Meghan Trainor’s album — very conveniently called “Treat Myself” — dropped at the very end of January. But while you may be tempted to update that “badass girl power playlist,” it’s worth thinking about who Trainor’s message actually helps. Increasingly, the anthems that are supposed to make us feel empowered are also, ultimately, used to sell us things. This marriage of female pop anthems and corporate advertising is good for artists. But is it good for us?
This marriage of female pop anthems and corporate advertising is good for artists. But is it good for us?
When was the last time you saw a commercial specifically tailored to women — we’re talking shampoo, yogurt, lipstick, that sort of thing — that wasn’t soundtracked by Lizzo, or something brassy and ebullient that at least sounded like Lizzo? Take this commercial for Resort Swimwear featuring Lizzo and her song “Good As Hell.” The ad encourages listeners (and potential customers) to practice self-care when their man doesn’t love them anymore. It’s empowerment through self-presentation; a trend currently so rife in advertising and music made by women that there are several names for it. In 2016, Andi Zeisler, the co-founder of the feminist site Bitch, called it “empowervertising.”
Rawiya Kameir, who reviewed Lizzo’s 2019 album for Pitchfork, called it “empowerment-core,” a genre she links back to Natasha Bedingfield’s 2004 anthem “Unwritten.” While it might now be best remembered as the theme song for the MTV reality show “The Hills,” “Unwritten” got a huge boost when it appeared in a shampoo commercial for Pantene. The song’s inclusion seemed to suggest that you too could “feel the rain on your skin” — but only if your hair looked as shiny as the women in the ad.
Where companies once sought to gauge women’s insecurities, now, they appeal to their potential to feel empowered. And it’s working. When Dove pivoted to empowerment-core with its “Real Beauty” campaign, its "Real Beauty Sketches" video ad racked up tens of millions of views.
Women’s empowerment anthems have of course existed long before Lizzo — or “Unwritten,” for that matter. You have your Gloria Gaynors and Chaka Khans and Aretha Franklins, to name an obvious few. But where these anthems once encouraged you to reach out to your “sisters,” songs today more commonly espouse vague, gestural notions of loving yourself. Often, these can be achieved simply looking good. This low barrier to empowerment is not inherently bad news, but it is certainly great news for companies trying to sell us beauty products.
Trainor has benefited plenty from these advertising trends. Her so-called body positive anthem ”All About That Bass” in 2014 was swiftly embraced by beauty brands, including FullBeauty, with whom she launched a plus-size clothing line designed to help you “#ownyourcurves.” But hold this song, and others like it up to the light, and their emboldening messages start to fall apart.
Lizzo has contradicted her own message several times. In 2018, she teamed up with Weight Watchers — despite her reassuring, love your body as it is directive. In 2019, her partnership with Walmart, a corporation that has been criticized for alleged racial and gender discrimination, seemed inappropriate at best. While she preaches to heal yourself before you try to heal the world, her navel-gazing, narcissistic brand of feminism has resulted in some foul-tempered conduct. “If I’m shinin,’ everybody gonna shine,” she sang on smash single "Juice," which might be why, after reading her album’s review on Pitchfork, she called for her reviewer's firing. Or why, when her Postmates was delivered to the wrong address, she called for her fans to gang up on the delivery driver. (Lizzo later apologized to her Postmates driver, who subsequently sued her.)
Too often, it seems, empowerment comes at another woman’s expense. In “All About That Bass,” Trainor highlights her own beauty and empowerment by casting a shadow on others — ”them skinny bitches.” Plenty has been written on Trainor’s “blaccent” and her co-option of African American vernacular. Throughout the past two decades, this has been a common strategy for white empowerment-core artists to cannibalize the culture of other races in order to spotlight their own empowerment (which in these cases is often tied to whiteness).
“I ain’t no hollaback girl” asserted Gwen Stefani, with her Harajuku Girls in tow. “Should I keep quiet just because I’m a woman?” Christina Aguilera asked, dressed in what is essentially blackface, in a music video which has aged horribly. White female pop stars, including Trainor and Miley Cyrus, have long favored black back-up dancers.
While it might seem to promote a feminist mode of existence, empowerment-core too often promotes a consumable, and therefore ineffective feminism (buy this, wear this, listen to this — congratulations, you are a feminist.) Instead of encouraging its consumers to invest in any real social change, empowerment-core forgoes politics in favor of narcissistic impulses. And it can ultimately delude us into thinking that we live in a post-feminist state where — who rules the world?! Girls!