It’s been a wild few years to be a woman in the entertainment industry. The open secret of sexual exploitation and misogynistic power-plays has been blown wide open to a scrutinising public eye. The music industry is no exception, with many artists taking a stand for gender equality creatively and financially. This contemporary wave of feminism –sex-positive, queer-inclusive and digitally ubiquitous – is sometimes known as Fourth Wave. As the popularity of this wave grows, the number of popular young female artists who won’t take no shit from nobody is likewise expanding rapidly.
Loosely speaking, the preceding waves of feminism (beginning in the mid 20th Century), were defined by fights for legal status, fights for a voice and practical implications, and finally fights for definitions and inclusivity (respectively de jure, de facto and intersectional feminism). As opposed to earlier waves of feminism, the hallmark of Fourth Wave feminism is the assumption that women already have voices and a platform in the public sphere. This is of course thanks to the arrival of social media and generations being born as true digital natives.
Fourth wave feminism is a crystallisation of controversial ideas first proposed by American philosopher Judith Butler, in her book Gender Trouble (1990). She was one of the earliest writers to seriously engage with the idea of gender being a social construct, or in her words, “performative”.
As with every movement, Butler’s ideas came as a reaction to the heteronormative assumptions of being female in the First and Second waves. She brought in ideas of intersectionality – that gender is not simply about being a “woman”, but is influenced by so many other factors such as race, class, and sexuality.
And just as every movement is a reaction to what came before, new generations can also take on the ideas of previous generations as assumed knowledge.
Today, young girls and women are exposed to a myriad of ideas and fluidly-gendered viewpoints from a very early age. For a generation raised on media like GIRLS, RuPauls Drag Race, James Charles, and Tumblr blogs, terms like ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are already dirty words.
That consumption of media is actually the key. Fourth wave feminism comes completely entwined with pop culture. In her 2015 study ‘Feminist Theory and Pop Culture’, Adrienne Trier-Bienik wrote of fourth wave feminists:
If older feminists accused third wavers of being superficial in their relationship to pop culture, ungrateful of the gains fought for by their foremothers, apathetic to politics and organizing, overly empowered and spoiled, the “selfie” generation is defined by an even more pronounced individualist approach to feminism.
Although seemingly defined by individual action, it’s an obsession with digital media and pop culture that unites young up-and-coming feminists. From disparate life-walks, women and girls can be united in online discourse and activism, resulting in movements such as SlutWalks, Everyday Sexism, and of course, #MeToo.
This new wave of feminism is completely integrated into pop culture. Girls today are both consumers and creators of it. Whether they’re selling out stadium tours around the world, or posting Tik Tok videos to their few dozen followers, every action becomes a public statement. Significantly, there is no division between the private and the public or the political.
For artists with an established fanbase, a common thread is taking ownership of their sexuality. It’s unapologetically in-your-face and explicit. The subtext of course is that if men can do it and brag about their sex drives, then why can’t women?
However, the important thing is that these artists aren’t just spreading a feminist message (whether consciously or unconsciously). These songs are legitimate bops. These artists are going viral for a good reason.
In the interest of understanding the mindset of these female artists, and their fans, here is a list of artists deliberately breaking the mould. They’re loud, they’re proud, and they’re reaching a global audience at the simple click of a button.
Ashnikko, real name Ashton Casey is from Oak Ridge, North Carolina, but based in London. Her fiery personal brand is blazing on social media right now – it’s a cross between the punk of 1990s Gwen Stefani, the neon aesthetic of Billie Eilish, with a healthy dose of that one Lady Sovereign song from 2006.
After a string of successful EPs in the online underground, Ashnikko is currently most well-known for her viral song “STUPID”, which you can find any number of prepubescent girls singing and dancing to on Tik Tok. The song’s hook is all about women controlling their sexuality and reminding men (boys) that ultimately, they aren’t needed for girls’ happiness. At the end of the day, the boys are left to simply “fantasise about the pussy power.”
Stupid boy think that I need him, humph
I go cold like change of seasons
I go red hot like a demon
I go ghost for no damn reason
Stupid boy think that I need him
Stupid boy think that I need him
More than a novelty act though, Ashnikko gained some cross-genre clout as a hand-picked support act for Danny Brown’s recent US tour. He even had to jump to her defence when someone from his own fanbase loudly disrespected Ashnikko during her opening set.
