Women and Pop Culture: In Conversation with Lesley Chow

Lesley Chow is an Australian writer on music and film. She is about to release a new publication titled ‘You're History: The Twelve Strangest Women in Music’, which delves into pop's most singular achievers, celebrating the innovations of women who are still critically underrated. Chow notes that all of pop’s greatest female pioneers make their way into the limelight by smashing notions of taste and decorum and replacing them with new ideals of pleasure, exploring these anomalies in her book.

I found this interesting, as I have always viewed pop as a genre unlikely to provide anything ‘groundbreaking’ as it is – by name and nature – popular. Pop tends to borrow from subcultures, feeding diluted subcultural imagery to the masses and making it mainstream. With this in mind, I spoke to Lesley about her new book in the hopes of learning more about the genre and uncovering her opinions on the matter.

Hey Lesley, your new book 'You’re History: The Twelve Strangest Women in Music' explores the pioneering women who reshaped pop, which is not a small feat! What so desperately needed reshaping in pop music and culture which led to these innovations?

The women in my book introduced distinctive new personas to the world of pop music. Azealia Banks and Nicki Minaj positioned themselves as natural rulers, rightful inheritors of the world's mythologies, rather than scrappy outsiders. Shakespears Sister achieved astonishing mainstream success despite their toxic lyrics and Siobhan Fahey's chilling lack of affect. Neneh Cherry burst in with a new vision of what pop could be: raw and metallic, multilingual and multi-voiced. TLC's Lisa Lopes brought swagger and danger to the notion of an all-female R&B group.

These women didn't have conventionally pleasing voices: they sounded abrasive and aggressive, and yet they did it all in the name of pop rather than punk. They broke through with songs that were catchy and irresistible.

What do you think shifted and caused this insurgence of female talent into pop culture?

I think that the late 80s and early 90s were a more spacious time for female pop musicians, in that an act as odd as Shakespeare’s Sister or Neneh Cherry could become successful without the press focusing on their idiosyncrasies or the way they defied norms about sexuality.

However, by the late 90s, the game had become much more restrictive for women in music. It's hard to remember now, but well into the 2000s, pop images were about catering to the men's magazine culture that was dominant at the time. There was a grim focus on body shots and sultriness — anything less than softcore was seen as succumbing to political correctness or po-faced feminism. This wasn't relaxed sensuality or self-expression — it was about conforming to a very narrow definition of fuckability. The scene was crying out for a Mae West-type figure to bring some wit, joy and irreverence to pop culture. Thankfully, Nicki Minaj arrived, and her brand of humor and use of alter egos have been instrumental in inverting our expectations about female stars, especially when it comes to race and sexuality.

Azealia Banks' power came from the way she casually assumed the mantle of genius and rock royalty, without asking for tolerance. Although her career has gone off track since then, her single "212" was a thrilling blast of personality during a staid time in pop culture.

Do you think pop culture can ever have a significant feminsit impact? Most musical feminist movements of the last 30 odd years have been explicity anti-pop due to its central commercial elements. I feel pop sits in a difficult position as it has the widest coverage and public attention but is also based upon commercial success and palatability. For example in the 90's Riot Grrrl - feminist punk movement coming from the youth and bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile etc - was repackaged and sold to the masses as 'Girl Power' and the Spice Girls, who hardly touched on all the important topics being spoken about by Riot Grrrl bands. Do you think the women you touch on in your book fall under the same category due to their alliance to pop or do you think that pop can be harnessed for active change?

It was a major disappointment when the energy and passion of the 90s Riot Grrrl movement gave way to the crass commercialism of the 2000s, with feminism being seen as straitlaced and humourless. Pop culture was able to make feminist anger seem like the refuge of the unsexy and unmarketable. It makes me wonder what's on the other side of the cultural moment we're living in now! However, I think that the women in my book differ from Riot Grrrls in that they don't generally deal in explicit feminist messaging. Compared to the droves of eager-to-please starlets who came before her, Rihanna has a punk delivery and seeming callousness that changed our ideas of what a female superstar should sound like. Yet you couldn't say that the singer of "Bitch Betta Have My Money" is anything resembling a traditional feminist.

Neneh Cherry and Nicki Minaj violate all sorts of cultural norms when it comes to female behaviour and lewdness — crucially, they appear to do it effortlessly rather than as part of an overt political message. But the freedom with which Nicki moves through the world, taking on so many voices and sampling Englishness, masculinity and whiteness whenever the mood strikes her, is an absolute inspiration. She has a way of making old-school authority seem generic and easily mastered. In that sense, I think her presence marks a huge change.

I agree totally about the importance of Nicki Minaj as a female figure in mainstream culture, who has paved the way for many prominent female rappers who now dominate the industry. How do you see the future for women in pop following in the footsteps of so many pioneering artists?

Nicki Minaj's outrageous confidence, commercial success and specifically female mastery of the hip-hop idiom have been instrumental in energising women in rap. Her appearance in 2010's "Monster" was a queen-making role, blasting away Jay-Z, Kanye West, Rick Ross and Bon Iver like so much rubble. Who listens to that song today without waiting for, or even cutting straight to, Nicki's verse? She made all the other voices on that track seem dully homogenous.

Right now, there's seemingly no quota on the number of female rappers in the public eye, which certainly wasn't the case a decade ago. There's such a huge pool of international rising talent, from Tkay Maidza and Sampa the Great to FFSYTHO. Each one has a fiercely individual approach and is determined not to be pigeonholed, with a game plan to stick around and defy trends.

That said, I haven't heard a track on the level of "Monster" or Azealia Banks' "212" or Neneh Cherry's "Buffalo Stance" for a long time, which is the shot in the arm our culture needs! I don't think the current conditions encourage that kind of originality. The industry now requires constant self-awareness and media savvy from its performers, rather than the degree of removal and relaxation needed to produce truly innovative work.

And for the future of pop in general, what do you envision? Do you think that pop will see more stand alone acts or will they peter out into homogeny?

I'm hopeful. This year there's been the debut album by Genesis Owusu, who displays a hint of the mercurial quality of Prince. I think he's someone who's really benefited from bringing his very specific preoccupations and interior world into music.

But I don't think the fashion for self-conscious eclecticism, almost assembling songs as if they're a mood board, is doing us any favours. Paradoxically, the trend for diverse references is making music more homogenous! True arresting strangeness — that sound that stops you right in your tracks — is becoming rarer than ever.

And our last question Lesley is about you! Take us through the writing process. What has the book taught you about yourself and how has it influenced your practice as a writer?

I needed to take my time (six years!) writing the book, to make sure that every single chapter was a passion piece. I only wanted to write on a surge of energy and excitement, so if that meant taking off a couple of months between chapters and doing something else, so be it. I just had to accept that, even though the writing process itself is fast and exhilarating, it takes time to build up to that mood where I can just dive in.

I also wanted to write on artists who felt personally strange to me, even if that peculiarity didn't automatically register with everyone else. Some friends have asked why I didn't include avant-garde musicians such as Laurie Anderson or Diamanda Galas or Anna Meredith. I love Meredith's work, but for this book I wanted to look at artists whose strangeness creeps up on you in the form of seductive pop music, rather than overtly experimental work. I'm fascinated by music which claims to be conventional and commercial, but then turns out to be something else altogether.

After speaking to Lesley, it is clear to see that there is some daring in pop after all. Although relatively small steps, pop culture can introduce the masses to more progressive or subcultural ideas, encouraging a step in the right direction for everyone.

You're History was published on the 9th March 2021.Order here now.