Dancing in the Dark: 17 Thought-Provoking Songs By Women About Female Perception, Identity, & Body Image

Mainstream pop music isn’t always about sex, love, and booze. More often than not, if you listen closer, it’s about so much more, especially where female pop singers are concerned.

This is a problem.

5 Stereotypes of Women in Pop Music:

  1. They’re shallow.
  2. Their music is shallow. And fluffy. And shallowly fluffy.
  3. All they sing about is men: how they can’t live without a man, how much they love their man, how dependent they are on men, how they can’t find love, how they can’t hold on to love, how love is the most important thing in the world. (I’m looking at you, Shania Twain.)
  4. They love to guy-bash. (Can you [male listener] pay their bills, can you pay their telephone bills, can you pay their automo-bills? They don’t want no scrubs.)
  5. There is a lack of substance that isn’t a problem in more male-dominated genres because it’s more commercial

Because let’s face it, “pop” is a woman’s world, and because of this, it is often considered a lesser genre of music. And, sure, sometimes pop music is fluffy and shallow and substance-free (here’s looking at you, Ke$ha), but it isn’t only female artists that crank out cotton candy-coated cacophonous collections of recurrent choruses (Pitbull and FloRida, anyone?)

Women just receive the brunt of the blame.

To that, I say:

I’ve compiled a list of some of the most thought-provoking songs by female pop stars. Some of these songs are about female perception and stigmas associated with being a woman, body image and age/beauty standards, or just what it feels like to be in their shoes. This list spans nearly 20 years,  from 1995 – 2014, showing just how current these issues are.

Listen. Pay attention. It’s easy for messages like these to fly over the heads of casual listeners; that’s normal. Pop music is meant to be consumed at high volumes, but it’s also important to hear.

17. Young and Beautiful – Lana del Rey

Sure, Lana del Rey is known for singing about her dependency on sex, drugs, and [older] men, especially the latter, but 2013’s “Young and Beautiful” makes the list simply for the haunting chorus that touches upon the stigma associated with age and beauty in our culture. The lines, “Will you still love me / When I’m no longer young and beautiful? / Will you still love me / When I got nothing but my aching soul?” are harrowing and exposes a real fear that many have in their search for love that ought to last a lifetime. It may not be the most forward-thinking song on this list, as the lyrics portray a woman who is very much reliant on a man for happiness, but it makes the list because it asks one very important question: Do we truly love the person for who they are, flaws and all, or is it just beauty that we desire?

16. Video – India.Arie

“Video” is one of the only songs on the list that promotes true self-love. She doesn’t need much to keep her happy in this bouncy summery jam from 2000. She’s concerned with shaving her legs, or how her hair looks, she’s more concerned with personal happiness. She sings, “I’m not the average girl from your video / and I ain’t built like a supermodel / But I learned to love myself unconditionally / because I am a queen.” This is a message that is both uplifting and nourishing.

15. Can’t Hold Us Down – Christina Aguilera (Feat. Lil Kim)

Christina Aguilera is a diva with a serious set of pipes, and when she released her 2002 opus Stripped, she came hard with a new Dirrty-er image that pushed boundaries of what’s considered “acceptable” for pop divas. Before Aguilera’s new image, fellow diva Mariah Carey (who she’s often compared to) was labelled a “slut” by the media when she shed her “good girl” image with 1997’s “Honey,” which, in comparison to Aguilera, felt like a trip to a Senior Home:

But, like the 4th single off of “Stripped,” and second selection from Aguilera on this list, says, women who show just the smallest bit of sexuality are called whores: “If you look back in history / It’s a common double standard of society / The guy gets all the glory the more he can score / While the girl can do the same and yet you call her a whore / I don’t understand why it’s okay / The guy can get away with it and the girl gets named.”

14. ***Flawless – Beyonce (Feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche)

In 2013, Beyonce surprised the world with her self-titled 5th album, a work of personal growth. “***Flawless” is one of the most surprising tracks on the album, featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, a Nigerian writer who gave a speech for TEDxEuston in December 2012 entitled, “We Should All Be Feminists.” Beyonce has often been touted as very “feminist,” with songs that predominantly feature the singer (and former band Destiny’s Child) either man-bashing (“Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Say My Name,” “Bugaboo,” “Ring the Alarm,” “Irreplaceable,” etc.) or promoting female empowerment (“Independent Women,” “Single Ladies,” “Run the World (Girls),” etc.) But this is the first song where Beyonce might actually be considered a feminist. True feminism, after all, is not about women rising above men, but for the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes.