We respect women, if you’re a fan of Danny Brown you respect them the same way you respect me.
In feminist terms, Danny Brown gained ally status that day.
As a self-described “Cuntry Girl” (emphasis added), Ashnikko makes no apologies for being female. Her sass and self-awareness is her strength, and she is also part of a new wave of young artists (she was born in 1996) who sing very openly and explicitly about sex.
Her single “No Brainer” is about how she’s made it herself, and is giving the boys a run for their money in the music department. She also references sex, but with her in full control of both the act and the drive. That is something very common for male artists to rap and sing about, but somehow more confronting for a petite, blonde London-immigre art chick. And that’s exactly what the way Ashnikko wants it to be.
He’s a ride or die, I’ll ride his face forever
Flip me over I like all types of pressure
Tippy toppy, tip me over now its oh my, oh my god
Future brighter like it’s solar now it’s always summertime
Besides being the poster child for Gen Z angst (as discussed in this previous post), Billie stands out amongst female popstars, for purposefully avoiding using sex as a marketing tool. Her rejection of typical female attire is a subversion of industry expectations for the female body. Comparing her to another 17 year old at the time, Britney Spears in schoolgirl uniform and bare midriff, the contrast couldn’t be any more stark.
In her recent #MyCalvins ad, she explained:
That’s why I wear big baggy clothes. Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath. Nobody can be like, ‘she’s slim-thick,’ ‘she’s not slim-thick,’ ‘she’s got a flat ass,’ ‘she’s got a fat ass.’ No one can say any of that because they don’t know.”
In a since-deleted Tumblr post way back in 2013, Canadian cyberpunk-pop goddess Grimes aired her grievances at being a young self-produced female in a typically male-heavy genre. She also explained how demeaning and frustrating it is to be pigeonholed as a ‘manic-pixie dreamgirl’ or ‘waif’ due to aesthetic and expectations from her male counterparts.
The post went viral and became known as Grimes’ feminist manifesto.
I’m sad that my desire to be treated as an equal and as a human being is interpreted as hatred of men, rather than a request to be included and respected (I have four brothers and many male best friends and a dad and i promise i do not hate men at all, nor do i believe that all men are sexist or that all men behave in the ways described above)
In more recent times, Grimes has evolved to become something of a living performance art project – becoming romantically involved with tech-Messiah and memelord Elon Musk, as well as increasingly obsessed with the end of the world. Her forthcoming album is filled with feminist themes. It is titled Miss_Anthropocene, a concept album based on an anthropomorphised Goddess of Climate Change, with “each song being a different embodiment of human extinction as depicted through a pop star Demonology.”
Born in 1988, Lizzo (real name Melissa Viviane Jefferson) is slightly older than the other entries on this list. Though she’s been recording and performing since the late 2000s, she only achieved mainstream success in the past year or so.
Besides being a multi-talented singer and rapper, Lizzo is known for her rabunctiously quirky personality (who plays the flute these days?!). More significantly, as a self-described “big girl”, Lizzo actively promotes body positivity and self-acceptance.
However, in a great interview with NPR (she also performed a Tiny Desk Concert, which went viral earlier this year ), she questions the nature of this kind of feminist applause – a self-grandising feedback loop that is paradoxical in the way it praises her for being brave simply because she is fat. In response to her interviewer praising her nude album cover, she said:
Yeah, but are you only saying that because I’m fat? You know what I’m saying? Because I feel like if I were a thin woman, maybe that wouldn’t be the case. I feel like women who are smaller aren’t really given the opportunities to be body-positive or role models either because we’ve been conditioned to believe that women are using their bodies for the male gaze. And I think if I were slimmer, I don’t think people would look to me with the same type of like, oh, wow; she’s so brave; she’s doing this and representing everyone – that they would – you know I’m saying? – because I’m big.
She then goes on to explain the difference in thinking between generations, even referencing the idea of fourth wave feminism (without naming it as such):
I mean, I’m just as feminist as Megan Thee Stallion – you know what I’m saying? – and her album covers. I think what’s happening here is that there’s different waves of feminism. And it’s definitely – it’s just like – it’s, like, a generational thing, you know I’m saying? Like, one generation asks one thing, and then that next generation is going to ask the complete opposite of it because of the lack thereof. You know what I’m saying?
