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Singing Our Lives: When Pop Stars Are Super-Heroines

The Spice Girls in a still from their 1997 film <em>Spice World.</em>
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The Spice Girls in a still from their 1997 film Spice World.

It's been more than twenty years since the Spice Girls gathered in the Mojave Desert to execute martial-arts kicks and throw space-age boomerangs for the Russ Meyer movie-inspired video for the group's second hit, "Say You'll Be There." Yet the superheroine scenario of that video still lingers in the minds of women for whom the Spice Girls weren't just fluff, but a means to empowerment. Considering women in popular music as guides to our braver, bolder selves offers one way to understand how music by the women artists who've proven historically influential – from the lightest-hearted teen pop to the most resonant rock and blues anthems – connected in very personal ways with their female listeners.

Last week, to celebrate the publication of the Turning the Tables list of The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women, several contributors to the project gathered at the David Rubinstein Atrium at Lincoln Center to talk about the albums that have inspired them and the women who made them. What emerged was a shared experience of learning through listening — learning to take risks, to forge the path that became our lives, and to express ourselves. An edited version of that conversation appears below.

Ann Powers: We initially conceived of the list as starting in 1967, partly because of the anniversary of Sergeant Pepper's. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a great record but it is of course the default when anyone says, "What is a great rock album?" And, of course, many other great albums including Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man... that came out that year. So we were going to start in '67 but then we said, "What about the girl groups? We need to include them." So we bumped it back to 1964.

Alison Fensterstock: The girl group phenomenon was really significant because it put the voice of the teenage girl front and center, first person in music. [There were] a lot of songs about parties and boys and dating and dances and friendships, but The Shangri-Las somehow tapped into like the darkest, most tragic side of that. And it's a perfect reflection of what's actually going on in your head when you are a teenager, when everything is like super amplified and melodramatic.

One of the lines in "Remember (Walking On The Sand)" is, "Whatever happened to the life I gave to you?" And it's like, "You didn't give him your life. You're 15." It's the way it feels and they somehow were so perfect at that. And the Shadow Morton production — the dark minor keys and the big booming wall and like creepy birds that are just in the background. It's like this haunted house radio play. And I think when you're a teenager you know your brain is a haunted house and they just put that on wax.

Ann Powers: One question I got about this list was, "How can you say these women created these albums or are behind these albums when other people produce them or other people wrote them?" Many of the girl group songs were co-written by women and the Brill Building was an incredible site of collaboration between women and men early on in the pre-second wave feminist era. And really, I think an example of how sensibilities across the gender divide combined to form profound popular music. And secondly, I think we should talk about how the voice is a form of authorship, how singing is a form of authorship. That teenage voice tells us a story as much as the words.

Alison Fensterstock: There's a lot of conversation in the music. Their voices are echoing and reflecting off of each other so they're kind of having this female community in sound, especially with The Shangri-Las. They do a lot of like theatrical talking back and forth, almost like they're living in the song and they don't even know you're there.

Talia Schlanger: Just to echo that, at a later time one of the most powerful forces in my life — not even musically speaking — was Spice by Spice Girls. I'm of that age. And I think when you talk about voice as authorship, those were five voices that didn't even need to blend with each other. And what made them great was they each had their own distinct personality and different vocal qualities too. Sporty had this sort of salty voice and Baby had this sweet voice. And the authorship that they took over being their own forces that were separate and individual and special but also this community of togetherness is a really powerful way for women's stories to be told and was to me when I was growing up.

Maria Sherman: I was obsessed with them. They were sponsored by Polaroid and I had the Polaroid camera; I had a Trapper Keeper. It was my first experience with like the idea of girl power or any sort of feminism, and I guess that kind of opens up a can of worms because it's incredibly commodified. I just said I bought a Polaroid product because they were on it. But it just it gave some sort of like agency to how I was feeling as a kid.

I saw a lot of people smiling and laughing when they heard "Wannabe." And I do too. And I think ideas of canon kind of just segue into ideas of what is good or great instead of what's influential and "good" or "great" in all those conversations about taste doesn't usually include joyful music for some reason. It becomes a very serious conversation. Spice is the best-selling girl group album of all time and really to speak like it's too massive to ignore even if it feels a little silly like the video is ridiculous. They really couldn't dance that well. It's just all over the place. But it's just so charming.

Paula Mejia: I viscerally remember seeing them in those Union Jack platform sneakers. Like, they were literally towering above everyone else. And as someone who's always been abnormally tall for their age, I felt like, "That's really awesome. And I should not be afraid of wearing heels."

Ann Powers: Thinking about the Spice Girls' personae and the Wonder Woman movie that that recently came out and how important that is for young girls today — in a way, they were playing super-heroines.

I grew up in the punk rock New Wave era. I was in high school during that time and I definitely remember when the first Pretenders record came out. Chrissie Hynde to me seemed like, if not literally a superwoman, she definitely was adventurous. She expressed an idealized view of the life in rock and roll that I hoped to have. Also negative things about that life — talking about difficult encounters with men and expressing a lot of vulnerability and risk and talking about mistakes. But to me she definitely felt like a kind of a superheroine.

Jill Sternheimer: I just remember being five or six when Carole King's Tapestry came out. My family had the record. And I just remember being in the back seat of my mom and dad's Vista Cruiser station wagon just looking at the album cover and kind of going, "That's what I want to be like when I'm a grown up woman. I want to have a house with wooden beams and sit at my window and have curly hair and just kind of bake natural cookies for everybody. You know and everyone's far away and feeling the earth move and this seems amazing." It was so not like my mom. My mom was running around dropping everybody off at the carpool but that was what a natural woman was going to be and I totally fantasized about that.

