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12 April 2023

The pop starlet reinvention wheel

From Madonna to Taylor Swift, the music industry demands that its female artists stay new, young and relevant forever.

By Mary Harron

The 2020 documentary about Taylor Swift, Miss Americana, is both beguiling and carefully stage-managed: vérité on the surface, yet revealing only as much as Swift wants you to see. But then there comes a moment where she faces the camera and speaks devastating truth. “We do exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard… Everyone’s a shiny new toy for like two years. The female artists that I know have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists. You have to. Or else you’re out of a job.” She described the exhausting terms of female stardom: “Constantly having to reinvent. Constantly finding new facets of ourselves that people find to be shiny: be new to us. Be young to us. But only in a new way and only in the way we want. And reinvent yourself but only in a way that we find comforting but also equally challenging for you.”

The Spanish superstar Rosalía, she of the crystalline, aching vocals, is only six years into her career, but has been through a number of reinventions already. She began by reworking classic flamenco, and in her second album El Mal Querer created a powerful fusion of flamenco music’s primal power with modern pop. But Rosalía is musically restless, creatively ambitious. She moved on through influences and collaborations: a wistful one with Billie Eilish, a mystifying one with The Weeknd, a romantic one with the Puerto Rican reggaeton star Bad Bunny – in the music video for the latter, her signature nails (also constantly evolving) explode into crystal rock formations and spout fire.

Such collaborations sometimes feel like forced marriages, or at least less than the sum of their parts. But Rosalía’s duet with the Dominican rapper Tokischa was something else. Tokischa grew up poor, once spent a miserable year as a sex worker, and later got her chance as a rapper through the photographer/producer/director Raymi Paulus. The videos he created for her are raw and surreal, with influences that range from Pasolini to low-budget science fiction. The video for Rosalía and Tokischa’s song “Linda” was filmed entirely in the streets and clubs and back rooms of Santa Domingo, with a cast that seems plucked from those streets, and a vibrancy that more polished productions could never match. The comparatively demure Rosalía seems almost giddy to be dancing alongside Tokischa – whose wild sexuality makes Madonna’s videos of the Eighties and Nineties look like Disney.

Rosalía’s rise to global stardom has attracted plenty of sniping. The issue of cultural appropriation was raised in the early days – from those who say that she cannot represent true flamenco. (She is from Catalonia, not Andalusia, and has no connection with the Roma community.) Her collaboration with Tokischa brought complaints that she, a white Spaniard, was “Latina-fishing”, with suggestions of colonial exploitation. The rapper Cardi B, who is of Dominican descent, snapped back: “the woke activist gatekeeping Latinos already hating in the comments. Y’all are so fucking irritating. We just wanna hear the music and shake ass. Go away!”, adding “Rosalía is a huge mainstream artist collabing with a small artist from [the Dominican Republic]. It’s hard to go mainstream if [you’re] from DR, this is huge for Tokischa and can take her far.”

[See also: The death of the groupie]

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Recently, Rosalía said, “I literally don’t take breaks. I feel like to work at a certain level, to get a certain result, you really need to sacrifice.” Spoken like a true heir to Madonna – whose image-shifting and ceaseless musical exploration created a template that female pop stars have been following ever since. Madonna made a tireless work ethic an essential part of her image: we knew that while the rest of us slept, she was in the gym or the dance studio, reinventing herself.

Of course, the one wearing Madonna’s mantle now is Taylor Swift, another great survivor. After her early years as a teen-prodigy-turned-country-music-star-turned-pop-idol, she suffered a backlash in her early twenties. She was no longer the lovable, relatable star. There were too many boyfriends, too many feuds, too much over-sharing. #TaylorSwiftisover was a number one trend on social media in 2016, with users declaring: “everything about her is calculated and fake”. She was castigated as a narcissistic, self-pitying drama queen.

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I confess to having found Swift annoying myself. Preternaturally gifted as a songwriter, I thought her vocals lacked the cracks and rough edges that let real emotion through. (I’ve come round to them since then. In the end you just have to give in to Taylor.) But really it was because the idea of this picture-perfect, willowy blonde model type – unbelievably rich, unbelievably famous – crying about her insecurities and bonding with her fans as if they had the same problems seemed absurd. That was unfair. Beauty and fame are no protection against insecurity.

I also hadn’t understood how much the relationship between star and audience has changed in the past 20 years. Swift’s stardom grew alongside social media. In the age of social media everyone is the star performer in their own little world. Everyone knows, even if they only have ten followers on Instagram, what it is to have their public image judged. Everyone has the same fears and anxieties about dips in popularity and online cruelty. No need to wonder at the devotion of the Swifties.

Swift found her way back by following the Book of Madonna, which says that if you are being shamed you must take that criticism and wear it ironically as a badge of honour. When Madonna was accused of being calculating and cynical she used it, calling herself the Material Girl and naming her tour “Blonde Ambition”. When Swift was attacked as a boy-crazy nightmare she embraced the stigma in some of her cleverest lyrics: “Got a long list of ex-lovers/They’ll tell you I’m insane/But I’ve got a blank space baby/And I’ll write your name”. When she was branded a villainous “snake” during a public spat with Kim Kardashian, she made a snake the symbol of her dark, self-referential album, Reputation.

Now, Swift’s album Midnights, filled with irresistibly catchy songs about doubt and depression, is a huge hit. Concert footage shows her basking in the glow of passionate audience devotion. It will be hard to top this moment of triumph. It will not be easy once the glow starts to fade. Stardom is the strongest drug of all. The best song on the album, “Anti-Hero”, is about anxiety: “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby/And I’m a monster on the hill/Too big to hang out, slowly lurching toward your favourite city/Pierced through the heart, but never killed.”

But then you look at Madonna, about to embark on an enormous world tour at the age of 64, having survived so many ups and downs with fame. For over 40 years she has dealt with both adulation and a level of malice and contempt that would make most performers wither, usually aimed at how she displays her body and her sexuality. Lack of shame is her superpower. (Plus humour and resilience – she was always more Mae West than Marilyn Monroe.) And who has she just made a video with but Tokischa, filmed in New York City’s Dominican neighbourhood of Washington Heights. The sight of Madonna and 26-year-old Tokischa twerking and kissing is more than a little vampiric – an ageing star descending on a poor neighbourhood, drawing creative life-force from a young, Latina singer. But they also seem to be having a lot of fun. And Cardi B was right: a duet with Rosalía took Tokischa to a collaboration with the biggest female pop star of all time.

Meanwhile, the sniping continues. Madonna got a lot of flak for appearing at the Grammies with a face swollen and almost unrecognisable after recent cosmetic work. Rather than denying it, she posted a photo a few days later: “Look how cute I am now that the swelling from plastic surgery has gone down.” And she delivered this statement: “I have never apologised for any of the creative choices I have made nor the way that I look or dress and I’m not going to start… I look forward to many more years of subversive behaviour — pushing boundaries [and] standing up to the patriarchy… Bow down bitches!”

Hail to the Queen.

Mary Harron is the director of “American Psycho” and “Dalíland”. She was music critic for the New Statesman 1982-86

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue