Female Pop Stars Keeping Their Clothes On

Overt sexuality in music video and on stage is a common thread among female pop music artists. Because the majority of female artists flaunt explicit sexuality, it may seem that they must objectify themselves and expose their bodies to make it big in the music industry. We see this time and again with women like Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Rihanna. However, there are in fact female pop artists who have risen in popularity without portraying themselves as sexual objects. So, what makes these women so popular in mainstream culture? I contend that less overtly sexual female pop music icons are popular because they are considered authentic artists who portray sexuality in less obvious ways and they often impart meaning about relationships with men. In taking a look at cases of popular artists including Adele, Taylor Swift, and Lorde, it is evident that these women have used their personas and lyrical content to strike interest in popular culture without being overtly sexual.

Adele has become a top artist in the American music industry and has had a great deal of success because she is seen as authentic. This authenticity is widely associated with a lack of sexual gimmicks in her music videos and performances. As Adele is quoted saying in a Huffington Post article, “Exploiting yourself sexually is not a good look. I don’t find it encouraging” (Marcus). Many people praise her for this, calling her “classy” because she does not use nudity or sexual exploitation to gain attention. This shows that the public often sees flaunting sex as fake and generic. The media tends to believe that “performers who strip down to next to nothing and simulate sexy romps are presenting a false image to their fans” (Marcus). Paparazzi and Twitter allow fans to see that female artists are not sex stars in their everyday, ordinary lives. The highly sexual image they present to the public is not their true selves. On the other hand, Adele attracts a large fan base, in part, because she projects a “true” representation of herself and seems to have confidence in her body image. Her most common outfit is a simple long, black dress with sleeves. This emphasizes a simple, understated kind of beauty. Adele also does not dance and twerk on stage or in her music videos. She just sings. For example, she sits in a chair for the entirety of her popular music video, “Rolling in the Deep.” This helps Adele portray herself as a “pure,” “relatable” star who doesn’t pretend to be a sex symbol.

Adele often wears black dresses with sleeves on red carpets and on stage.

Adele often wears black dresses with sleeves on red carpets and on stage.


Although Adele is not overtly sexual in her concerts or music videos, she attracts an audience because she sells sex in her music. This is not an erotic or pornographic version of sex, as many female artists feature in their song lyrics, but it is more relationship-focused and sensual. The majority of Adele’s songs deal with her relationships with men, specifically the themes of heartbreak, love lost, and falling in love. Through this content, Adele presents a romantic kind of sexuality. For example, in her song “Crazy for You,” she sings,

Lately with this state I’m in I can’t help myself but spin.
I wish you’d come over, send me spinning closer to you.
My, oh my, how my blood boils a sweet taste for you.
Strips me down bare and gets me into my favorite mood.

These words, and all of her song lyrics, are written by Adele herself. According to scholars Railton and Watson, if artists are to be considered authentic creative entities, they must be true authors of their creative processes (68). Thus, because Adele plays a part in writing her own music, she is given respect and credibility in the public, making her more popular. Adele also says she writes from her own experience with relationships (“Adele: Up Close and Personal”). She draws upon real circumstances that audiences have found they can connect with.

Along with her lyrics, Adele’s musical style imparts sexuality. Many of her songs have a bluesy, low-key sound to them. This has historically come with sexual connotations. As the saying goes, “sex sells” and Adele’s music is no exception. The sound has also been associated with authenticity. In an interview with Blues & Soul Magazine, Adele stated, “What I particularly like about soul and blues is its honesty, sincerity and depth. While with pop, though you do have the entertainment factor, when you scratch away the surface there`s very little underneath…To me the most important thing, in terms of longevity, is to be real in your music. And soul and blues are filled with real, proper emotions” (“Adele: Up Close and Personal”). People often respond to Adele’s emotion in her songs. For instance, NPR has called her music and lyrics “emotional powder keg(s).” For this reason, popular culture has found that Adele does not need to put on a show of sexuality and spectacle. They see the music as able to speak for itself. Her music is widely considered “natural.”

A final way Adele has gained popularity through authenticity is by her detachment from consumer culture. Adele’s money comes entirely from the sales of her music, not from contracts with advertisers (Sherwin). She refuses to “sell out” and sees it as shameful to associate herself with a brand. This comes as something different to the public because she is not promoting herself as a privileged individual with lots of money, as artists like Lady Gaga do. This helps Adele seem less “fake” and commercial to her audience.

