By the late '90s, a decade that had begun with a battle cry—a Democrat in office! a return to activism! girls in combat boots singing about sexual violence!—was ending with a sigh of resignation. For Sub Pop's Megan Jasper, the turn of the millennium was an odd time for music. "Our economy was really strong, the biggest problem was that our president got a blow job, the world seemed like it was in a decent place," she says. The problem was that prosperity doesn't create the most fertile ground for rebellion. "It was a good space, but there isn't that struggle or that thing that makes us hungry for something else. People felt like they needed some stability and to slow down for a change. During those times you see things soften."
Britney was the sweet, dim, slightly naughty girl next door whose albums every parent would let their 10-year-old have, while Christina was molded in the Madonna school of pop stardom, all sexual agency and dance beats.
Nineteen ninety-eight was the year Titanic swept the Oscars, Viagra went on sale, and Britney Spears was introduced to the world. In October of that year, Spears, a 16-year-old former Mouseketeer, released her debut single, "...Baby One More Time." The song, about the wish to reconcile a relationship—the chorus begged her lover to "hit me baby one more time"—became an instant classic. It was a perfect pop confection: catchy, hummable, and impossible to forget. In the video, Spears cast herself as the world's sexiest schoolgirl, wearing pigtails, a teeny kilt, and a blouse that barely buttoned over her chest—a stylistic choice she was said to have made herself. The song was a No. 1 hit in America and equally big internationally, where it topped the charts in more than a dozen countries. Upon hearing it for the first time, Tori Amos declared the end of the female singer-songwriter era.
At least, that's the rumor. But it's not hard to believe; it did feel like a cohort of pop princesses—Britney, Christina, Jessica, Mandy, all seemingly interchangeable—had taken over the world. Collectively, they were blond, bland, sexy-but-virginal (or so they said), sang bubblegum pop songs, and were often backed by corporate America. They were more brands than artists. Within just a few years of her debut, Britney Spears was ranked by Forbes as the world's most powerful celebrity, with ad campaigns and endorsements for Pepsi and McDonald's and a signature perfume. Her domination was unavoidable. Spears' closest competition was the platinum blond, red-lipped Christina Aguilera, another alumna of the Mickey Mouse Club, who sang "What a Girl Wants" (the answer: boys). Even as teenagers, their roles in American culture were set: Britney was the sweet, dim, slightly naughty girl next door whose albums every parent would let their 10-year-old have, while Christina was molded in the Madonna school of pop stardom, all sexual agency and dance beats.
With their small-town upbringings, discoveries on TV competitions or children's shows, enviable wardrobes, and perfect romances, pop stars were becoming the late-'90s embodiment of fairytale princesses, rich girls who don't work beyond showing up to balls in sparkly gowns and managing a cadre of handsome suitors. I can't help but imagine the boy bands of the era in those roles—queuing up for a spot on their dance cards. It doesn't sound like such a bad life. In a New York Times Magazine story on princess culture, Peggy Orenstein writes, "If nothing else, Princess [has] resuscitated the fantasy of romance that that era of feminism threatened, the privileges that traditional femininity conferred on women despite its costs—doors magically opened, dinner checks picked up, Manolo Blahniks. Frippery. Fun." Bolstered by the popularity of its own branded princesses—that's Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan—Disney, a company known for heightening the passivity of the princesses from their original fairytales, began producing a line of more than 25,000 Disney Princess items, which has become a $4 billion industry. Everyone else marketing to young girls jumped on the princess bandwagon: princess Barbies, princess makeovers at the tween chain Club Libby Lu. According to Orenstein, Club Libby Lu's malls are chosen based on their sales potential by a company formula called the Girl Power Index.
Like so many shiny red apples proffered by witches in fairytales, there is a little bit of poison hidden inside the princess paradigm. If there was real empowerment behind princesses, they'd be a powerful tool for girls' self-actualization. A princess is special, but her uniqueness is always discovered by another character; she never finds it within herself. Princess narratives say that women can't be princesses without society-approved standards of beauty and a prince to save them. As pop stars morph into real-life versions of royalty, with fantastic, untenable standards of fancy clothes and cars and perfect bodies and relationships, we get further from any hint of real-life vulnerability, no matter how many times US Weekly tries to prove that stars are "just like us" because they pump their own gas. (Previous generations of pop stars might have been household names, but the minutiae of their daily lives were never so dissected as with the pop tarts.) As any tabloid reader knows, celebrities are rewarded with coverage for playing to their brand's stereotype, providing us an easily identifiable story arc to follow: who we're to pity, who we're to root for, who's on the road to redemption. It's no wonder that so many child stars end up in rehab or obscurity—they're pushed into tightly defined roles before they even know who they are.
