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The mean girls conquering pop They have exiled men from their music

Chappell is knee deep. (Marleen Moise/Getty)

Chappell is knee deep. (Marleen Moise/Getty)


July 1, 2024   6 mins

Sabrina’s got that boy wrapped round her finger. Olivia knows she might sound crazy but she doesn’t care. Chappell is having a sexually explicit kinda love affair with a closeted woman. Billie is going to eat that girl for lunch, because it tastes like she might be the one. Charli wants you to guess the colour of her underwear. Renée is feuding with the worst bitch on earth. Summer 2024 is a bad girlie summer.

Anodyne injunctions to have a good time or vague sentiments about love are out. This year’s music invites you to party hard, feel your feels in all their glorious mess, and succumb to being frankly, fiercely horny. Musically, they cover everything from woozy dream-pop (Billie Eilish) to peppy guitar-led tracks (Olivia Rodrigo) to aggressively hooky dance music (Charli XCX); aesthetically, they run from Bardot-esque cutie (Sabrina Carpenter) to drag-act confrontational (Chappel Roan, with her mime makeup and wildly teazed hair).

Some of its practitioners are barely in their twenties, having been famous since they were children — Eilish started releasing music at 13 and had her first hit at 15, while Carpenter and Rodrigo both came up through the Disney machine as teenagers. Some of them are old enough to be weighing nervous thoughts about having children of their own — “I Think About it All the Time”, on Charli XCX’s new album Brat, is a stark confrontation with her own biological clock, in which she wonders whether having a baby would “give my life a new purpose” or “make me miss my freedom”.

They don’t exactly comprise a scene. But together, they make up a constellation committed to the exploration of what you could broadly — and at least partly ironically — call “feminine chaos”. These are girls singing about girls, for girls.

I use the word “girl” advisedly, because even though all of them are adults, each has a pull towards the adolescent. You could call this infantilising, but I don’t think it is. After all, a lot of what they sing about is thoroughly adult — not just the desire and the heartbreak, but the lucid dissections of their professional life. (Charli XCX bemoans how much she cares about trade magazine Billboard on “Rewind” and Eilish worries quietly “am I on the way out?” on the opening track to her new album, Hit Me Hard and Soft.)

Girlhood instead denotes a certain unfinished state of femaleness. In some cases, that’s because they’re literally navigating the advent of adulthood in public (“When am I gonna stop being great for my age and just start being good?” wonders Rodrigo on “Teenage Dream” from the album Guts). For others, it’s because they know the fever of the teen years makes a good muse: leaning in, Charli XCX has called her album Brat.

There’s nostalgia for a time that was, if not nicer, certainly less crushingly bound by fear of cancellation. “I kinda miss the time when pop music was really volatile and crazy. I miss the Paris Hilton days,” said Charli XCX in an interview earlier this year. “Everybody is so worried about everything right now, how they’re perceived, if this art they’ve created is going to offend anyone… It limits creative output to think like that.”

But if the pop bad girls have a patron saint, it’s probably not Paris, it’s Regina George — the terrifying lunch hall tyrant of the movie-turned-musical Mean Girls. In the 2004 original, the plum part was good girl Cady, played by then-rising star Lindsay Lohan. But in the 2024 musical, the breakout role is Regina, played by Renée Rapp — openly ambitious, unapologetically vengeful, and knowing about sexism without seeing herself as a victim:

Regina: People say I’m a bitch, but you know what they would call me if I was a boy?

Cady: Strong?

Regina: Reginald. That’s what my mom was going to name me if I was a boy, so honestly I’d rather be “bitch”.

In the Millennial evolution, it’s not just about calling out the double standard that has girls condemned where boys are praised. It’s also about entertaining the possibility that there might be something valuable per se about the feminine way of exercising power. The first film’s big feminist moment is the speech given by Tina Fey as teacher Ms Norbury, in which she explains to her students that “calling each other sluts and whores… just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores”. But what if you really are a bitch, and being a bitch is OK?

“What if you really are a bitch, and being a bitch is OK?”

The mean girl can be aspirational, as Charli sings on her own song “Mean Girls”, which is not really about the film but rather about a certain type of woman “with the gravel drawl and dead eyes”, who seems to drive men demented with a mix of hatred and desire: “You said she’s problematic and the way you say it, so fanatic/ Think she already knows that you’re obsessed.” (She’s said it was partly inspired by Red Scare host Dasha Nekrasova.) What if, in fact, not everything girls do has to consider the male gaze?

