When it came time for Maroon 5 to shoot the video for their latest single, “Girls Like You”—the tepid but inescapable pop-radio smash that has been sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 for the past three weeks—lead singer Adam Levine approached his longtime friend David Dobkin, who had directed two previous videos for the band. “I felt it could be about all women,” Dobkin said in June in an Entertainment Weekly interview. When he proposed his first treatment, Dobkin made a radical proposition to People magazine’s erstwhile Sexiest Man Alive: What if he and the other band members weren’t in the video at all? What if the video was just “a montage of all these amazing women throughout history,” culminating in footage of “all these women that are running for Congress”? Hmm.
Levine countered, diplomatically: “I see what you’re trying to do, but … why don’t we just have all different women sing the song?”
Dobkin piggybacked on this: “What if I circle you, and every time I circle you it’s another woman?”
“Yes,” said Adam Levine. “Let’s do it. We should call Ellen first.”
And so Ellen DeGeneres put up her celebrity bat signal, and before long Maroon 5 had assembled a cast of women so star-studded that it makes DeGeneres’s famous Oscar selfie look like a joke. The “Girls Like You” video features (deep breath) Gal Gadot, Sarah Silverman, Aly Raisman, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks, Mary J. Blige, Millie Bobby Brown, Tiffany Haddish, Chloe Kim, Danica Patrick, several YouTube personalities I feel geriatric for not recognizing, Rita Ora (I think?), and—briefly, delightfully—Lady Bird’s best friend and Jonah Hill’s little sis, Beanie Feldstein. The restless camera circles Adam Levine endlessly and, one by one, these women appear, before the lens once again returns to him.
Behind every Adam Levine, the video posits, there is a great woman, exuberantly lip-syncing a Maroon 5 song.
“Girls Like You” might remind you of another star-studded and immensely popular music video that came out just a month before: Drake’s “Nice for What,” a sumptuously shot four-and-a-half-minute humblebrag about who answers Drake’s phone calls. (It was directed by the 22-year-old Canadian filmmaker Karena Evans.) Behold the cast (who are credited at the end, in case you missed one of them): Olivia Wilde, Issa Rae, Rashida Jones, Tracee Ellis Ross, Zoe Saldana, Tiffany Haddish, Misty Copeland, Emma Roberts, Letitia Wright, Jourdan Dunn, Michelle Rodriguez, and I am tired of typing and you get the idea so I’ll just stop there. Both videos double as savvy marketing strategies to give the songs a viral boost: Very nearly every one of these famous women (with robust social media followings) Instagrammed or tweeted the video to her followers, often with a heartfelt note about how special it was to be included among such formidable peers. Pop culture websites published posts breaking down every. single. amazing. woman. in these videos, the savviest of which did so in slideshow or GIF form. Fan bases converged; content was created, shared, and consumed. The loop fed back. Since its debut in late May, the “Girls Like You” video has been viewed on YouTube more than a billion times. “Nice for What” was the no. 1 single in America for about two months, or 20 percent of the calendar year so far.
On some level, these videos and songs are sweet—benignly femme-positive and welcome antidotes to objectification and overt misogyny. Female voices make appearances on both of these tracks, whether it’s a lately added Cardi B verse (not on the original album version of “Girls Like You,” but hastily added to the “remix”) or a chipmunked Lauryn Hill sample on “Nice for What.” Some of the women in the “Girls Like You” video wear T-shirts with empowering slogans: “Always Speak Your Truth” or “Undocumented, Unafraid, Unapologetic.” Drake appears in his own video even less than the members of Maroon 5 do. “Nice for What” is one of his least self-focused songs: It is a buoyant, benevolent I see you directed at the invisible work that a woman must do just to keep it together in a hostile world.
But something about these gestures feels oddly soulless too. They seem to commodify the idea of “strong women” as an appealing marketing aesthetic rather than a complicated, lived experience and to prioritize the power of celebrity over the realities of the everywomen that these songs are supposedly about. It’s a particularly strange look right now, at a time when a national conversation about sexual assault has created an environment in which women’s voices are being heard, if only to later be belittled or dismissed, and in which we’re learning how much of the female experience has long been invisible to even the most well-meaning men. In so many aspects of our culture, 2018 has been the year of women’s rage. On the radio and on the charts, though, 2018 has been the year of the benevolent-yet-patronizing women’s empowerment anthem, as imagined by men. (Kanye West and Lil Pump’s current, omnipresent ode to the female freak, “I Love It,” feels like a Pornhub-sponsored version of the same idea.) Girls are all over the airwaves, the streaming charts, and the video screens. But they’re not the ones writing the stories, and they’re nowhere near the mic.
It is currently the 42nd week of 2018. For 29 of those weeks, a Drake song has been the no. 1 song on the Billboard chart. For only 13 of those weeks, a song by an artist other than Drake was no. 1. Take a moment with that. It is staggering.
