Bad Girls Gone Worse: Rihanna, Mariah Carey, and Lady Gaga

While they seethe and snarl, Taylor Swift emasculates with a smile

Actual schoolgirl innocence was bliss for Taylor Swift, the red-state sweetheart made all the more innocent by Kanye West's interrupting-cow bit at the MTV Video Music Awards (triggered when Taylor beat out Beyoncé for a statue, and overshadowing Gaga's own bloody theatrics). Straight from the school of Mad Men's Peggy Olson, Swift commands attention through virtuosity, not sexuality, her teen rebellion cloaked in giddy couplets. By casting herself as Juliet in the blissful "Love Story," she reduces a Shakespearean tragedy to a dreamy, doe-eyed lunchroom crush: "Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone/I'll be waiting, all that's left to do is run/You'll be the prince and I'll be the princess."

Does she know what she's doing? Not really. At just 20, she's merely playing to her strengths. But Swift, like Peggy, is increasingly aware of her power. She certainly owns the coyness, as was evident during her Saturday Night Live opening monologue, wherein she (adorably) sang, "I like writing songs about douchebags who cheat on me" and referenced "that guy, Joe [Jonas, you'll recall], who broke up with me on the phone," offering a quick shout-out: "Hey, Joe, I'm doing real well." It's true, Joe. Swift had a great year, the alpha female in sales and accolades, if not aggression.

We know that most of America prefers their pop stars provocative. (Pazz & Jop voters, too, though they define "pop star" differently: Their alpha female was Neko Case, who imagined herself as both a tornado and a man-eater, and threatened to "punch you in your face.") It's the reason Madonna and Janet and now Lady Gaga found success as sex goddesses constantly offending the status quo. But the constant in those cases is great songs—sexuality is secondary, though it's made to seem prime. Because there's a thin line between dangerous and domineering: Gaga straddles it, Rihanna crossed it, Mariah's just happy to be there, and Taylor has no use for it. (Yet.) A woman in control of her surroundings shouldn't be jarring, and yet she inevitably is: We're all still apprehensive, whether she's a villainous pop queen or a harmless-as-a-LOLcat country star (or a First Lady as feisty as her husband). Ultimately, Gaga and her ilk, by suggesting that women can be both helpless and supremely powerful, are slowly peeling off the layers, until all that's left is panties.

Rihanna, getting her fly on while you get your cry on
Courtesy Def Jam
Rihanna, getting her fly on while you get your cry on

Details

Taylor Swift
"You Belong With Me," #10 single

Lady Gaga
singles #7, #11, and #13

Mariah Carey
(don't ask)

Rihanna
(likewise)

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