Sisters are doing it for themselves (whether you like how they’re doing it is another story)

ARTPOP promotional photo © Lady Gaga (source)

So everyone’s done talking about the 2013 Video Music Awards? Well that’s good because I don’t want to talk about them either… … though…okay, I have to admit that I didn’t watch them this past Sunday as I was too busy picking my jaw up off the ground over the events of Breaking Bad. But when I went to check my social network feed Monday morning — hooboy, did the VMAs garner some news. Lady Gaga being gaga, N*Sync being back together, Macklemore being awesome, and Miley Cyrus being all twerky. I appropriated some time that morning to watching videos of the performances and my reactions probably fell in line with most. But what stuck with me after the fact were the women’s performances: Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Katy Perry. And I could help but see them in the light of Isaac Newtown’s famous quote (paraphrased): If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. While each of these performers instill their own levels of art and creativity (take that however you may) into their music and images, they each, again in their own ways, go against the mainstream’s “standard view” of women musicians.  Lady Gaga has been challenging society’s notion of women, beauty, and roles since she first entered the scene. Cyrus has been acting out in ways that very faintly echo (in action only, not musically or message) Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics when she yelled a big “eff you” to the vision of the demure songstress.  And Katy Perry’s playfulness, confidence, and take-me-as-I-am attitude sits in stark contrast to say, the bygone days of a young Christiana Aguilera, who went from being a genie in a bottle to being dirrty in a matter of months.

But the road these women have traveled to be at forefront of the music industry, for better or worse, has been well-paved. It’s easy enough to recognize that in terms of pop music, Madonna certainly helped lay several stones in the road. But there were plenty of other women who chose to blaze their own pop music trails while giving the proverbial middle finger to what the industry expected of them. I mentioned Wendy O. Williams above, and she certainly fits the bill, but she was not at all pop and only found a hint of mainstream tolerance after her death. And there were plenty of women like Grace Jones and Nona Hendryx who found success while displaying their own avant garde styles but never became household names. So who are some of the pop music giants that are not Madonna upon whose shoulders Gaga, Cyrus, Perry (and others) are currently standing? My five choices are below; and I invite your selections in the comments section, because there are more than I could possibly name here.



Cher album cover © Geffen Records, 1987 (source)

One of pop music’s many chameleons, Cher has adapted to the musical climate with the best of them; and she’s consistently walked the line between art and music. Whether she was making the now-questionable choice of dressing up like an American Indian for “Half-Breed” or displaying any number of body parts in outlandish get-ups on countless red carpets, Cher was, is, and always will be Cher. Her influence and presence, from calm to controversial to clamorous, has peppered the pop music landscape for decades and will undoubtedly continue to do so.


Deborah Harry 

Heart of Glass single cover © Chrysalis Records, 1978 (source)

Few musicians hit the pop scene in the way that “Debbie” Harry did. Blondie was a slightly successful punk band before it slaughtered the discos…yes, the discos, with the smash hit “Heart of Glass.” Once the band entered the mainstream though, Harry wasn’t afraid to dabble in other musical styles anymore than she was afraid to mess with her image. She’s always had a take-it-or-leave it attitude. Hate the classic yet oft panned “rap” song “Rapture?” Too bad for you.  Gonna burst of you hear “Call Me” one…more…time? Turn off the radio. Wonder what happened with “The Tide is High?” The world has bigger fish to fry.


Annie Lennox 

Touch album cover © RCA Records, 1983 (source)

With buzzed, orange hair and a power suit, Annie Lennox was hardly the model of feminine “beauty” when most folks this side of the pond first saw her in the Eurythmics video “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” But her magnificent voice told a much larger story than her looks, and it helped carry her to fame. And “normal” wasn’t exactly prescribed to some of the strange videos the Eurythmics produced of art and music combined. Lennox’s solo efforts have only heightened her stardom. You need only listen to hear her confidence scream out about who she is and what she stands for.