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift is another highly popular female artist who is not overtly sexual. This is because she upholds this persona of a “sweet”, “innocent” young woman. Her wholesome image does not allow for sexual antics. She started out in the music industry as a fifteen year-old country star and “role model” for teenage girls. According to Camille Paglia, an opponent of Swift, this musician appeals to “vast multitudes of impressionable young women worldwide.” Her music is a cross of pop and country, which helps to form her image as a “charming” and authentic musician. She operates under this identity and shuns the idea of being explicitly sexual. This is evident in her music videos, particularly “You Belong With Me.”

In this video, Swift faces off against a highly sexualized version of herself for the affection of a teenage boy. The real Taylor is the sweet nerd, while the other Taylor is the sexy popular girl. As Swift sings “she wears short skirts, I wear T-Shirts,” we see the virgin/whore dichotomy (Oldenberg and Thompson). Here, she gives insight into the idea that women can either be overtly sexual or not sexual at all. They cannot be anything in between; they must choose one. Swift makes this choice by operating under the identity of the “sweet” and “innocent” young pop star. In the end of the video, Taylor, dressed in a white gown as a symbol of purity, wins the guy. The popular girl, dressed in a tight, revealing red dress leaves defeated. Here, Taylor Swift shows that she values a sense of  “purity” and “modest beauty.” This identity appeals widely to her young audience.

While it may seem that Swift has become more sexual in her transition to adulthood, she maintains her image as the “innocent,” “clean” pop star. Some of her music videos delve into more mature topics, but in a playful, juvenile way. This is evident in a comparison between Swift’s video, “22” and Miley Cyrus’s video, “We Can’t Stop.” Both of these music videos mark a shift in the women’s music careers and they both center around partying, but they are vastly different.

Taylor Swift’s video depicts scenes of her and a group of girls hanging out by the beach and the pool, jumping on the trampoline, and dancing so they can “forget about the heartbreaks.” Miley Cyrus’s video shows a range of odd objects and characters, from goats to men eating money and people twerking and grinding. In the particular party scenes, Swift’s video depicts a fun, lighthearted gathering of people dancing with giant ice cream cones and riding bikes. Cyrus’s video shows a hodge-podge of sexual dancing, smoking, and nudity. In regards to dress, in Taylor Swift’s pool scene, she is fully clothed and jumping into the pool. Miley Cyrus is clearly not fully clothed and she splashes around with the other skimpily clad party-goers. The sound accompanied with these images is contrasting as well. Swift’s music is lighthearted, high pitched and bouncy, while Cyrus’s music features a lower tone and a slow beat. Taylor Swift’s lack of obscenity and her unconventional modesty are associated with childlike qualities. In a Huffington Post article, Swift was even said to be “out of place” in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show and the models described her as unsophisticated because her performance was not overtly sexual (Krupnick). They said she had a “bubblegum vibe” in comparison to Rihanna and Kanye West. Because Swift deviated from the norm in this situation, she was seen as less of a “sophisticated” woman.

In addition to her music videos and public image, Taylor Swift’s song lyrics convey her authenticity as an “innocent” pop star. Like Adele, she writes all her lyrics from her personal experiences of real or desired relationships with men. However, Swift’s lyrics focus more on complaints about boyfriends and her search for love. They portray sexuality in a discrete way, in the form of crushes and Cinderella-esque love stories. Her lyrics also demonstrate a compliance with male-dominance. Her songs often portray a woman as hopeless and lonely without a man. The song, Teardrops on My Guitar demonstrate this idea:

He’s the reason for the teardrops on my guitar.
The only one who’s got enough for me to break my heart.

This song portrays Taylor Swift as someone whose life revolves around a man and she is devastated when he is interested in someone else. By keeping in step with a male-centered society, Taylor Swift remains popular because she does not challenge gender constructions and gives teenage girls a model of a woman whose life experiences are centered on men and relationships with them.

