Why Sisterhood in Pop Music Is the 1990s Trend We Need to Resurrect


I don’t want to shock anybody here, but the ’90 are back. Or, at the very least, our tendency to over-romanticize the ’90s has led to the return of the certain staples of the decade: plaid, crop tops, and an energetic re-appreciation for Beverly Hills: 90210. But there’s a particular ’90s trend that we’re missing: sisterhood in music. And not in a clichéd, shared-pants sense of the word.

Today’s “my girls” mentality pales in comparison to the familial vibe laid out by groups like Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, and Destiny’s Child once upon a time. Even the Spice Girls committed: “If you wanna be my lover,” they sang in 1996’s “Wannabe,” “You gotta get with my friends.” Solo pop stars of prominent fame took the same approach. In Jennifer Lopez’s On the 6 song “Feelin’ So Good” (a step-by-step guide on how to have the most productive day ever), she’s surrounded by best friends who get ready in her bedroom before heading out on the town. Then, they dance in a nightclub and take the subway home. (Stars: they’re just like us!) Mariah Carey took the same approach in 1999’s “Heartbreaker.” In response to her philandering boyfriend (played in the video by Jerry O’Connell), the singer and her friends dance in a hotel lobby, and they actively coach her through the night and throw popcorn at O’Connell while Carey fights herself in a bathroom. It’s “us versus them,” not “me versus all of you.”

We’re not exactly lacking a sense of camaraderie now, but something’s different. Friend Collector™ Taylor Swift is close with fellow pop stars Lorde, Selena Gomez, and Ellie Goulding — which is great, as friendships among successful women in any given field are important. But pop hits today and their accompanying videos are focused more on the individual and less on the group, more on a sense of self and the power within than having each other’s backs. This has a place, but we can balance it better. We can fix the damage that was done in the 2000s, which is where all of this started.

In recent years, Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and even Katy Perry have adopted a “boss-ass bitch” mantra — a mindset and a motto that champions the idea of working hard and getting yours. This is not inherently at the expense of other women. Seriously, the last place you’re going to find girl-on-girl hate is at a Beyoncé show, unless the woman in question slept with Jay Z. But the pack mentality of the ’90s is hard to find among pop’s biggest female stars, despite an impressive bevy of recent female collaborations topping the charts this year.

2014 alone has seen collaborations between Demi Lovato and Cher Lloyd; Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj; and Iggy Azalea and the world (really: this year alone she recorded duets with Charli XCX, Rita Ora, Ariana Grande, J.Lo, and MØ). New York Magazine even dubbed 2014 the year of female collaborations. With the exception of Charli and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and their subsequent songwriting partnerships (see: Iggy and MØ’s “Beg For It”), these collaborations seem, well, a little contrived. While it’s certainly hard to parse artists’ motivations (Iggy and J.Lo’s is, hilariously, all about dat ass), from the outside these pop star team-ups don’t seem like the result of conversations that led to creating together organically. In some cases, they’re just business endeavors, and business endeavors don’t friendships make. Jessie J and Ariana Grande are even reportedly remaking Brandy and Monica’s 1998 hit “The Boy Is Mine,” as if nothing is sacred.

“When Iggy’s people approached me to write the hook on ‘Fancy,’ I felt like it was an opportunity for me to do an Eve and Gwen Stefani thing — a strong female collaboration,” Charli XCX herself recently told Pitchfork. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome that the Top 10 on Billboard is controlled by females and female collaborations… But what was different about me and Iggy’s collaboration was that there was no expectation. There was no record label plot. At that point, people still saw me and Iggy as underdogs. Neither of us had real big shit popping off, we were just doing our thing. That’s why ‘Fancy’ worked so well: It was so genuine.”

