The Musical Shift from Sound to Poetic Lyricism: A Rise in Feminine Qualities

Image description: Red and purple collage of artists and relevant symbolism. Pictures include Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Phoebe Bridgers, and Gracie Abrams. Items include red heart sunglasses, red lip kisses, a pink bow, silver stars, disco balls, red playing cards, a purple heart cake, red Coca-Cola bottle caps, a receipt reading “punisher” in red text, a “Willow (2023) poster, and purple painted ghosts.

Image Credits: Selena Perez

In recent years, there has been a rise in breakout artists defined by their quiet voices of substantial poetic quality. Such artists include Gracie Abrams, Phoebe Bridgers, and even Billie Eilish, who arguably helped pioneer this incoming genre in the late 2010s during the transitionary period. While 2000s and 2010s artists were most often notable for vocal range and ability to belt, this new wave of music focuses on the intricacies of pronunciation and whispery breath control. It is also more dependent on metaphorical and poetic lyricism. In this way, we are seeing a major shift in the art form’s gear toward the “female gaze” and emphasis on feminine qualities.

But why might this be the case? Well, it seems this musical shift mirrors the political shift toward modern feminism, which encourages femme people to lean into their soft sides, forgoing outdated feminist ideals that promote overcompensation like mimicking masculinity via diminishing emotionality, being in positions of power, and overall “girl-bossing”. Contemporary culture is supportive of new-age feminism by dismantling the expectation of overcorrection. In fact, this cultural acceptance of femininity is not limited to women, but extends to all genders (including cisgender men). This is evident, for example, in men’s fashion trends like the popularity of painted nails, jewelry, and layering. Seeing as culture is often reflective of society, this musical shift is simply a byproduct of a much larger socio-political shift.

Many of the most popular female artists from the 2000s and 2010s used their vocal range and belting ability to relay powerful lyrics of confidence, sex, and “feminine rage”. Beyonce, Nelly Furtado, Carrie Underwood, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Katy Perry, and so on, are great examples of this. Songs like “Promiscuous”, “Maneater”, “Before He Cheats”, and “Run the World (Girls)” have a very overt, conflicted approach to feminism. Ironically, many of these women using loud vocals for female empowerment still needed to be attractive to an audience of men for the purpose of success. Thus, the sex appeal imagery was created for the “male gaze”, and the lyrics were created for the “female ear”. 

With the rise of the internet, pop culture, and social media, the “female gaze” has largely taken over, as girls and femmes run online culture and have established themselves as a fruitful target audience seeking music they can resonate with today. Because of this, current popular female artists like Taylor Swift, Gracie Abrams, Phoebe Bridgers, Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey, Mitski, and so on, have leeway to curate their persona, aesthetic, musical themes, sound, and lyricism for the “female gaze” and the “female ear”.

This new wave of “girl music” reimagines “feminine rage” as a slow burn of emotion. It features introspective emotive songs with haunting atmospheric soundscapes to create evocative portrayals of mental and emotional environments. For example, in Phoebe Bridgers’s “I Know the End”, the first half of the song presents a desire to stay with a romantic partner through sonic sadness. In the second half, however, there is a sudden shift as the narrator finds the strength to leave. This is portrayed through dramatic instrumentation and inclining sounds. It ends with descriptions of the haunted house and alien spaceship (metaphors for unfamiliar spaces), intense drums and trumpets, and screaming. Most notably, in the last 10 seconds of the song, the instruments fade and Bridgers begins to scream in whisper, demonstrating a finale of “feminine rage” through quietness

Lana Del Rey’s “Chemtrails Over The Country Club” music video is another perfect example of this. There is an interlude of horror sounds that appear around 2 minutes 57 seconds accompanied by visuals of a storm before everything breaks out into absolutely unhinged feminist art. Her voice fades distortedly, wolves can be heard growling, fire crackles, and women undress to convene as witches. 

In Mistki’s “Nobody”, similar stylistic choices are made. As the song ends, her voice becomes increasingly distorted. It sounds as if a broken record is playing. This, and the repetition of her hushedly speaking the word “nobody” in a sing-songy voice reveals the deliriousness she crawls into. 

Taylor Swift’s “closure” opens with loud indistinguishable noises that mimic pots and pans clanking, before segwaying into a spoken-word style of singing in which she openly expresses her boiling resentment. 

Thus, in this breakout genre, “feminine rage” reshapes itself through the combination of a subdued vocal style and complex arrangements that create evocative atmospheres.

This juxtaposed union sets the scene for the character’s emotions. Conversely, these same artists use stripped-down arrangements in such a way that space is instead created for storytelling through poetic lyrics. Great examples of minimal instrumentals acting as spotlights for softly sung poetics include Eilish’s “Male Fantasy”, Del Rey’s “Happiness is a butterfly”, Abrams’s “Amelie”, and Swift’s “hoax”. 

In comparison, complex arrangements in the 2000s and 2010s were used for upbeat portrayals of girl power, party anthems, and sex appeal, as opposed to hysteria. Stripped-down arrangements from this time were utilized mainly in emotional ballads like many of Adele’s songs, which touched on heartbreak through powerhouse vocals but didn’t blatantly point out feminist issues. Hence, the early 2010s saw an era of overt emotional expression even in its “sad slow songs”. This contemporary era promotes music that is hushed, with a more pensive character, defined by reflective and deepened understanding. Even this reflectiveness has much to do with the internet. Platforms like TikTok have catalyzed a socio-political shift toward normalizing conversations around gender, sexuality, mental illness, etc. by providing a space for diverse everyday people to share their lives through low-commitment short-form videos. Creators like Chris Olsen, who records and posts therapy sessions online, help to destigmatize mental illness. Olsen is also open with his audience of 12.1 million on his experiences as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a recovering alcoholic. Consequently, self-improvement and self-reflection have become cultural trends that have inevitably trickled into popular art forms like music. 

In fact, a majority of Gracie Abrams’s discography touches on the experience of mental illness. Eilish’s sophomore album, “Happier Than Ever”, creates conversation around mental illness, as well as around feminist issues like the predatory nature of men, societal pressure, the male gaze, the female “expiration date”, etc. Lana Del Rey’s music introduces sexual identity and promiscuity as a means of “feminine rage” and empowerment. The list goes on. 

This recent trend, soft poetic vocals as vehicles for hysteria, is an interesting one considering the role women’s voices have historically played in society. Women have restrained their voices as a means of control over their experience and the narratives that surround them in many ways. It has been a consistent theme. For instance, Emily Dickinson’s refusal to speak to guests during a time when a cordial exchange of words was expected of women, was an outright attack on 19th century patriarchal society. Volume has continued to facilitate feminine power in a world where power is so unevenly distributed. 

This shift in both the discussions created within lyrics and the musical methods utilized by femme artists, highlights a turning point in the feminist movement, demonstrating that Gen Z is moving toward vulnerability and psychological healing.

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