Anastasia Tsioulcas: My parents didn't listen to American pop music. And I sort of had to go out and find it myself. And for me somehow Cyndi Lauper really resonated as someone who was really self-determined and self-constructed and I was like, "Wow, you can have amazing hair colors and amazing clothes and amazing songs and you can talk about girls going out and you know having fun and all that." I think she said that once or twice. And I was just at that magical or terrifying age where you're realizing, "Oh I'm separate from my parents. I'm separate from my family. I don't have to do what they do or make the choices they make." And that was really powerful.

Paula Mejia: Shakira for me was huge. I mean I'm a first generation Colombian American. I grew up in Texas but I wasn't allowed to speak English at my house. ¿Dónde Están los Ladrones? was the last album that she made in Spanish before she crossed over into more of the English-speaking market. And right as she was like gearing up to start recording she got all of her luggage stolen at the airport in Bogota. What was in the luggage? All of the lyrics for that new record. And as someone who like I hold my notebook closer to my chest than my wallet, I can't even imagine how devastating that must have been for her after she'd been working on it for so long. So this album is like her just being at square one.

But I think it's her best album, so that loss really resulted in something incredible. She had been playing guitar and doing a lot with a lot of rhythms that are native to Columbia, rooted in cumbia and she has a lot of Andean flutes and like more horn sections. But this album is like it's kind of like at the tail end of the '90s and so Alanis Morrisette and PJ Harvey had already been in the cultural consciousness. She was like, "I'm going to come in with this bangin' rock album that is not Latin music because I think that term gets thrown around a lot and it's very broad and it doesn't necessarily mean anything. This is rock music — it just happens to be in Spanish."

Rita Houston: When Indigo Girls first hit the scene even here in New York, that would have been '86, maybe '87. And as a gay woman, this was like Christmas morning. I'd never been to a concert like that before. So many people felt that it really was just this eye-opening experience. Then, of course, Indigo Girls would always turn into a singalong, and you know there'd be no line for the bathroom because you could use both the women's room and the men's room at an Indigo Girls show.

Kiana Fitzgerald: My sister is a year older than me, and Destiny's Child's album, The Writing's On The Wall, was the first album that she ever bought with her own money. We were obsessed with this album. We would go on trips together with our godmother and our mom and it got to a point were with our godmother and she was like, "I'm just gonna hold on to this." And she never gave it back.

It's this album made by these teenaged girls from Houston, Texas — so I deeply related to them on that level — but these girls who just knew what they wanted to be and were not afraid to put in the work and do it. They had a hand in producing and writing some of their biggest hits. Songs like "Hey Ladies" really hit home for me because I'm from Texas and it sounds a little Western. It sounds a little country. But also, as a young black girl just hearing other young black girls talk to me personally and say, "Hey you, listen to me: You don't have to put up with B.S. You can be who you want to be." It was just so powerful for me.

Ann Powers: At first we were going to end the list in 2010 or 2014 — I mean, how can people know if an album is great if it was just released last year? Then we put it to the group, and they were all like, "What? You're not going to include Lemonade? I quit!" So the reason the list goes up to the present day is because of Beyoncé. Because everything we do is because of Beyoncé.

Kiana Fitzgerald: She's not only challenging herself, she's challenging everybody in the industry. She's putting out visual albums in addition to musical albums. She's just doing what she wants to do as a creative, as a leader, as a woman. She's really just constructing herself in the manner that she sees fit.

Ann Powers: I've seen an interesting evolution of Nina Simone's reputation recently. Near the end of her life she was definitely considered a great artist but also a very eccentric artist and outsider. And I feel that there's been a generational shift that has brought her back into the center.

Kiana Fitzgerald: Just in recent years – she's sampled on Kanye's album, The Life of Pablo. Even with Jay-Z — his album just came out a couple of weeks ago and on one of his songs there's a Nina Simone sample. It's because she represents this eccentricity, this fearlessness of being the artist that she wants to be. And I feel like at the time she was probably like a little side-eyed and misunderstood because you're supposed to just go with the flow and she didn't feel that way. And now I feel artists are starting to align with that.

Anastasia Tsioulcas: I think there were a lot of people who saw that recent documentary (What Happened, Miss Simone?) and sort of started to understand her position and struggles here in terms of mental illness and in terms of historical context of being a black woman and being a solo performer who sort of surfed over several genres from classical to soul. And I think that we were very lucky to be in a position that we can sort of take a step back and absorb her music in the better context.

Paula Mejia: But I think also a factor in her becoming more of a force in this generation is YouTube becoming a place of music discovery. I first started hearing Nina Simone's music through YouTube videos, in these incredible raw performances of "I Put A Spell On You" or "Mississippi Goddam" where you just can't take your eyes off of her. And so I think that becoming more of a way that people listen to music and engage with it was really instrumental in her becoming more popular too.

Rita Houston: And the search for authenticity — she certainly delivers on that front. But another interesting thing about Nina Simone and a lot of artists on the list is I don't think female artists survive being difficult the way the rest of the world can be difficult. It's like, "Oh that's just Mick. That's how Mick wants it." I think we've seen so many examples of that. An artist like Rickie Lee Jones is a perfect example. I've had conversations with people who say things like, "She's really a bitch, right?" I'm like, "No, she's very particular about her sound. That's important." So I think Nina definitely suffered from that and time needed to pass before she could really be recognized.

Jill Sternheimer: Being a difficult artist is often being a visionary artist and someone that has a really strong point of view — somebody like a Nina Simone or a Rickie Lee Jones or a Joni Mitchell, they know what they're going for artistically. They're communing with something otherworldly but they have it in a full form and everyone needs to get out of their way in order for them to create it, to bring it onto the record. And I think that has been more acceptable for men — to make others uncomfortable if someone is strong and they have their opinion. It is a different thing for a woman.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.