The Pussycat Dolls, who were notable for wearing stockings, garters, and little else, in the name of "body confidence," were dubbed the new millennium's version of the Spice Girls. Except the group, which grew out of a Los Angeles burlesque troupe of the same name, made even the Spice Girls look like aging feminist revolutionaries. Robin Antin, the troupe's founder, named the group (if it could even be called that—I defy anyone to name all of them, or even to name any beyond the group leader, Nicole Scherzinger) thusly because she had a vision of, as she told The New York Times in 2006, "making everyone look like a real, living doll."
Ron Fair, the head of Interscope's A&M Records and one of the producers of the Pussycat Dolls' debut album, PCD, told the Times that the group's racy image read more mature to its younger fans. "Once it's branded as a tween thing, it's very hard to flip it up. But what the older sister and older brother like definitely trickles down to the kids. That's what's happening to the Pussycat Dolls." In early 2007, the reality-TV show competition The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll ironically replaced the smarty-pants series Veronica Mars in the CW lineup. "It's about female empowerment, self-discovery and personal transformation," CW Entertainment's head Dawn Ostroff said of The Search. Girls besotted with the idea of becoming the group's seventh member gushed about how the Pussycat Dolls stand for female empowerment, but their hummable hit "Don't Cha" couldn't be further from feminism. The song's lyrics—"Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me/Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me"—put forward the belief that a woman's worth lies solely in her appearance and sexual permissiveness and just furthers the notion that women are in competition with one another over men. But the Dolls weakly claim otherwise. "The song might say 'Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?' But the way we play on it is it's empowering for all women out there. We want them to feel like that," Scherzinger told MTV. "And when we perform it, all the girls in the audience are feeling it, and we always dedicate it to them." The idea that they represent power to some women is depressing and indicative that feminism still has a lot of ground to cover. But the responsibility to be, well, better is in the hands of the Dolls and their handlers. It seems unduly harsh to judge their fans.
But then something happened: The pop tarts began to grow up. We had watched the fairytale narrative of these girls' lives unfold, and with the constant monitoring of celebrity culture, we've also been able to see just how hard it is to maintain the happy ending. They got older; life got complicated, and each girl reacted in a wholly different way. Christina Aguilera released the body-positive single "Beautiful" (its chorus: "You are beautiful no matter what they say") and another, "Can't Hold Us Down," that encouraged the "girls around the world who've come across a man who don't respect your worth" to "shout louder." This was the dawn of a new Aguilera: one who began to wear "This is what a feminist looks like" T-shirts in mainstream magazine photo shoots, talked openly about her history of bisexuality and domestic abuse, contributed money to women's shelters, and analyzed her own role as a pawn of men in both her career and her personal life.
While the late-'90s crop of pop stars was busy becoming adults, a new set emerged. The same demographic that, in previous generations, made a hit of Bratz dolls and Britney Spears has turned to Miley Cyrus, whose show, Hannah Montana, is a twist on the fantasy of becoming a star. In this case, Miley Stewart is by day an unpopular high-school girl and by night superstar Hannah Montana (this being TV, all she has to do to mask her appearance is don a blond wig for her pop drag). As the show's theme song goes, she has "the best of both worlds." Cyrus' blend of goofiness and self-confidence has a lot to like: She break-danced on the Teen Choice Awards, hangs out with the Obama girls, and has a song called "Nobody's Perfect." As Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote on Salon, "I like to think we aging riot grrrls see a little of ourselves in the spirited, boundaries—and decibels—shattering Hannah/Miley, and, we hope, in our daughters."
Girls stand to learn more from flawed pop princesses than from wholly depraved or squeaky-clean ones. Cyrus and her cohort's fumbles not only make them more human, but also are universal to the teen experience. By being both good and bad—and wearing multiple labels—they are telling their young fans that they can't be limited to one stereotype. In the end, they get to be themselves.
Adapted from Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music by Marisa Meltzer. Copyright © 2010 by Marisa Meltzer. Published in February 2010 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.