Music by VICE

The Shifting Image of the Teenage Female Pop Star: How We Got from Britney Spears to Lorde

Female pop stars are embracing a punky grit and millennial darkness that is eclipsing the bubblegum pop of the past.

by Aliza Abarbanel
May 29 2015, 7:15pm

As a teenage girl rapidly aging out of pop music’s key demographic, it’s time to cash in on my credentials and reflect on the genre. Call this a state of the genre, if you will. I grew up in the age of Britney Spears, singing her songs on my elementary school playground with misguided vigor since I had no idea what those songs were really about. I was hypnotized by Brit’s sultry voice and perfect abs—but really, who wasn’t? I'm old enough to have experienced the mixed-signal allure of the Britney Spears era yet young enough to be drawn into the orbit of a curious new breed. So what changed?

We’ve entered the age of alterna-pop. Female pop stars are embracing a punky grit and millennial darkness that is eclipsing the bubblegum pop of the past. After all, pop music is, by definition, a reflection of the trends deemed most popular by society’s youngest consumers. The success of today’s new brand of angst-ridden pop stars isn’t the work of music executives boardroom decisions—it's a reflection of the teenage millieu. It always has been. But we’re not all subscribing to the same mass-marketed ideal anymore. Instead, there are options. We’ve entered the age of alterna-pop. When confronted with the evolution of perky pop to mainstream melancholy, we have to consider both sides of the same coin. To map this evolution of of perky pop to mainstream melancholy, let’s consider two teen queens: Britney Spears and Lorde.

When Britney emerged in 1999 she was young, blonde, and hot—pop’s little Lolita. That perfect mix of an all-American teenager as a dream girl on the cusp of a sexual awakening became an image cemented in time when the video for “Baby One More Time” hit the Disney Channel. Everything about her reflected mainstream appeal. Girls wanted to be her, the perfect girl with the perfect body, singing about love while surrounded by a pantheon of male suitors. The only thing controversial about her was her sex appeal—the love songs and bubbly sound that made her famous is now the bubblegum pop. Britney was what American teens wanted from a pop star at the dawn of the 2000s because that's who teens at the dawn of the 2000s wanted to be.

Lorde is a reactionary pop star. She's the "other" girl’s answer to the Britney era. Her inky black clothes and dark stained lips are about as far away as you can get from hot pink or red PVC. And choreography? Please. She contorts her body in ways that are odd and ugly, hunched and twitching like a witch throwing deadly nightshade into a cauldron. Lyrically speaking, Lorde’s in a whole other ballpark. She writes her own songs, and the topics range from apathy to identity struggles—angst incarnate. You’d be hard pressed to find a cliche love song in her repertoire.

While Britney cut her teeth on a look that reveled in teen queen sexuality and bringing boys to the yard, Lorde chose the image of the rebellious cool-kid ruler of the roost. The image of the anti-social pop star blew up once Lorde became the youngest solo artist to achieve a US number one single since Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” in 1987 (a song made popular by “The Beautiful You: Celebrating The Good Life Shopping Mall Tour). And thanks to Tumblr, YouTube, and Twitter, she didn’t even have to leave New Zealand to become an international star, much less visit a billion shopping malls.

It's not like America is over the girl next door. I’m just pointing out that the girl can be besties while the weird one wearing black serves heavy goth vibes. Molly Ringwald gets Ally Sheedy like Taylor Swift gets Lorde. Unlike Ally Sheedy, Lorde isn’t lurking in the back of a classroom—she’s performing at the Grammys. Fifteen years ago Lorde would never be a pop star. She would have been considered too weird. Too dark. Too anti. But Lorde is successful today because the internet has partially wrestled control from boardroom suits who designed Britney Spears.

Changing teenage ideals are wholly reflected through pop culture. Being cool is the cornerstone of every teenage generation since the dawn of time and we’ve been conditioned to believe that it’s all in the presentation. The popular girls were once defined by perfect blonde hair and a pleated cheerleader skirt. This shines clear in Britney’s image, as well as other teen phenomenons of the era like Beverly Hills, 90210, and The OC. It was truly the era of the prototypical popular girl: sexy yet innocent, bubbly and fun.

Now, Doc Martins are de rigueur and hair bleached in pastel hues are the marks of a cool kid today. Lorde’s borne-of-the-internet aesthetic fits right in with her generation of teenage consumers who have built a definition of popularity around being online. The millennial Brat Pack is made up of burgeoning models (see: Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid) and viral tastemakers (Tavi Gevinson, Petra Collins). Popularity has officially extended beyond the cafeteria, and it’s tangible with every reblog and Instagram follower.

Lorde and her music reflect the power of the Tumblr generation. She’s right there with us in the thick of growing up, making fun of the opulent trappings of fame while also admitting to desire it. It’s an exclamation of everything it is to be a teenage girl, to simultaneously hates everything and wants it so bad. On the song “Bravado,” Lorde sings, “I want the applause, the approval, the things that make me go ‘Oh.’” She wants to be at top of the pops, sure, but she it comes with the struggle for acceptance from her peers. Even music’s biggest stars yearn to fit in like a teenager at school—Lorde’s just documenting it in hit songs as well as her personal Tumblr. After all, what is social media other than one big breeding ground for bullies and trolls? It’s a virtual high school hell.

I predict that the dark and gritty side to pop music will only continue to grow away from Britneys and towards more and more Lordes. A storm’s a-brewing in our conception of the it girl. But what happens when everyone becomes alternative? Will Britney’s look of the American girl-next door become the alternative once we all wear purple lipstick and refuse to brush our hair? The real question isn’t which image is more popular in the current pop culture hierarchy. It’s what’s the alternative to the alternative and how long will it take until we’re back at the beginning?

Maybe there doesn’t need to be a single aesthetic at the top of the pop princess pyramid. Taylor Swift and Lorde, two of pop’s greatest rulers, have a well-documented friendship that’s eagerly lapped up by media and their fandoms alike. It’s more than a mere coexistence—their fans share a lot of overlap, suggesting that today’s pop listeners can be loyal to more than one sound. After all, pop music isn’t shaped by thinkpieces or music critics—it’s what’s popular, something that can only be decided by its audience. This one is for the fans to decide.

Aliza Abarbanel will never be a Slave 4 U or a royal. Tweet her tips: @AlizaAbarbanel