1. Pink, “Stupid Girls”
Pink has made a career out of working just far enough outside the pop-tartlet mold that she can make fun of the Britney Spearses and Jessica Simpsons of the world while remaining marketable to the exact same audience. Take her hit single “Stupid Girls,” which uses annoying L.A. starlet indicators like “itsy-bitsy doggies” and blonde hair as an excuse to indulge in some girl-on-girl hate, including an ugly interlude where she mocks bulimia. While in theory the song’s message about being yourself and avoiding destructive superficiality is admirable, it’s distressingly black-and-white and dismissive: Girls are either smart or stupid, girly or tomboy-ish, and those who don’t fit Pink’s mold of “feminism” should be derided.
2. John Lennon and The Plastic Ono Band, “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World”
Though there’s something to be said for the incendiary spirit of a title like “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World,” the song—released in 1972 during the height of the women’s-lib movement—fails to deliver any real punch. It’s a dangerous statement to make, equating women’s status worldwide to slavery, nesting white women in the violence of the civil-rights movement, and suggesting an unconstructive who-suffers-more battle between blacks and women, but there’s potential merit in the comparison as well. The song was written, John Lennon said on The Dick Cavett Show, following a couple of years of introspection about his own chauvinistic ways. Ono’s titular statement kept playing in his head, so they laid down a track, but instead of focusing on women’s plight worldwide, which might start to justify his calling woman “the slave of slaves,” the drippy, meandering song focuses more on middle-class woes. (“We make her bear and raise our children / And then we leave her flat for being a fat old mother hen,” etc.) The title got the song banned, but the song itself is vanilla.
3. Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!”
The boilerplate “Let’s let our hair down and go crazy!” rah-rah message of Shania Twain’s 1997 hit “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” is so bland and uninspired it’s practically nonexistent; it’s basically a jingle for lady razors extended over three and a half minutes. The fact that Twain’s version of female rebellion involves coloring her hair, talking loudly, and going out dancing with her friends raises the question of what sort of imaginary, Victorian-era standards she thinks she’s rebelling against. Then there’s the video, which “subverts” Robert Palmer’s unapologetically leering “Addicted To Love” video by swapping out a snappily dressed Palmer singing in front of a harem of hyper-sexualized models for a hyper-sexualized Twain in front of a band of goofy-looking male models, all of whom are wearing more clothing than she is. It isn’t that Twain’s sexualization or message are objectionable, it’s that they’re pandering and banal, diluting whatever good intentions the song had into an easy-to-swallow mush.
4. Geri Halliwell, “Bag It Up”
In “Bag It Up,” Geri Halliwell suffers from “a bad case of opposite sex.” Of course, this requires her to do housework in a nightie while her bored partner watches TV and she pouts for his attention. The song and video are a glorious clusterfuck that take cues from Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” transforming the positive message of girl power into something called girl powder, a magical mix reminiscent of laundry detergent that, when delivered to a man, tricks him into doing things like vacuuming and waiting hand and foot on women. “Treat him like a lady,” Halliwell instructs from her Girl Powder factory of playboy-bunny male pole-dancers. Because it isn’t that the roles that need to change; they just need to be reversed.
5. Christina Aguilera ft. Lil’ Kim, “Can’t Hold Us Down”
Released at the height of Christina Aguilera’s dirrrty Stripped phase—a.k.a. The Assless Chaps Years—“Can’t Hold Us Down” is actually one of her better songs, a girl-power duet with Lil’ Kim confronting the double standard of female sexuality. But once David LaChapelle’s video gets factored in, the medium swallows the message. Clad in a tube top and the faintest wisp of a pair of shorts, Aguilera pops her booty, humps a fire hose, and generally demands respect as she engages in a sexy yet empowering water fight. The fact that Aguilera’s supposed control over her own sexual image is in fact helmed by a male director raises icky male-gaze issues, but beyond that, it glosses over the fact that there are in fact stops on the female-sexuality spectrum between “burka-clad” and “dripping-wet stripper chic.”
