. The point is not to defend the men Wilson cuts down in his Billboard op/ed, but to call him out for pandering and framing rock and pop's biggest victors as victims of female success.


These women surpassed expectations alongside these hugely successful recording artists with penises. They don't want to "make men drool," as Wilson playfully implies from the jump. They want to make milestones and money and blow records out of the water with insane sales numbers while doing so, and they want to do that as equals, not as artists banking on the curves and higher vocal registers of their gender or the "end of men" that isn't happening.

"Much as it might sting guys to admit, centuries of mansplaining have worn thin, and there comes a time to shut up and #listentowomen. Especially when so many of them sound so damn good."


That's nice—and hell yes, they do sound good, as the records show—but the same argument applies to pop feminism. And in that regard, Wilson should probably shut up and listen.

Hilary Hughes writes about music for Esquire, Fuse, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and other publications. Follow her at @hilmonstah.


Image via Getty.


adultosaur married anna on the astral plane

tay is everything the end, by adultosaur.

second work

harry is bae, no matter what happened, also by adultosaur

someday i will actually participate intelligently in a conversation that talks about 1d/harry, tay and ed, but today is not that day.