As much as streaming platforms pay lip service to the democratization of music, they have effectively created a closed system in which the biggest hits only become bigger. “Streaming services like Spotify create passive environments where listeners stream what they like, and more of what they like, and more of what they like—ad nauseam,” the journalist Liz Pelly noted recently in The Baffler, identifying the ways in which this kind of listening can reinforce gender bias. “It remains unclear whether streaming culture is merely reflective of a relentlessly male-centric status quo,” she wrote, “or if streaming is creating a data-driven echo chamber where the most agreed-upon sounds rise to the top, subtly shifting us back toward a more homogenous and overtly masculine pop music culture.”
The gender dynamics of the year’s biggest hits bear this out. For only two of those 42 weeks has a song by a female artist been no. 1 (Camila Cabello’s “Havana” and Cardi B’s “I Like It,” both of which have feature spots from male artists). If you expand the criteria to include any song with a female artist in a lead or feature role, then it’s eight of 42 weeks. There is not a single female artist in the top 10 songs on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 and only one female artist in Spotify’s top 10 streaming songs in the U.S.
In a sense, this imbalance is nothing new: The history of popular music, to some extent, is the history of men singing songs about women, from Peggy Sue and Miss Molly to Kiki and Resha. But pop music feels acutely disconnected from the concerns and conversations happening in our culture right now, when female anger and disillusionment have finally been breaking through into the national discourse—albeit with attendant backlash. This week, as news outlets reflected on the one-year anniversary of the news stories that brought attention to the #MeToo movement, the NPR critic Ann Powers put together a playlist of songs by female musicians that spoke to, as she put it, the “experience of going on, of even finding ways to be strong and kind and free, when the world is burning around you.” It was telling that there were no pop hits from this year on the 63-song list.
As I’ve noted, artists like Mitski, Camp Cope, Snail Mail, and Soccer Mommy have proved this to be a vital era for women making rock music slightly below the mainstream. But in the pop sphere, where music and big cultural ideas are transmitted en masse, men are still telling most of the stories, even the ones about women.
Earlier this year, the comedian Adele Givens was surprised to receive a call from one of Kanye West’s producers, asking if she would come to his studio to recreate a few lines from a set she’d performed on Def Comedy Jam in 1992. “They sent the song and I couldn’t help but laugh,” she told Billboard recently, referring to “I Love It,” Kanye’s self-consciously juvenile collaboration with the teenage rapper Lil Pump, which also happens to be his most successful single in a tumultuous year.
On the track, Givens gets the first word, and the last: Her sampled voice bemoans the supposedly bygone days when women couldn’t ask for what they wanted in the bedroom, rejoicing in the fact that today she can tell men “Hey, I wanna cum, mothafucka.” Lil Pump—born in 2000, eight years after Givens first delivered this line—pogos in with the song’s refrain: “You’re such a fuckin’ ho, I love it” (or if you’re listening to the hilariously beside-the-point radio edit: “You’re such a freaky girl”). Givens’s demands give the song a certain zest, but taken as a whole, the song’s bar of “freakiness” feels depressingly low. Would a man be considered a “freak” for merely asking … to experience an orgasm during sex? Scoopty-whoop indeed.
Like “Girls Like You”—or, for that matter, “Violent Crimes,” the as-the-father-of-a-daughter track that ends Kanye’s most recent album, ye—“I Love It” ends up being more about the desires and viewpoints of the man singing the song than the woman it purports to honor. The saving grace of “Girls Like You” comes when, two-thirds of the way through, that Cardi B verse is medevaced in—as urgently as if from another state. It’s definitely verse-for-hire work, but she does the incredible duty of rhyming “crazy” with “fugazi.” May she have been paid an amount for this verse that ensures young Kulture will never work a day in her life.
Drake, for his part, seems on Scorpion to be moving away from the kinetic male-female duets that he’s recorded with artists like Rihanna, Jorja Smith, and Jhené Aiko and instead frequently sampling famous female voices like Mariah Carey’s or Nicki Minaj’s. The production makes these women feel ethereal, ghostly, and disembodied—held at a certain distance. These female voices feel like something less messy and complicated than sparring partners, or even actual people. They’re just vibes.
The Friday evening after the day that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I was walking to meet some friends for dinner. After the events of the week I desperately needed a night out. As I walked, a car stopped at a red light beside me, windows down, blasting “Nice for What.” It had been an indescribably trying week, and I had this feeling that even the most loving and well-meaning men in my life could not understand how difficult it had been for me and so many women I knew to simply go through the motions. “Everybody get your motherfucking roll on! / I know shorty and she doesn’t want no slow song,” the disembodied voice of Drake rapped. As when you’re under stress, my emotions were expressing themselves at weird times that week, and there on the street corner before I even knew what was happening, I was choked up and had tears in my eyes. “What the fuck?” I texted one of the friends I was meeting. “I’m so emotionally exhausted from this week that I just got choked up listening to ‘Nice for What’!”
The sinister, glorious, terrible, hopeful thing about pop music is that it lives and breathes in the world and it hits you on a dumb, instinctual gut level. I heard in the manic yearning of the Lauryn sample something of the weariness I was feeling, and in its rough-edged percussion some of my determination to carry on. The light changed. I collected myself and kept walking. “Working hard, girl, everything paid for / First last phone bill, car note, cable,” Drake said into the ether before the car drove off. It did not feel like nearly enough. But it was, in that imperfect moment, the best that the radio could do.