6. Eurythmics & Aretha Franklin, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves”
This danceable, boisterous neo-soul anthem seems like a perfect ’80s feminist anthem: It’s big, brassy, and performed by two women with a lot of experience defying female stereotypes: Annie Lennox, who wrote the lyrics, and Aretha Franklin. But while the song was intended to “celebrate the conscious liberation of the female state,” it traffics in clichés about women as much as it disproves them. Women are “comin’ out of the kitchen” to tout their “new exterior,” as if feminism was a shiny paint job. Praising women for being doctors and lawyers is a compliment that came a good 50 years too late even in 1985. And the fact that women are “politicians, too” may not strike some people as much of a great leap forward. The most damning lyric comes in the bridge, though, which seems designed to put the men’s minds at ease: “We ain’t makin’ stories and we ain’t layin’ plans”—don’t worry, fellas, we aren’t plotting anything crazy! “A man still loves a woman and a woman still loves a man.” No lesbians here, guys. Rest easy.
7. Aretha Franklin, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
Though Aretha Franklin’s feminist credentials are impeccable, she’s a repeat offender on this list. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” is a great song, but it’s been widely embraced as an earthy pro-female anthem, and it’s hard to see why. Not only was it commissioned by Jerry Wexler as an afterthought companion piece to a song he’d thought up about a “natural man,” but also it’s a strange self-esteem builder for women. “Your love was the key to my peace of mind” isn’t exactly the best message for independence-minded girls, nor is the notion that the singer’s boyfriend is the only thing she’s living for. There’s nothing wrong with the message “Hey, thanks for the awesome orgasm,” as messages go, but as a feminist statement of purpose, it’s a bit lacking.
8. Sheena Easton, “Strut”
From the lyrics, Sheena Easton’s 1984 “Strut” reads as a suggestive yet empowering slap back against piggish men. A man tries to convince a woman to get naked by telling her he’s paying her the ultimate compliment: that she’s so good at sex, it should be her job. Easton takes him to task for objectifying women and being a lazy lover to boot. However, the song’s video undercuts the message, since Easton does exactly what she complains her man expects of women: strutting and pouting.
9. Meredith Brooks, “Bitch”
Things Meredith Brooks is, according to the hit song from her 1997 album Blurring The Edges: bitch, lover, child, mother, sinner, saint, your health, your dream, nothing in between, tease, goddess, angel undercover. In her quest to make “bitch” the “nigga” for post-Alanis pop-femmes, Brooks attempts to lay out the many aspects of her (and, by extension, women’s) identity, only to make herself sound like a totally self-involved flake: “Rest assured that when I start to make you nervous and I’m going to extremes / Tomorrow I will change, and today won’t mean a thing.” A dismissive fratboy couldn’t have put it better himself if he’d just said, “Someone’s on the rag!”
10. Amy Grant, “Hats”
Meredith Brooks isn’t the only one worked up about women playing multiple roles like mother and lover. In “Hats,” Amy Grant leans on hats as a tired metaphor for various aspects of a woman’s life. The result is a hysterical (in both senses) number from 1991’s Heart In Motion—a horns-blasting, jazzy romp whose backup singers hiss “Hatsss!” at Grant while she throatily catalogues her day as an everywoman. There’s no choice for Grant—it isn’t that she has so many hats to choose from, it’s that this newfangled feminism is forcing her to wear all of them at once. She has to put on a “breakfast show” and don a “red dress” and go “workin’ through the night.” Any attempt to address work-life balance or how she’s juggling a burgeoning pop career while tending to a family is lost in ridiculous pop-jazz antics as she shouts “Well it don’t stop / No it’s never gonna stop / Why do I have to wear so many things on my head? / Hats!”
11. Bikini Kill, “Alien She”
While Kathleen Hanna is known for writing some of the edgiest, angriest, pro-grrrl anthems as the leader of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, occasionally her wholly justifiable rage has taken a header over the cliff. One such song is Bikini Kill’s “Alien She.” After referring to herself and an embarrassingly femme girlfriend—or is it the two hemispheres of her warring psyche?—as “Siamese twins connected at the cunt,” she castigates her softer half by saying, “She wants me to go to the mall / She wants me to put the pretty, pretty lipstick on / She wants me to be like her / I want to kill her.” While Hanna’s brutal, graphic honesty is bracing, “Alien She” ends up sounding more self-loathing and off-putting than empowering.
