This post summarises debates in two sessions with my students in which they offered presentations on: Session 1) Madonna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Adele, Lana del Rey; Session 2) Katie Perry, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez, and Selena Gomez.

During these sessions, we raised the following issues for debate:

Pop seems to be currently dominated by female performers, with individual male performers occupying a marginal position, except in boy bands (like One Direction). It was hard for us to name male first-rank pop stars beyond Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars.

The pop divas belong to at least two generations, with the oldest being well past fifty (Annie Lennox is 59, Madonna 56) and the youngest in their twenties (Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez were both born in 1992), having started their careers as teenagers.

The older divas are less well-known by younger audiences, for whom Madonna is not the indisputable referent she is for the generations born before the 1990s.

Madonna crucially contributed to the making of the contemporary pop diva the key idea that female performers should control their careers. Before she became a star in the 1980s that was not the case, with most female stars being manipulated by men close to them: managers, producers, partners (a classic example would be Tina Turner).

What is most controversial in Madonna’s case and her legacy is that she chose to empower the pop diva by flaunting her body and her sexuality, turning the object into subject.

This strategy worked fine for her but has resulted in a) an obsession with avoiding the effects of ageing, b) the diva’s own bodily objectification. This, while empowering for other women aware of feminist ideals, can be simply read by sexist audiences as an incitement to reading and consuming the diva as pure sexual object. It is very hard, then, to establish whether the diva’s self-presentation as a sexy, powerful woman is actually empowering.

The case of Adele, who does not present herself as sexualised, suggests that the sexualisation of many pop divas might actually serve to conceal moderate singing abilities (think Britney Spears). Adele’s voice seems an instrument solid enough for her empowerment as a pop diva. Those who have gossiped about her being fat (Karl Lagerfeld) have been harshly criticised, though this seems to be in contradiction with the prejudiced treatment met by fat (or plus-sized) women in ordinary life.

In most cases, the pop diva shows a contrast between her self-assured public presentation and the lyrics in her songs, which display much vulnerability. The diva’s successful career often seems at odds with the feelings expressed in the songs, suggesting she might not want to alienate audiences who believe in an essentialist idea of gender and romance.

The pop diva is an object of intense public scrutiny, particularly as regards her private life: marriage (Beyoncé), dating younger men (Madonna, Jennifer Lopez), being with abusive partners (Rihanna), being with partners who are themselves a celebrity (Selena Gomez). A peculiar case is that of Taylor Swift, who, sadly, has earned a reputation as a (promiscuous?) woman unable to commit because of the many relationships she has been involved in.

Regarding the pop diva and feminism, we have seen varied attitudes with a common denominator: either the pop diva rejects feminism but practices it notwithstanding, or the pop diva publicly embraces feminism after rejecting prejudiced definitions of this word. Beyoncé seems to be using a didactic approach which might be beneficial (though Annie Lennox has questioned her feminism as just tokenism).

Of all the divas explored, Beyoncé is no doubt the most successful and powerful one: her career is very solid, and she is in a stable relationship, married to the most powerful male musician right now (Jay-Z) and the mother of a daughter. She is rich, beautiful and well-liked, perhaps because she seems to be more ‘respectable’ than the other divas (she’s been involved in no scandals).

In contrast, the most controversial pop diva seems to be Miley Cyrus as her extremely sexualised self-presentation can be alternatively read as an expression of (feminist) freedom or an unwise choice which degrades her as an artist. A crucial issue in this sense, as she used to be a teen idol playing Hannah Montana, is which effect this may be having on younger women who used to follow her as a role model. This would also refer to ex-Disney stars like Britney Spears or Selena Gomez.

Ethnic and racial issues are hard to pinpoint: the white divas are not perceived as such, yet for the non-white divas race does not seem to be a major issue, possibly because non-white performers have always been a prominent part of pop. The fact that Madonna is white and Beyoncé African-American seems irrelevant as regards their success, since they reach all kinds of audiences (Beyoncé, though, possibly has a high value as role model for other African-American women performers). Other, like Jennifer Lopez, seem to be exploiting an ethnic identity (Latino) of which they do not really participate.

Most importantly, it’s difficult to determine whether anyone has the right to criticise these divas or curtail in any way their self-presentation. This has always been a problem with feminism, as it usually appears to be unfairly censorious and fixed on rigid rules.

My own point of view is that as women we need positive role models that contribute to our empowerment. The pop divas are, arguably, the most visible face of women’s empowerment, much above politicians, business women or scientists. The problem is that their intensive sexualisation may actually undermine the possibilities for women to be empowered, particularly for those who choose not to present themselves in this way, or for whom this might be a serious obstacle (who would take a sexualised scientist seriously, whether man or woman?).

Their individual right to choose how to run their careers (and lives) clashes then with our collective need for role models which carefully avoid confusing self-empowerment with self-exploitation. A misogynist or a male chauvinist contemplating Rihanna’s half-naked body will not see an empowered woman but a confirmation of his own views that women are nothing but sexual objects.

Finally, the standards of beauty set by these attractive pop divas may even have a negative impact on the world of music itself, in the sense that less attractive women of great talent might feel inhibited from pursuing a career. Adele may be an exception, but if we consider the case of Spanish singer Rosa we see how, instead of adapting audiences to the diva’s original physical appearance, she has undergone a drastic process of transformation to suit audience’s preferences for slimmer women. In contrast, what is needed for women in careers with a great public projection is the same acceptance for variety that benefits men (think, for instance, how differently the body shapes of opera singers Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé have been read).

Just a little comment: as I noted, there are individual academic studies of some of these divas (Madonna and Beyoncé in particular) but no publication addressing the issue of what is a pop diva and how this figure is constituted today.

Fascinating, really…

PS: See my own articles about
*(with Gerardo Rodríguez) Kylie Minogue,
*The Scottish diva (Annie Lennox, Sharleen Spitteri, Shirley Manson),

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