If I asked you to stop what you are doing right now and name, in your own opinion, the most influential and highest grossing stars in pop and hip-hop right now, whose names would come to mind? Call me inherently biased towards my own gender, but the names hovering around my brain are almost entirely female. Rihanna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, Halsey, Katy Perry—you don’t have to be a card-carrying member of a secret feminist cabal to realize that women are, perhaps more than ever before, staking a claim for themselves in an industry traditionally dominated by men.
Not only are female musicians grossing huge salaries and producing record-breaking hits, the content of female music has also subtly, but decidedly, shifted over time to a generally empowering message that presents women as beings who are, yes, sexual and desirable, but in charge of their own sexuality in a sense completely removed from male input. Women are increasingly writing songs that reaffirm the belief that to be female is to be more than a sexual object—it is to be a boss, a mother, a wife, a veritable goddess all at once.
This attitude carries over into music videos as well. Although many female musicians still intelligently and strategically play to the male gaze in music videos through their style of dress, actions, and words, they increasingly do so in a way that breaks down taboos surrounding the female body. Take Rihanna in the video for DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” featuring Bryson Tiller and Rih Rih herself. No question Rihanna milks her sexy self for all it’s worth in the video in the way you’d expect from a traditional hip-hop/pop song featuring a female artist. She’s in a bedroom, throwing her hair back, licking her lips, the usual. But she’s also made herself the unquestionable center of the video and of the song itself—she’s the one having “wild thoughts,” she’s the one taking the initiative and openly expressing her fantasies, no matter how shocking they may be. She’s also completely rejecting the typical taboos of female depiction—she’s not just showing cleavage, the socially acceptable elements of sexy. Rather, she has her nipples unabashedly on display in nearly every shot, almost daring you to say something about it, you prude.
I’m not saying that the glass ceiling has been shattered into a million pieces, never to be reconstructed because Rihanna showed her nipples in a music video. There are still substantial gaps in pay and in general treatment between men and women in music, particularly when you move down the tiers of popularity to female artists still struggling to make a name for themselves. That doesn’t mean that we can’t take a collective step back and appreciate the progress that has been made over the past decade. So raise a glass of brown liquor to Rihanna and all the other femme fatales of the music industry.