Big year for women in pop, turns out! They ruled the VMAs. They ruled the charts. They ruled the internet. They caused controversy. Real, genuine controversy: Not just like “your mom is worried” but like “Rashida Jones is worried.” They released good music and weird music and occasionally very bad music, and it all seemed to speak volumes about something. Gender. Culture. America. Women! They’re all over our Top 10 Albums and Top 10 Singles End of Year lists. But which of the great Pop Divas had the best year in 2013? Forthwith, the case For and Against each one.
(ASIDE: We’re not making this list all women just to pit women against women. That’s lame. Everyone’s a winner! And on the male side, the winners were all French robots and British skinny jeans and subpar Timberlake and imitation Timberlake. END OF ASIDE.)
The Case For: You think you’ve seen a Disney star break bad before? Then get ahold of this! Three years after a failed attempt at reinvention turned her into gothic Hawkgirl, and mere months after she added the phrase “Two and a Half Men guest star” to her resumé, Cyrus changed the narrative completely with a pair of nude-and-nuder music videos and a VMA performance so raunchy that she actually deconstructed Robin Thicke out of existence. But this was not mere provocation. Her songs were good. She might be young, but she knows her history. Attempts to cast her as some kind of Britney-in-2007 problem starlet are problematic, since Justin Bieber spent the year casually reminding us what Britney-in-2007 really means. In a moment of future-pop artifice, her AMAs performance asked you to take the tears of a zero-gravity cartoon cat totally seriously.
The Case Against: Maybe it is all just empty provocation. May have surgically removed the bottom from the barrel when she twerked on Santa Claus. The most in danger of turning into Britney-in-2007, as South Park predicted, though that’s as much our fault as hers.
The Case For: Her lofty ambitions have changed the way we talk about pop music. She eradicates distinctions between high and low culture. (Jeff Koons, meet R. Kelly.) At the high point of her SNL gig, she meta-reflexively played herself in a Norma Desmond phase, as a forgotten pop star living in the Upper West Side of 2063, impressing people by telling them she used to hang with Beyoncé. It was the funniest bit of self-awareness in the pop year.
The Case Against: ARTPOP was promised for so long that the disappointment was inevitable. But the album sales were off. Also not helping matters: Her VMA performance that toured through her career phases played like an inadvertent entry into her Legacy Artist phase. Everyone has an opinion about what she should do next, which is another way of saying that everyone thinks she’s doing the wrong thing.
The Case For: “Roar” is the song that will play at everyone’s New Years Party at least three times. Gaga trending too-artsy and Miley trending too-sexy, Perry plays like the demographic-friendly Third Way. Angelic glow may have redeemed John Mayer.
The Case Against: The Earlier-Funnier complaint that Gaga suffers from gets magnified with Perry. (Remember “Hot N Cold”? “Last Friday Night”?) Scattershot awards-show performances were disappointingly buzz-free. (She’s Rocky? She’s a Geisha?) Going the Third Way route risks turning outright vanilla.
The Case For: Inspired the weirdest and most beautiful pop-music moment in any movie of 2013. Spring Breakers might have actually been about Britney, and if nothing else, you know Lady Gaga wishes someone would make a debauched semiotic movie-ode about her. Beginning a two-year residency in Las Vegas: So, job security!
The Case Against: Purportedly “personal” new album Britney Jean is eerily impersonal. Worse, it opened to her worst-ever sales. The combination of Spring Breakers and the Las Vegas residency seems to confirm Britney moving into a new elder-stateswoman era. May be blessedly unaware of the world she created.
The Case For: “Royals” is the song that will play during documentary montages about the year 2013. Writes all her own songs and writes them very well, despite the apparent disadvantage of being born in 1996. Wears a normal amount of clothes, which counts as statement in 2013. Seems much cooler than everyone else just naturally, although that could be the New Zealand accent. Could be the future.
The Case Against: She’s young! Let’s just leave her alone, before we ruin her! (See also: Ariana Grande.)
The Case For: She sang at the inauguration. Or maybe she didn’t: The cosmic effect was the same. She was the Super Bowl. When you’re complaining that other pop stars can’t really sing or dance, remember Beyoncé kept performing while her hair was entrapped by a wind fan. Everyone voluntarily memory-wiped her weird HBO special. She made lots of money. Probably achieved first miracle by healing the sick or appearing to someone in a dream. And just when those simmering rumors about album problems were boiling over, she just released a whole gigantic new album experience. How did she pull that off, in an era of album leaks and echoing whispers? Does she have access to NSA technology? Did she make the album entirely in her heretofore-unrevealed private kingdom, located either under the sea or maybe in space someplace? Isn’t every other woman on this list spending today asking their people why they went through the publicity rigamarole, when Beyoncé has so clearly figured out a better way?
The Case Against: Implicit danger that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
IN ABSENTIA (No New Album in 2013)
Taylor Swift: Unnecessary shots fired at Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were a rare off-key move for the usually more savvy country-pop-singularity superstar. “Sweeter Than Fiction” was a step down from “Safe & Sound,” soundtrackly speaking. Has become the demi-host of every music awards show. Still unquestionably safely ensconced in her imperial phase.
Nicki Minaj: Either made American Idol watchable again or confirmed that American Idol was really over. Nobody can agree; certainly, Idol didn’t seem to accomplish whatever Minaj hoped it would accomplish. Promises a return to her rap roots in her next album.
Rihanna: The Rihanna singles machine keeps chugging along. And she inspired a wondrous and strange tribute from Vin Diesel. Seems immune to the outrage echo-chamber that frequently envelopes her fellow pop stars. And, like, there were opportunities for outrage.
Adele: Won an Oscar. Still unquestionably Adele.