This points to another subtle shift between the 2004 Mean Girls movie and the current iteration. Regina’s power has always been erotic — the girls she bullies want her, as well as wanting to be her. But in the new version, that dynamic is much more explicit, partly because Rapp herself is an openly “gay girl” (her words), even using one interview to ask Rachel McAdams, her predecessor as Regina, to date her. Regina 2024 is a confirmed lesbian icon. “Mean Girls, we watch it every night,” sings Roan in “Naked in Manhattan”, a song about girl-on-girl lust, “and we both have a crush on Regina George”.

Sapphic flirting is not exactly new to pop music. Cast your mind back to 2003, and the VMAs where Madonna, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera performed a three-way kiss on stage. But in 2003, this was blatant play-acting for the male gaze with no implication of genuine desire: the coverage focused intensely on the shocked face of Spears’ ex, Justin Timberlake, who was watching from the audience. When Lohan was in a public and genuine lesbian relationship with DJ Samantha Ronson, the press was bitterly misogynistic: gossip blogger Perez Hilton, gay himself, pointedly styled Ronson’s name as SaMANtha.

But compare that with the convincingly graphic way Roan sings about being “knee deep in the passenger seat/ and you’re eating me out” on “Casual”; or Billie Eilish’s startlingly hot delivery of “oh my God her skin’s so clear/ she’s the headlights, I’m the deer” on “Lunch” — another reference to eating, because in 2024 pop lesbianism isn’t just touching lips to titillate the boys. There are many problems with the so-called “Gaylor” theory, which holds that Swift is a lesbian forced into the closet by record industry bigotry; but outside of the fact that Swift has categorically said it’s not true, the largest is probably that in a world of multiple hits by women about cunnilingus, coming out can no longer be considered a career killer.

It’s not that men don’t exist in the bad pop girl world — there are men in the songs (as objects of both desire and irritation), on the songs (as collaborators, often overlapping: Alexander 23 has worked with Rapp and Rodrigo, and Jack Antonoff with Swift and Carpenter), and in the audience. But the role of men in this music is very different from the one they might have had a generation or so back.

In my years as a teenage pop fan, the authority of the male svengali pulling the strings was unquestioned. Simon Fuller built the Spice Girls: a collection of archetypes rather than whole individuals (“Scary”, “Posh”, “Baby”). When they rebelled against him, he built S Club 7 — a brand, rather than a band, meaning that he would always control the intellectual property even if the individuals involved chose to walk away. If the acts were exploited, so were the fans. Lou Pearlman (manager of the boybands Nsync and Backstreet Boys, convicted fraudster and alleged sexual predator of young men) once wrote that girls make the ideal audience because “they’ll buy just about anything and everything that their favourite performers endorse”.

That was an environment that made obedience the price of entry. You simply couldn’t become a pop star if you weren’t committed to take instruction and follow the beat. The dream, of course, was Britney Spears from 1998-2003: the perfect sexy woman-child who always did as she was told. The nightmare was Spears from 2004 on: the one who wouldn’t — or couldn’t — comply anymore and who lashed out at the cameras. The one who was wounded flesh and blood, rather than pure product.

The pop girls of 2024 have learned the lessons their forerunners — Spears, Hilton and Lohan among them — were burned for. Yes, you’ll be punished for being bad. But being good is a game you can only fail at, as Swift’s career has shown them. The grunge queen Courtney Love recently disparaged Swift’s music as a “safe space for girls”, and it’s true that for a long time that is what her public image offered, especially during the peak “squad” years around her 1989 album in 2014.

Then, Swift packaged her female friendships into an idealised girl gang, and paraded members of her inner circle on social media and in her stage shows. Later, she conceded that some of this had been performative, and it all fell apart in any case after a fallout with Kim Kardashian, in which certain squad members appeared to pick Kardashian over Swift. The “safe space” turned sour. In response, Swift turned her image inside out, creating a darker, angrier, more calculating version of herself.

