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Beyoncé and Adele, the Leading Voices of Pop Feminism


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One was more covert about it, the other much more brazen. Beyoncé and Adele, the most inescapable voices in pop this year, unsurprisingly lead the Grammy nominations in the core categories: record, song and album of the year.

Each sold a streamlined version of feminism through bombast and catchy radio hits, part of a continuum and, in a way, a break from pop tradition.

Of the two, Adele, who returned triumphant with “25,” the follow-up to her mega-selling 2011 album “21,” is more of the traditionalist. The 10-time Grammy winner largely works in the mode of the feminist singer-songwriters of the 1970s – artists who mined adult heartbreak and disillusionment and made it political. Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Janis Ian – they all did that more than four decades ago, leading a female troubadour scene with personal songs that topped the charts. And just as they did, Adele sidesteps politicizing her music.

“Adele hasn’t reached the point where she wants to make that kind of clear political statement,” says NPR music critic and correspondent Ann Powers. “If she’s feminist, it’s simply part of who she is, an unconventional beauty by pop standards and a wonderfully relatable regular woman whose songs, like Beyoncé’s, often focus on ordinary women finding their power.”

Beyoncé, however, was much more audacious about her feminism, making the word itself a gigantic backdrop in her performances. Her acclaimed latest album, “Lemonade,” is her boldest artistic statement to date, a culmination of the sexed-up imagery and songs that made her famous, but now given a sharpened political edge unlike anything she’s done before.

A “visual album,” “Lemonade” is a lush 56-minute narrative that premiered on HBO, a grand continuation of the extended music-meets-visuals concept pioneered by Michael Jackson with 1982’s “Thriller.” Beyoncé used the technique on her 2013 self-titled album, producing slick videos for each song. But her approach on “Lemonade,” a collaborative effort with mostly women artists of different disciplines, promotes an unabashedly black definition of feminism, rooted in the past as it ponders the present.

Such a career move could have ostracized the crossover audience for a black female pop star of lesser stature. But Beyoncé, who already owns 20 Grammys, can take such risks.

“This position allows her to take risks that other artists fear,” Powers says. “Having reached this point, she put together an amazing team of collaborators, many of them leading women in their own fields, like the poet Warsan Shire and the director Melina Matsoukas, and together they crafted a masterpiece.”

“Lemonade” is, in a way, a continuum of a feminist aesthetic seen mostly in black women writers in the 1970s. Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara and Ntozake Shange all published searing, nuanced books that turned the gaze inward, empowering readers with stories about resilient women haunted by their experiences and healed in the company of each other.

Musically, Beyoncé didn’t venture too far beyond the styles of the day, synthesizing elements of trap music, hip-hop, pop, and country to convey messages of empowerment in the sexual and the sacred. The pop groundwork for something as daring as “Lemonade” had been laid by black acts like Labelle, Betty Davis, Donna Summer, Grace Jones and Janet Jackson, performers who challenged pop standards by asserting either a sexual or political liberation in their music that forever changed the course of pop. With Beyoncé’s ubiquity, her synthesis of such elements on “Lemonade” sparked heated debates on social media and inspired numerous think pieces by critics and academics.

But not everyone was sold on Beyoncé’s pop feminism, particularly its allegiance to black women. The renowned author and groundbreaking feminist thinker bell hooks dissected the project in her essay, “Moving Beyond Pain.”

“Viewers who like to suggest ‘Lemonade’ was created solely or primarily for black female audiences are missing the point,” hooks wrote. “Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color. What makes this production – this commodity – daring is its subject matter.”

The subject matter itself, especially from a thoroughly mainstreamed pop star during the peak of Black Lives Matter, was enough for many, including the Recording Academy, to take notice.

“Until recently, the mood of pop reflected the mood of America, which was notably progressive under the Obama administration,” says NPR’s Powers. “It was a good time for women artists exploring how to express feminist ideas in the mainstream. Beyoncé’s music in particular has reflected a remarkable emergence of women of color as writers, performers and public personalities demanding that their voices be heard.”

Expressive voices of feminist strength and vulnerability as embodied by Adele and Beyoncé have been an undeniable presence in pop for the better part for 40 years, largely upending a hard rock aesthetic long steeped in testosterone. Whether giving old heartbreak a soaring melody or promoting black women’s resiliency in a lavish visual album, Adele and Beyoncé extend and break tradition all at once, selling millions of albums in the process.

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