Because I am female
I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that
Marriage is the most important
Now marriage can be a source of
Joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
And we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are
Feminist: the person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes.

13. What It Feels Like For a Girl – Madonna

“What It Feels Like For a Girl” appeared on 2000’s Music album, and with its infectious electronic beat is pure ear candy. It’s also meant to feel a little predatory and accusatory for male listeners. With it’s innuendo-laced lyrics juxtaposed with girly imagery, followed by the hard-hitting chorus, “Do you know what it feels like for a girl?” it really makes you think about your feelings and perceptions about the women. Listen when she sings: “Hurt that’s not supposed to show / And tears that fall when no one knows / When you’re trying hard to be your best / Could you be a little less.”

12. Teen Idle – Marina and the Diamonds

Marina and the Diamonds broke out with 2012’s Electra Heart, her second studio album. “Teen Idle” is a dark radio-friendly song that finds the singer longing to be a teen idol and discussing everything that comes along with that lust for internet-ready fame. Yet, like most young girls, she’s ready to do whatever it takes in order to fit in. She’ll be a “bottle blonde,” she’ll be a virgin or a whore, if needed, she’ll even kill herself for the sake of fame and beauty. It speaks to a generation plagued by instant gratification. During the bridge, she sings:

I wish I wasn’t such a narcissist
I wish I didn’t really kiss the mirror when I’m on my own
Oh God! I’m gonna die alone
Adolescence didn’t make sense
A little loss of innocence
The ugly years of being a fool
Ain’t youth meant to be beautiful?

11. Magic’s in the Makeup – No Doubt

2000’s Return of Saturn, the less-ska-more-alternative follow-up to 1995’s Tragic Kingdom, found No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani being way more introspective and self-aware. “Magic’s in the Makeup” was one of those songs that casual listeners might brush off for its girlish title and judge it’s content as being too superficial, but take a look at the lyrics and you’ll realize that it’s really all about her all-consuming insecurity:

Can you tell I’m faking it? But I want to be myself
A counterfeit disposition
Can’t be good for my health
So many different faces
Depending on the different phases
My personality changes
I’m a chameleon
There’s more than one dimension
I can fool you and attract attention
Camouflage my nature
Let me demonstrate:

Makeup’s all off
Who am I?
Magic’s in the make up
Who am I?

Stefani is known for being able to lyrically embody female insecurity and mask it with feminine bravado, and this song is an intimate look at one of rock’s most badass women.

10. Looking In – Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey has become so synonymous with over-the-top divaness that it’s easy to forget that there is a vulnerable girl underneath all of the glitz and glamour. 1995’s Daydream album closer, “Looking In,” is a song she wrote that, in the context of her divorce from music mogul Tommy Mottola, sheds some light on just how fragile she was/is. I think that it’s content speaks to a how a lot of women might feel when they’re misrepresented and wish to be seen from an outsiders perspective.

You look at me and see the girl
Who lives inside the golden world
But don’t believe
That’s all there is to see
You’ll never know the real me

She smiles through a thousand tears
And harbors adolescent fears
She dreams of all
That she can never be
She wades in insecurity
And hides herself inside of me

Mariah is Queen of the Uplifting Ballad (see: “Hero”), but so many are unfamiliar with this track that is among her most haunting and personal to date.

09. All About That Bass – Meghan Trainor

Read more here: “Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” Is A Bouncy, Body-Positive Summer Jam That Brings The Booty Back“!

08. Stupid Girls – P!nk

P!nk’s 2006 hit “Stupid Girls” is a biting, sarcastic commentary on girls who use their sexuality to attract male viewers and move up the ladder, and criticizes women who only care about brand names and designer labels. She sings, “Maybe if I act like that, that guy will call me back / Porno Paparazzi girl, I don’t wanna be a stupid girl / Baby if I act like that, flipping my blond hair back / Push up my bra like that, I don’t wanna be a stupid girl.” “Stupid Girls” may use sarcasm, satire, and humor to get it’s point across, but it’s no less effective than any other songs on this list. It’s a call to action to girls everywhere: rely on your brain, push yourself, and you can go farther and be more than what it’s “expected.”

Also, Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, and Lindsay Lohan are not role models. In case you were wondering.

