Lord knows, when you’re weathering a brutal break-up or shaking your fist at a douchebag who won’t stop putting you down, there’s a proven place for a musical pick-me-up. There’s surely nothing on this godforsaken earth that beats the sheer rush of screeching along to ‘Irreplaceable’ – your voice crackling with every strained howl of “to the left, to the left” – when it comes to plastering up a broken heart. Some of the most potent songs of all time are actually about dusting yourself off after life all goes horribly wrong, and charging back into action armed with a hefty dose of self-love.
Recently, many of music’s confidence-boosters have been especially top notch. Not necessarily songs that yell HASHTAG EMPOWERMENT from the rooftops, they’re joyful self-celebrations instead. Lizzo’s ‘Juice’ is a prime example, laying it all out atop a slick 80s foundation. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, don’t say it ‘cos I know I’m cute,” she declares, before branding herself saucier than Ragu. Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’ – a largely self-addressed love song penned to her own resilience – is another. And Janelle Monae’s ‘PYNK’ – complete with a few subtle visual details that show there’s no one way to be a women – is top tier. These are all powerful, affirming songs, celebrating the artists in question, and lifting everyone else higher in the process. Let’s face it, there’s always room for another feel-good banger in the music world; especially when they’re this catchy.
The issue arises when empowerment is wielded elsewhere as a marketing buzzword. Stick your snout into any stationary shop going, and you’ll be greeted by inevitable notebooks in hues of vomit and baby pink leopard print, emblazoned with slogans like SLAY QUEEN or FEMINIST BADASS. Book shops have been doing a roaring trade in recent years flogging reads about the rebellious ladies who changed history (Maya Angelou and Frida Kahlo would both be proud of that particular accolade, I’m sure). Now a lot of pop music is hopping on the bandwagon, in an age where so many people are in fact disempowered by years of austerity and public service cuts.
Originally, the idea of empowerment was to do with lifting up marginalised members of society. Concerned with giving people access to basic opportunities, and providing them with the skills and means to achieve their goals and aspirations, it’s all about rebalancing who holds power, across the board. Empowerment is members of a community setting up an organisation and setting their own agenda, or a programme which opens doors with skills training. It was never really a movement about encouraging people to gorge themselves on low-fat yogurt pots or buy a new suede jacket: that commercialisation came later on.
As usual, my inbox is jammed full of wealthy billionaires offering to send me obscene amounts of money in exchange for a pin number, and mailing lists I definitely didn’t opt into – and increasingly I’m inundated with hundreds of promises of empowerment. Often, the bar is set incredibly low; a universally relatable life event plus a vague metaphor about shining bright/standing strong later/building a castle later, and you’ve got yourself an Empower-ballad.
The question is, where does it end? Is popping to Tesco on a whim to treat myself to a bag of frozen chicken nugs actually empowering, or just a fairly spontaneous life decision? Is buying ten pairs of shoes empowering? Does managing to wake up vaguely on time for work every now and again form the makings of a #girlboss? Is blinking, in fact, empowering? Existing?
Often, an Empower-ballad is further muddied by unclear execution. Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ – which arguably kicked the whole thing off five years ago, and fails to achieve what Lizzo has mastered – preaches the importance of loving your body. Much of the narrative, however, revolves around that same body being appreciated by a man. “Boys,” we’re told, “like a little more booty to hold at night”. The other day, I was sent an “empowering” song about dobbing in a badly behaved ex to their own mum – a move with Real Grass Energy, for sure, but that’s about it? Taylor Swift’s ‘You Need To Calm Down’ might show her burying the non-existent hatchet with Katy Perry, but is the simple premise of ‘being nice to each other’ really an awe-inspiring rebalancing of power? Several up and coming artists over the last few months have been deemed empowering on the flimsy basis that they are women. The idea that we should all get a hearty great pat on the back for that fact alone is… slightly patronising.
Honestly, there are only so many times that it’s possible to tolerate empty yells of “you go girl!” Sometimes it’s fine to write a pop whopper about necking shots of tequila in the club, and be done with the whole thing. Empowerment should be a word that’s reserved for the musical moments that are genuinely carving out new spaces in music, and creating opportunities. Otherwise, it all feels like an empty statement.