12. Anti-Flag, “Feminism Is For Everybody (With A Beating Heart And A Functioning Brain)”
You have to hand it to Anti-Flag; in spite of the glaring handicap of its name, which became even more toxic post 9/11, the well-meaning punk band has done its best to raise the overall social awareness of teenagers in bondage pants. But the group’s “Feminism Is For Everybody”—named after the book by noted feminist bell hooks—is hard to take seriously. Most cringe-worthy is the chorus and its meaty, testosterone-soaked cry, “This is what a feminist looks like! / This is what a feminist sounds like!” Even worse, though, is the end of the song, where the lyrics turn into an anti-homophobe screed—which unwittingly reinforces the stereotype that feminism necessarily equals lesbianism.
13. James Brown, “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”
James Brown has held many titles, like The Godfather Of Soul, the hardest-working man in show business, and Soul Brother Number One, but no one would ever put Trailblazing Feminist on his résumé. Still, there’s a stirring consciousness lurking underneath his 1966 hit, “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Co-written by Brown backup singer Betty Jean Newsome, the song itself seems built on egalitarianism. And while the lyrics are decidedly pro-woman—“He wouldn’t be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl,” Brown seethes—the rest of the song is a laundry list of inventions and contributions to culture devised by men. Brown’s heart may have been in the right place, but it’s possible that the release of “Man’s World” set women’s rights back at least a couple weeks.
14. Chaka Khan, “I’m Every Woman”
Chaka Khan’s 1978 disco track “I’m Every Woman” was her first solo hit, and her proclamation of emancipation from her old group, Rufus. The soaring chorus is enough to put any feminist’s fist in the air, but a closer look at the verses reveals a less enlightened idea behind the song: “Anything you want done, baby / I’ll do it naturally,” sings Khan. “Anytime you feel danger or fear, instantly I will appear.” The kicker, though, is the final verse, in which the budding diva promises her man, “I ain’t bragging, ’cause I’m the one / You just ask me, and it shall be done.” By calling herself “every woman,” she’s more or less saying that pleasing and placating men is about the highest calling a woman can follow—and the one men will always value most.
15-16. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies” and “If I Were A Boy”
Beyoncé Knowles’ fierce-and-fabulous routine sometimes goes awry as she takes on the opposite sex, but rarely does it go as thematically wrong as it does with the mega-hit “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” It’s intended as a sassy slap in the face for men who don’t commit, and the lyrics have a definite girl-power slam, as Beyoncé reclaims her right to flirt, have fun, and find a lover who’s more devoted than the last one. But at the same time, there’s that awful chorus, title, and hook, all of which are focused on that all-important wedding ring, and the myths that surround it—for instance, that Beyoncé is just a passive “it” that can be claimed with a ring, and that even if the relationship is already bad, that ring has the talismanic power to guarantee a happy ending. Not to mention the idea that a ring will give the unnamed man in the story sole, permanent possession of “it,” since he’s basically just planting his flag in his claimed territory. Beyoncé goes a little deeper into sexual politics with “If I Were A Boy,” which briefly plays with the Tootsie/Mrs. Doubtfire theme that someone swapping genders might bring in a fresh perspective and a sense of self-awareness, and consequently be a better person than natural-born members of the target gender. At the same time, it’s a soppy wallow in whiny self-pity and broad stereotyping, as Beyoncé mournfully alternates between yearning to be a boy so she can do a better job of it than her man did, and musing that she’d like to be male so that she, too, can enjoy being a self-absorbed, shallow, self-pleasing piece of shit.
17. Alicia Keys, “A Woman’s Worth”
There’s a whole school of modern pop and rap about self-worth, in which men largely talk about how they’re so awesome that women should give up their bodies, and women largely talk about how they’re so awesome that men should give up their wallets. Alicia Keys’ “A Woman’s Worth” falls squarely in the latter camp. Sure, it’s a brash, confident statement about how valuable good women are, and how if they don’t get the love, attention, and time they deserve in a relationship, they’re justified in heading out the door. But it’s also a crass cash-grab. Because you know what a good woman is worth? Diamonds, pearls, and a cruise around the world. Then Keys enthuses, “If you treat me fairly, I’ll give you all my goods,” and she doesn’t seem to be talking about the jewelry she was just given. In fact, complete sexual surrender in exchange for mere tepid “fair” treatment seems a little imbalanced. And what are listeners to make of the repeated line “A real woman knows a real man always comes first”? Either as a sexual statement or as a political one, that’s pretty dubious as anything but a promise that “a woman’s worth” is still a good deal less than a man’s.