07. Dance in the Dark – Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga is an artist who uses elaborate metaphors to amplify the meaning of her songs, and 2009’s “Dance in the Dark” is among her most nuanced. Casual listeners might liken this song to “Telephone,” her hit from the album The Fame Monster, but they’d be wrong; this isn’t just a song about dancing in a club. This song is an anthem for women who won’t sex with the lights on because they’re insecure about their bodies.

Gaga explained in an interview with The Los Angeles Times:

The record is about a girl who likes to have sex with the lights off, because she’s embarrassed about her body. She doesn’t want her man to see her naked. She will be free, and she will let her inner animal out, but only when the lights are out. She doesn’t feel free without the moon. These lyrics are a way for me to talk about how I believe women and some men feel innately insecure about themselves all the time. It’s not sometimes, it’s not in adolescence, it’s always.

Listen to it again. Feel the lyrics. Feel the freedom of the darkness. Feel how desperately trapping self-hatred can be.

06. Beauty Queen – Foxes

“Beauty Queen” leaked in 2013 and unfortunately didn’t make it onto Foxes debut album this year, which is a shame considering how prolific and important this song and its accompanying message are. We’re so obsessed with the fake, like plastic surgery, that we forget what’s real; we all follow the same standards, running towards a perfection that doesn’t exist. After all, beauty is only skin-deep. At least the kind that the media perpetuates.

Also, I’m just obsessed with these lyrics:

Why are we so obsessed with cutting skin
When the real things in our lives can’t get in?
Marching to the same drum
Every single beat’s gone
I can hear the dark days coming
Another generation
Fighting for attention
Can’t you see I’m tired of running?

There’s a house in the forest
Where her days are forgotten
By the lake, she dropped her dreams
And now they’ve sunk to the bottom

Oh, beauty queen
It’s only skin deep
It’s only thin sheets
There’s no audience
Oh, beauty queen
Something’s telling me
That you were never meant to be
Trapped in time

Why are we holding hands like paper chains?
Why are we so content to stay the same?
Marching to the same drum
Every single beat’s gone
I can hear the dark days coming
Another generation
Fighting for attention
Can’t you see I’m tired of running?

There’s a girl I remember
Who was everyone’s dream
Now her face has become her
It’s the saddest thing you’ll ever see

Oh, beauty queen
It’s only skin deep
It’s only thin sheets
There’s no audience
Oh, beauty queen
Something’s telling me
That you were never meant to be
Trapped in time

05. Try – Colbie Callait

Colbie Caillat’s new song “Try” is gaining tons of attention all across the interwebs, and for good reason. The music is soft and unassuming, but the lyrics and accompanying music video are a refreshing change from the constant barrage of “glamour shot” videos.  The song urges us to stop airbrushing images with Photoshop, to stop caring about makeup, to let go of what others think and to start liking loving ourselves. In the video, Caillat takes off her makeup and reveals her natural beauty, cementing her message that women “don’t have to try so hard” to be beautiful because without all the excess they already are.

04. Beautiful – Christina Aguilera

If there was ever a quintessential song promoting self-love regardless of race, age, gender, or sexuality, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” is it. It’s broad enough where anybody listening can relate to the words and — pardon the unintentional, yet unavoidable pun — beautiful message. It’s the ultimate anthem for women everywhere about self-acceptance, a message that needs to get more airplay.

Look in the mirror. You ARE beautiful.

03. Unpretty – TLC

In 1999, TLC followed up their smash hit “No Scrubs” with “Unpretty,” a song that gets to the heart of the matter: that all the clothes, makeup, plastic surgeries, etc., are just accessories and that if you can’t find love and acceptance within yourself, the rest of it doesn’t matter. Unlike Aguilera’s “Beautiful” or Callait’s “Try,” “Unpretty” doesn’t say that the accessories aren’t important; after all, anyone is entitled to do wear whatever will make them feel good. However, TLC is urging women to work on themselves internally first, because why should any woman hate the way they look?

Plus, these lyrics are not only great Karaoke fodder, but they also get to the heart of the matter:

You can buy your hair if it won’t grow
You can fix your nose if he says so
You can buy all the make-up
That M.A.C. can make, but if
You can’t look inside you
Find out who am I to
Be in a position that makes me feel
So damn unpretty

02. Pretty Hurts – Beyonce

Our final Beyonce selection is the opening track from Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled album. It’s a song that explains how striving for beauty can be more painful and cause more damage, both long-term psychological damage and short-term physical damage. So many young girls are told that their beauty is all that matters and that perfection is something that they must strive for. But, as “Pretty Hurts” says, “Perfection is a disease of a nation.” In 2014, nothing is more astute than that.