“Baby boy, I think I’ve been too good of a girl/ Did all the extra credit, then got graded on a curve,” she sang ruefully on “Bejewelled” in 2022. Following the rules is just embracing the standard by which you’ll ultimately be judged to fail. The bad pop girls know this, They know it, and so does the audience they’re making music for: an audience that’s sweet, flawed, kind, cruel, mostly female and perfectly human in all its untidy emotions. The boys can sing along if they like, but it’s not really for them, or about them. Whether they’re allies, lovers or antagonists, this year music’s main characters are the girls.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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David Morley
David Morley
19 days ago

But what if you really are a b***h, and being a b***h is OK?

Being a b***h simply isn’t OK, which is why we use the term b***h for it. Nor is it equivalent to behaviour which in a man would be seen as laudable. We have similar terms for men who behave poorly towards others too. Bully being one of the printable ones. If a boy behaves like a mean girl he pretty soon has no friends.

Rather we are in a cultural moment in which any criticism of men is applauded, while poor female behaviour is lauded (you go girl). The difference is female lack of accountability and sense of entitlement. If their behaviour is poor they need to be called out for it, or it will continue into adulthood.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
18 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Yes, indeed. We live in a culture where women are permitted everything and men are forgiven nothing. At the same time there is this deluded view that all men, regardless of socioeconomic background, benefit from being part of some nebulous patriarchy.

Bird
Bird
18 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

It might seem that way at the moment, only because the ‘media sphere’ is dominated by a select few. Records here say its only 25% of the population. The other 75% are the ‘silent majority’. I think you will find many of us don’t like, nor can stand the overt, explicit sexual mores we are swimming in currently. I have no trouble calling out women as well as the men.
For the silent majority of young women ( coming into adolescence and early adulthood) who have left the dating field, their anxiety and depression is partly contributable to the current prevailing ‘dating scene’. Any young girl coming into this space and the explicit sexuality dominating the total market now, not to mention the road pornography has now taken – BDSM, chocking etc. as ‘normal’, who would not be terrified of it. The young are that young. There are reasons why society had certain boundaries in place in the public sphere. Unfortunately the few who dictate the cultural sphere – not all are very well intentioned. They dominate and the rest have no choice…..keep young adolescents in mind. There is sexual tension, frustration and Unfortunately anger coming from all quarters. How do you navigate this?
Tech has blown up on steroids what lies beneath our social mores.
Sexual identity has become the Sacred Cow – the Religion of the moment amongst other things instead of valuing and prizing human strivings and integrity.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
18 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

This!

Bird
Bird
19 days ago

This, I’m afraid has all been done before. I smile – like every generation, myself included once, you believe your the first and a icon breaker. The facts we’d like to think were true and new and real -yep they are new and real and true to you in that/this time. I’m afraid some of these bands/artists don’t fully appreciate the hard female ‘rock’ artists from times past. Thinking Suzy Quatro, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders, Joan Jett, Chrissie Amphlett from The Divinyls here in Aus – there are so many others. What I’m finding so different from then until now, besides the obvious culture difference, (I grew up in the 80s – wild time indeed by comparison – post 60s/70s), is these women exuded true angst and attitude, sexuality, rebellion, and the overall ‘darker’ elements of the feminine. They also openly loved men, but boy were they p*#+d off at the state of affairs. I think this is the difference. Back then, we hung around the guys, loved the guys, had a lot of guy friends, but relationships were angst. Women openly spoke and dealt with it. There was immense tension – you could hear it in the music. You can hear it in the male artist as well. Say Led Zepplin amongst so many others.The hard core rock ooozing their sexuality and their want.
Todays music, generally speaking, has lost this tension. The women you speak of, have instead ‘gone lesbian’ or maybe the truth is more Bi – if you account for the more rounded possibility and wholeness of ones gamut of true desire.
I personally have found the very lack of the masculine tension is playing out in the music – and I find a lot of it, for the most part anyway, tiresome and lacking. I know I’m not alone in this – I thought it was just my age but nope, many younger people have lamented the same ‘lacking’ in pop music generally. Its all very boring and almost monotone and ‘same’. I know I will be canned for this.
We are all the worse for our current cultural state of affairs.
Fleetwood Mac – with Stevie Nicks – some of the best work was birthed from the sexual, relational tension behind the scenes. Who was not in love with Stevie Nicks in the day. So many guys I knew were. As I girl, she exuded something, that at the time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on – her wholeness and her sexuality.
I love/d guys – but boy do some of them, sometimes p** me off. But hell, don’t take them all away…….
My want, joy and longing would not be able to stand for it. 🙂

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
19 days ago
Reply to  Bird

Great comment. The crowds drifting away from SZA in last night’s Glasto ‘headliner’ to watch other sets pretty much back up what you’ve written.