Tina Turner 

Album cover - Private Dancer (1987) (source)
Private Dancer album cover © Capital Records, 1987 (source)

Tina Turner is not your typical beauty, and she’s not a typical rock star.  She’s the quintessential performer with an attitude to match. From grass roots to rock n’ roll, Turner’s career really only turned to pop during her 1980s comeback. But the songs she released, such as “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and “Private Dancer,” weren’t the same ol’ pop song and dance. They stood out from the New Wave/Alternative crowd, but they weren’t your typical R&B fare either.  They were and always will be Tina Turner songs. Sure her big hair, short skirts, and mile-long legs sure helped in the performance venues, but that voice and her personality are what shined through the sequins.


Cyndi Lauper 

Time After Time single cover © Epic Records, 1983 (source)

Talk about effectively shouting “screw you!” to the woman’s world of high heels and peplum skirts —  Cyndi Lauper turned fashion on its ear with her “thrift store” sensibility. Yes, Madonna came onto the scene earlier than Lauper with the same sort of attitude, but while she quickly veered into “sex sells” territory, Lauper embraced the quirky, manic, neon vibe that was the early 80s, and it was all her. She remained true to herself and her music from day one, with songs that spoke from the head as well as the heart. No matter what anyone said or wrote about her “crazy” image, she persevered with a style and magic all her own.


Like what you’ve just read? Cary posts to Geek Force Network every Friday; and you can also find more words that she put together in paragraphs at Recollections of Play and United We Game.


5 thoughts on “Sisters are doing it for themselves (whether you like how they’re doing it is another story)”

  1. Great list! I wish I could add my own to this list, but I think you’ve chosen just about all the ladies I would have picked myself. All of them and their music are awesome! You can’t beat the classics. 🙂

    1. Thanks! And I agree, it’s hard to argue with these great performers. Who knows, maybe Miley will wise up someday, find her voice, and become someone we’re talking about (in a good way) years from now. In the end, good music will never die, no matter who’s singing.

  2. Good post. I’ve never quite figured out if Lady Gaga is thumbing her nose at her predecessors or paying homage because she just outright blatantly goes there in emulating many of them from Turner to Cher to Madonna to Janet Jackson. I will never forget watching the Paparazzi mv and thinking whoa, did she really just pull a Cher thing, or the Telephone mv and thinking, omg that was totally Janet Jackson (okay well, she had Beyonce doing JJ thing to be fair). No matter which reason she’s looking to her predecessors, or if Born This Way is a a bit reductive of Express Yourself, Bad Romance, particularly the Bad Romance mv, was one of the most impressive, starkly emotive, and bloody brilliant things ever. As you said there are many influential -for many reasons – women artists out there (yay)-more than we realize. But if I narrow it to an important criteria relevant to this post- an artist owning her sexuality and influencing generations to come, and then adding one more filter, only artists pre-1990, off the top of my head I’d offer: The Runaways, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and going way way back, Josephine Baker.

    Regarding Cyrus: This seems the rite of passage-there is a certain level of young female celeb that has to express some form of owning her sexuality as an episode of Lifetimes of the Young and Skanky. Because all of her taste is in her mouth, it is all the more wtf with Cyrus. She’s getting exactly what she wanted, people talking about it-attention, and press. Twerking is old, nothing new to see here. High school cheerleaders were doing that in the 80’s, sheesh. It’s just that she’s a bony ass Cracker doing it on camera. This too shall pass.

    1. You’re right, there isn’t much new to Miley Cyrus. Hell, if Twitter has existing when Madonna performed that 1984ish live version of “Like A Virgin” (at the VMAs? Or maybe the Grammys?) they world would have been in a uproar then, and over something that we see as much more tame today.

      You listed some great folks there. I almost included Joan Jett since she’s really been thumbing her nose that pop/rock music for years. And goodness, remember how nuts everyone went when Janet turned sexy? It’s too bad that choices are often seems as publicity stunts; but mo matter the choices these women make or have made, it’s their music that stands out. Gaga, Perry, and Cyrus aren’t there yet as most people focus on their theatrics. But their moments will come (or not) in some way. While I’m not exactly following Miley Cyru’s rise to whatever, I do look forward to seeing how Lady Gaga evolves with her music.

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