Opinion | Female pop stars and the pressure to evolve

Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour” takes its name from the many “eras” of her music career. Her 11 albums and four re-recordings feature different themes, vibes, sounds and visuals. For example, while her 2006 self-titled debut album promotes teal and bright green colors with remnants of early 2000s cowboy culture, both her original album “1989” and its re-recording scream city life with shades of blue and tan. Her original era “Reputation” was the epitome of avant-garde with black, distressed makeup and lots of snake imagery. Her follow-up album, “Lover,” is filled with bright pastels and dreamlike, cloud-like visuals.

With each new release, Swift, who is arguably the biggest pop star of the past two decades, is expected to reinvent herself and reinvent the wheel. With each new album, she must rise to the challenge of producing pop radio hits alongside new sounds and new aesthetics to please the masses. While we can all reminisce and beg for another sound like “Reputation” or more albums like “Folklore” and “Evermore,” ultimately, the masses outside of Swift’s fanbase are likely not as receptive to a rehash of her old sound and imagery. Female artists must continually meet the demands of an ever-changing music scene in which they must present a new and unique identity with each new release. Pop queen Taylor Swift is no exception.

While Swift is a notorious example of the constant evolution that female pop stars must endure, there are very few modern female pop stars who escape the same fate as Taylor Swift. Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa, Olivia Rodrigo, Sabrina Carpenter, and more are expected to evolve every few years and with every new album. They dye their hair, change their street style along with their tour looks, and sometimes even speak or sing completely differently. Rising pop star Chappell Roan’s early songs are sung in a strikingly different way than her more recent hits, with the former featuring a stereotypical cursive accent and her newer hits featuring powerful belting and vocal flips. Sabrina Carpenter turns to country techniques reminiscent of Kacey Musgraves on her hit single “Please Please Please,” which is a drastic change from her original pure pop sound that she’s been flaunting for years.

This Newsweek article comments on Ariana Grande’s accent change and points out the years in terms of her album releases. Originally criticized by a TikToker, fans were quick to notice Grande’s change in appearance and sound since she was cast as Glinda in the upcoming film “Wicked Part I” and the release of “Eternal Sunshine.” Going back to her albums “Yours Truly” and “Dangerous Woman,” Ariana Grande can be Seen in the video Speaking in what is commonly referred to as a “Blaccent.” However, in more recent clips, his accent is no longer there.

The time between “Yours Truly” and “Eternal Sunshine” is 11 years, and no one is forced to stay the same during that time. Growing and evolving not only as an artist but as a person is completely normal, but the constant identity shifts during new releases are bordering on absurd. The change is drastic and noticeable. Ariana Grande has left behind the circle skirts in “Yours Truly,” the latex in “Dangerous Woman,” and the decadent pink and glitter hues in “7 Rings” to be where she is today. Her identity, her look, and her way of acting are evident in every song and album she’s released. And a mega fan could look at an old photo of her and immediately know what era of music she was in and what album she just released.

Nothing speaks more to the demand facing female pop stars than the backlash over Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album. Rodrigo, one of the fastest-rising pop sensations of recent years, released her sophomore album in 2023. While many of the songs were well-received by fans, with big hits like “Vampire” and “All-American Bitch,” many of the songs were not well-received by fans, with big hits like “Vampire” and “All-American Bitch,” many of the songs were not well-received by fans, with big hits like “Vampire” and “All-American Bitch.” He criticized her “Guts” sounds a little too similar to their first release, “Sour.” Between the purple hues and the American high school imagery of plaid skirts, cheerleader looks and megaphone use, the two could be sister albums.

While I don’t personally listen to Rodrigo’s music, when I sat down to listen to “Guts,” my own critique was that it sounded too much like “Sour.” But why does that necessarily have to be a bad thing? I had internally succumbed to the pressure these musicians face to change their sound and image by criticizing Rodrigo’s album in that way. While perhaps saying it’s not original is a valid criticism, if it’s good music, it’s good music. Who cares if it sounded like his new songs were from “Sour” or not if the song is catchy and people enjoy listening to it?

The forced evolution of female musicians is most noticeable when compared to their male counterparts. While Taylor Swift dedicates a three-hour set to promoting each of her albums, complete with costume changes, new dance styles and special features, many male artists are not held to the same standards as many of their female counterparts.

While many have evolved over time simply by virtue of getting older, there is very little pressure on men to evolve in the same way as women. Ed Sheeran, one of the biggest male pop singers and songwriters, has sounded pretty much the same since he burst onto the music scene with “+” in 2011. And while his voice has aged and his sound has gotten a little louder and more confident, no one expects him to put on a three-hour performance with dancers, backdrops, and costume changes celebrating every era of music he was a part of.

And while Rodrigo was criticized for sticking to the genre and imagery she had used in her previous release, Sheeran has not been criticized even once for it. If Harry Styles continues with his usual outfits’ frills and colors and soft rock vibes, no one is going to criticize him for it. Charlie Puth keeps releasing the same generic pop music over and over again and no one criticizes him for it. If there are criticisms, they rarely point to his lack of originality or endless reuse of old sounds.

Women are forced to continually change and evolve in the music scene, to push the envelope and fit into a new niche with each new release, while men are allowed to become comfortable in their positions. Artists should continually strive to release new and interesting music and improve their sound, but the double standards in the pressure men and women face in the pop sector is alarming and it’s happening right under our noses.

Livia LaMarca is an associate editor for the Opinion section and misses the use of the Oxford comma. She writes primarily about American political discourse, American pop culture, and social movements. Write to her at [email protected] To share your own opinions!