Emma Davies
Emma Davies
19 days ago
Reply to  Bird

Yes – great comment. Stevie Nicks is a great example of an artist finding her own voice through her relationship with her ex. Landslide is one of my favourite ‘coming of age’ songs, a poignant searching song – about a young woman thinking about who she is to become. None of the songs referenced by Ditum from this new batch of pop singers can match Nick’s lyricism. One thing they also lack is the ability to explore femininity without sex or perversion, so it’s same sex attraction now to have one-up on the previous eras girl boss sexual explicitness from the likes of Cardi B & Nicki Minaj. It’s very sad that this is where music for women has been for years and still is. I am not against sex in music – but the amount there is. You literally can’t watch MTV top 40 as most of the videos are so explicit they can’t show them.
It’s very sad to me that most female pop stars still need to flaunt their bodies and capitalise on sexually explicit lyrics to make it.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
19 days ago

First – Why does being an emotional mess gain anyone credibility like wearing it as a badge of honor. What good is that.

Second- What does it say that people confuse b***h for strength. No one confuses b*****d for strength. A b*****d may be strong but that is at most separate from his bastardness…

Last – Really strong women as really strong men don’t naval gaze about it nor do they try to purchase it in the form of add campaign for soap nor do they overvalue it vs sincere love or grace…

More to the point – Grow the hell up.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
18 days ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

Absolutely!
I remember people saying that princess Di was a feminist icon after she went on National television and cried while admitting an eating disorder because Charlie had played away. I was in my late teens and asking why this made her an icon of something that was supposed to signify woman strength. In my eyes, Queen Boudicca was female strength. When wronged, she built herself an army and kicked b*tt!
In regards to the crass lyrical content that we get these days, I wonder whether it’s because song writers assume people don’t have the smarts to pick up on clever lyrics that imply without the need to be blatant about it or that many of the general public actually don’t have the smarts. My mum used to play Dr Hook loads in the car and we’d all sing along. It was years later that it dawned on me what we’d been singing! My excuse was that I was a kid not stupid, lol.

David Morley
David Morley
19 days ago

Mean Girls, we watch it every night,” sings Roan in “Naked in Manhattan”, a song about girl-on-girl lust, “and we both have a crush on Regina George”.

I think what Sarah is revealing, but hasn’t really picked up on, is a serious strand of lesbian masochism which also extends to young girls who are straight but have a thing about being treated badly by a girl or woman in a position of power over them.

Once upon a time it might have been the PE mistress or another teacher. Now the media provides more attractive, and meaner, objects for their devotion.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
18 days ago

How’s all this working out for women? On the one hand, we have study after study on the fragile mental health of girls who get wrapped up in nonsense like this and the perils of social media. On the other, we get videos of 30-something professional women who tell us how happy their lonely lives are through bitter tears.

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
18 days ago

So we can compare western pop music to Bangladeshi politics?

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
18 days ago

“Some of its practitioners are barely in their twenties, having been famous since they were children …” So they’re following the well-worn route of female child stars proving that they are adults by claiming to be sexually insatiable.
” … even though all of them are adults, each has a pull towards the adolescent.” So they are not making music for themselves but for an easily exploited market.

RM Parker
RM Parker
18 days ago

Re. this: “…it’s not just about calling out the double standard that has girls condemned where boys are praised”.
I can’t speak for women – I wouldn’t dream of doing so – but I can tell you that, working in a female dominated workplace (health), it’s women rather than men who’re given a free pass on aggressive and dismissive behaviour, under the guise of being “strong”. Any man naive enough to assume a single standard obtains is soon slapped down for such behaviour – or indeed for being politely assertive. Blokes quickly learn to keep their mouths shut and their heads down (thus also becoming seen as uncommunicative).

denz
denz
17 days ago

So this how all the feminism has played out for women. You go girl.

John Riordan
John Riordan
16 days ago

With respect to the author, it is not possible to exile a man from something he’s not part of, doesn’t value, and in which he has no interest whatsoever.