Lorde is a sixteen-year-old pop star who has risen to fame in the U.S. and is not hypersexual in music videos or performances. She has become popular because she is another star who is seen as authentic to her fans. She writes her own songs and her style is alternative. Along with Adele’s style of music, this genre is widely considered as authentic. Lorde is also praised as an authentic artist because she appears to be anti-consumerist. Her hit single, “Royals” critiques the upper class and shuns the rich, materialistic lifestyle. In the song, Lorde breaks ties with consumerism and openly bashes it. This is clear particularly in the chorus lyrics, “And we’ll never be royals. It don’t run in our blood. That kind of luxe just ain’t for us” (Lorde). She seeks to prove that she is not making music entirely with commercial intent. According to Railton and Watson’s theory, this is a key factor in authenticity (74).

Lorde’s music video for “Royals” represents a middle class that is nothing extraordinary, but draws interest among Americans of the same socioeconomic status because people feel they can relate to her.

Lorde’s video is remarkably simple, with only head shots of the artist and a background of white walls in a living room. This image appeals to the white teenage youth subculture. The subjects of Lorde’s video are only herself and white teenage boys, living in a suburban setting. The young adults conform to a model of white masculinity. They are primarily shown boxing and shaving each other’s heads. These characters comply with mainstream conceptions of what it means to be a man. They create an atmosphere which many Americans see as “normal” and “relatable.” Lorde draws upon the masculine model and simplistic images to create her persona as a “relevant” and authentic artist who supports the white middle class way of life. She does not seem like a rich pop star whose lifestyle is far removed from the average person.

In addition to being seen as an anti-consumerist representative for the middle class, Lorde also appears to be an “outspoken feminist” in interviews and public appearances. In particular, she received media attention for her remarks against Selena Gomez, saying her song, “Come and Get It,” sends a “bad message” to fans about women passively waiting upon men (Watkins). Because Lorde appears to take a stand for women in her interactions with the public, she gains authenticity in popular culture.

Lorde was called "the new queen of alternative" by Billboard Magazine

Lorde was called “the new queen of alternative” by Billboard Magazine.

Another reason Lorde is considered authentic is because she sings about common aspects of adolescence. For example, her song, “White Teeth Teens” discusses cliques and describes the popular group, which Lorde does not see herself as belonging to:

I’ll let you in on something big,
I am not a white teeth teen.
I tried to join but never did.
The way they are, the way they seem is something else, it’s in the blood.

In her song lyrics, Lorde depicts herself as an alternative rebel who stands out, an image audiences have been drawn to since the beginning of rock music. Rebellion is given value and attributed to authenticity in society (Railton and Watson 73). In this way, Lorde does not take the same form as many other young female pop music stars.

In a GQ magazine article, she is quoted saying, “The difference between those kids and me is that I grew up completely normally and went to parties and had that experience” (Hopper). Lorde has become popular because she promotes a desired image of a “normal” teen that goes through the same life experiences as her fans.  While she does not receive as much attention as Miley Cyrus for being shockingly sexual, she is esteemed in popular culture because people think she is original.

These female artists who break from the trend of hypersexuality in pop culture must attract audiences in different ways. At first glance, they may appear to be neglecting the idea of “sex sells,” but just because they do not flaunt erotic types of sexuality in their representations, does not mean they don’t use it to their advantage. It tends to come across in their music and portrayals of relationships. Most notably, public perception of authenticity in varying ways allows artists to gain attention and reputation from fans. Without such qualities, these women in pop music would likely remain under the radar.


Works Cited

“Adele: Up Close and Personal.” Blues and Soul. Blues and Soul Magazine, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Hopper, Jessica. “Meet Lorde.” GQ. GQ Magazine, 5 Nov. 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Krupnick, Ellie. “Taylor Swift’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show Performance Dissed By Model.” The Huffington Post., 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Marcus, Stephanie. “Adele Blasts Musicians Who Use Sex To Sell Records.” The Huffington Post., 26 Sept. 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

NPR Staff. “The Ballad Of The Tearful: Why Some Songs Make You Cry.” NPR. NPR, 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Oldenburg, Ann, and Arienne Thompson. “The New Norm in Hollywood? Hypersexed.” USA Today. Gannett, 25 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Paglia, Camille. ” Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Hollywood Are Ruining Women.” The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Railton, Diane; Watson, Paul. Music Video and the Politics of Representation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011. Ebook Library. Web. 01 Dec. 2013.

Sherwin, Adam. “The Secret of Adele’s Success? No Festivals, Tweeting – or Selling out.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 24 May 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Watkins, Jade. “She’s Not Supporting Other Women.” Mail Online. Daily Mail, 7 Nov. 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

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