So where there was a wave of feminism where we were burning bras, now I’m like, my bra is in your face. You know what I’m saying? And I think that that is just a testament to human beings and how we evolve. And I think that the wave of feminism right now that’s overtly sexual and in your face, I think, is just the response to where we were. Like, I’m going to wear a suit, and I’m going to boss up on you, and – you know what I’m saying? – like, you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do-type vibes. Now it’s like, no, I’m going to tell you what to do. Hello.
“Play with my pussy, but don’t play with my emotions”
Doja Cat, who for some reason didn’t choose to stick with her birth name Amalaratna Zandile Dlamini, hails from LA California. Her latest album, which came out just a few weeks ago, is called Hot Pink, and the first track is called “Cyber Sex”.
She also literally dressed as a cow for her breakout single “MOOO!”, satirising the male obsession with boobs. The hook doesn’t play around with subtlety either:
Bitch, I’m a cow, bitch, I’m a cow
I’m not a cat, I don’t say meow
Bitch, I’m a cow, bitch, I’m a cow
Bitch, I’m a cow, bitch, I’m a cow
Notably, Doja Cat is also hitting it big with a younger fanbase. Several of her songs can be heard on video sharing platform TikTok. Her songs “Juicy” and “Candy” can be heard as ‘Sounds’ on thousands of videos with girls, boys and anything in between performing choreographed dances to her lyrics. Sometimes they are innocent dances, sometimes not.
I can be your sugar when you’re fiendin’ for that sweet spot
Put me in your mouth, baby, and eat it ’til your teeth rot
I can be your cherry, apple, pecan, or your key lime
Baby I got everything and so much more than she’s got
Whatever you think of young teenagers lip-syncing to suggestive lyrics about cunnilingus, that’s up to you. Sexual identity has always been a part of kids’ experience and expression. It just so happens to be broadcast to a much wider audience now.
I’m tryna get fucked up (Ooh)
Legs up, locked up, got a bitch handcuffed (Ooh)
Love it when you get rough
Hold me up for ransom (Yeah)
Hands up, ass up, money falling down on it
Juggling motherhood and international rap success is no small feat, but Rico Nasty has made an artform of it. After losing her partner to complications from asthma, she was more determined than ever to succeed in the music game in order to provide for her son. She released her first mixtape in 2014, when she was still in high school, and has been hustling ever since.
Her hard work has paid off. Her 2019 mixtape Anger Management is a time capsule of female rage, and has resonated across many demographics.
Alt urban culture bible Dazed called Rico a ‘punk rap renegade’, and wrote:
For Rico, traditional notions of femininity and masculinity are two sides of the same coin, and she’ll often channel both within the same song, moving quickly from being overwhelmed by emotion to being ready to smack you right in the face.
In that same interview, producer and frequent collaborator Kenny Beats said:
She gives a voice to the girls who are sick of having to listen to whatever their fucking boyfriend listens to…You go to a Rico Nasty show and there’s gay people, trans people, white people and black people all in the mosh pit together, and it’s beautiful. These people can be who they really fucking are and stop hiding as there’s something about Rico’s energy that just lets people be their fucking selves in the most effortlessly weird way possible. She takes off their chains.
It’s not all about sex though. This wave of feminists are also keen on shattering pre-conceived notions of what is acceptable gendered behaviour and imagery. Poppy is one artist who experiments with the shock value that comes from juxtaposing innocent youth with blood and candy-floss, internet horror.
Poppy can be described as Gaga-esque, by way of Teletubbies and Japanese horror manga artist Junji Ito. She fascinated the internet with her bizarre videos and persona. In mid 2019 signed with heavy metal record label Sumerian Records. Her artist description is written as:
By subverting the ideals and constructs of society, rules, and religion, progress transpires. Poppy leverages evolution as a weapon for transformation. By doing so, she asserts herself as an anti-hero for a gender-less and genre-less world in need of a god-dess.
Her songs switch between heavy metal, industrial goth and electro J-pop at a moment’s notice, as she sings about being buried under concrete or living a Janus-faced existence. She also confronts her audience visually, often appearing draped in blood, and religious and heavy metal imagery.
These women are acting with agency and with purpose. They subvert expectations and challenge the establishment. They do so by owning their sexuality, physical and otherwise, and by creating the exact kind of art they want to. This has been made possible by the advent of digital media, allowing them to bypass traditional modes of connection and distribution. They may not be actively representing Fourth Wave Feminism, but their art speaks for itself to a multitude of followers from all spectra of gender and sexuality.