This outward genuineness is where many of today’s female collaborations differ with those of the ’90s. TLC, Salt-N-Pepa, and the Spice Girls visibly fed off each other’s energy and seemed candid, playful, and most importantly, conveyed an unfuckwithable sense of unity. When Salt-N-Pepa shouted, “None of your business!” it didn’t feel like part of a meticulously phrased chorus vying for the next big thing. It felt like a threat. Its urgency was on the same level as a confrontation between best friends and a common enemy during a spat at the bar. In Salt-N-Pepa’s case, you could feel friendship through their lyrical enthusiasm. With the Spice Girls, their friendship came across as they held hands and ran through the venue in “Wannabe.” Meanwhile, TLC devoted an entire prank call (“Sexy (Interlude)”) to establishing their camaraderie. The friendships between ’90s pop artists? They seemed downright unprofessional. They seemed like real friendships — vulnerable, messy, the kind that all of us had. And then tide turned.

The turn of the century brought a lust for blood. 1999 was a tricky time for all of us (#Y2K), but a particularly painful one for female pop artists. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were billed exclusively as solo acts and pitted against each other by the media regularly. When Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Avril Lavigne, and later on, Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse were thrown into the mix, women in music were usually grouped together only when proving new rivalries, or pointing out how they differed in their most cookie-cutter of personality types. Even the dissolution of Destiny’s Child led to rumors that Beyoncé hated or believed she was above her former bandmates (despite a deep-seated friendship between Kelly, Michelle, and Bey that continues today… at the Super Bowl), and the Pussycat Dolls exploded after the success of a song that shamed and dismissed another person’s girlfriend. Pretty depressing considering TLC has only a few years earlier released CrazySexyCool, an album about getting yours, but not at the expense of other women. (Can you believe it turned 20 last week?)

But what were female artists supposed to do? With rivalries fueled by analysis of how long Madonna kissed Britney versus how long she kissed Christina at the 2003 VMAs, there was nothing left than to buckle down and deal with it. Toughening up was (and at times, is still) necessary to survive a flailing music industry — an industry forced to watch sales drop in the wake of illegal downloads and ill preparedness. And what generates publicity better than a well-timed feud? Nothing. And since female artists were already braving tabloid storms anyway…

Well, we know how it ends. We know how damaging tabloid culture has been (see: Britney Spears’ mid-2000s breakdown, Rihanna’s career still being tied to her ex, just to name a few). As such, a new generation of female pop artists have arrived and learned from what they saw. Of course their lyrics will champion power in the individual. Of course they will prioritize being a boss over banding together and throwing popcorn at Jerry O’Connell. There’s a bigger fight at hand that only empowerment can defeat. So no, it’s not the fault of the artist that the Nineties sisterhood mentality has fallen by the wayside. But now they can amend it. True, “Bang Bang” came across like a shiny studio-orchestrated collaboration, but Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s “Fancy” honored one of the best BFF films of the last century (Clueless, duh), and revived the playfulness of ’90s-style friendships. It seemed believable, which was only supported by each other’s mutual praise in the wake of the track’s release.

The same believability exists between Beyoncé and Minaj, who worked together this summer on “Flawless (Remix),” a track delivered with the same urgency as Salt-N-Pepa’s verses. This was also a far cry from Beyoncé’s former collaboration with a female peer outside of Kelly and Michelle. Once upon a time, she worked with a then-relatively up-and-coming Lady Gaga on “Telephone” and “Video Phone,” but it was a professional move: Bey was a veteran embracing/mentoring a burgeoning pop star, and the two hardly move in the same circles now. Minaj and Beyoncé? Well, it’d be shocking if smart, strong, and powerful artists like that didn’t hang out, especially given their ties to the hip-hop world.

Clearly, there’s a long way to go. Fortunately, this generation of pop artists is stronger, more acclimatized to the media machine than their 2000s-era predecessors. These days, female solo artists collaborate. With such warm reception on the charts, we can hope these professional unions will lead to friendship, the honest championing of each other’s work, and the refusal to be pit against each other again. Here’s to more Clueless throwbacks for everyone.