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Why are we so obsessed with perfection? Why aren’t we teaching girls to love their bodies, their hair, their skin just the way that they are? Why are the cosmetic industries thriving and eating disorders rising? Why has pageant culture gone mainstream? We live in a post-Jon Benet Ramsay world, where Honey Boo Boo has her own TV show and we sit around and watch 2, 3, 4, 5-year-old girls dress up like tiny prostitots for entertainment.

We shouldn’t be perpetuating these unhealthy beauty standards, and “Pretty Hurts” is a great commentary on our current cultural values.

01. Just A Girl – No Doubt

“Just A Girl” was the lead single off of No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom,” and Gwen Stefani’s emancipation from a male-driven world. It’s extremely well-written, drawing on familiar stereotypes (“pink ribbon”) to drive home the message of the song. Stefani is tired of being told what to do and how to act; she’s tired of being considered a freak and not allowed to do or accomplish certain things because of her gender. In a male-dominated society, women are considered burdens and not as “able” as their male counterparts, and no song captures the indignation of the constant double standards quite as well as “Just A Girl.”

It’s prolific, it’s biting, and despite being recorded and released nearly 20 years ago, it’s just as important and meaningful today. In fact, it’s probably more important than ever that young girls prescribe to Stefani’s brand of feminism. Because you’re NOT just a girl.

You’re everything.

 What did you think about these songs? Sound off in the comments below?

17 thoughts on “Dancing in the Dark: 17 Thought-Provoking Songs By Women About Female Perception, Identity, & Body Image

  1. WHAT A LIST. Wait like, 16 and 15 were such moments for me in life… I was legit just quoting “Can’t hold us down” in my head the other day when thinking about some writer I was jealous of and I was all “it’zashameoyuonlygetyourfamefromcontroversy” hahahaha XTINA IS A QUEEN.

    As is Mimi, which, LOVING that you’re bringing “Looking In” to a larger audience with this gem of a list.

  2. “Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves” by Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox (Check out the version by Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox on YouTube)

    Now there was a time when they used to say
    That behind every great man there had to be a great woman
    Now in these times of change, you know that it’s no longer true
    So we’re comin’ out of the kitchen
    ‘Cause there’s somethin’ we forgot to say to you

    We said, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves”
    Standin’ on their own two feet
    And ringin’ on their own bells
    We said, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves”

    Now this is a song to celebrate
    The conscious liberation of the female state
    Mothers, daughters and their daughters too, oh yeah
    Woman to woman, we’re singin’ with you

    The inferior sex has got a new exterior
    We got doctors, lawyers, politicians too
    Everybody, take a look around
    Can you see, can you see?
    Can you see there’s a woman right next to you?

    We said, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves,” oh yes we are
    Standin’ on their own two feet
    And ringin’ on their own bells
    Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

    Now we ain’t makin’ stories and we ain’t layin’ plans
    Don’t you know that a man still loves a woman
    When a woman still loves a man?
    Just a same though

    Sisters are doin’ it for themselves
    There was a time when they used to say
    That behind every great man there had to be a great woman
    In these times of change you know that it’s no longer true
    So we’re comin’ out of the kitchen
    ‘Cause there’s somethin’ we forgot to say to you

    We say, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves”
    Standin’ on their own two feet
    And ringin’ on their own bells
    Sisters are doin’ it for themselves
    Sisters are doin’ it for themselves, yes

    Sisters are doin’ it, doin’ it, doin’ it, doin’ it, doin’ it, doin’ it
    Sisters are doin’ it for themselves, oh oh yes
    Sisters are doin’ it for themselves
    Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

    I said, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves”
    Standin’ on their own two feet
    And ringin’ on their own bells
    Sisters are doin’ it for themselves
    Sisters are doin’ it for themselves
    Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

  3. I love this post. It put me in mind of some rockin’ pioneers–Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Maybelle Carter, Ruth Brown, Wanda Jackson, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Joan Jett, Donna Summer, Patti Smith, Deborah Harry, Wendy O’Williams, Siouxsie Sioux, Kim Gordon, Stevie Nicks, Suzi Quatro, Chrissie Hynde, Ann and Nancy Wilson, Annie Lennox . . .

  4. Pingback: “Skinny Bitch”: Why Skinny-Bashing is a Problematic Rising Trend | HyperReality

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