When Beyoncé cocked a hip last year and posed the question "Who run the world?" she wasn't just boasting on her No. 1 dance hit. The R&B star was speaking the XX-chromosome gospel about the pop music planet.
In the decade leading up to Beyoncé's Run the World (Girls), and especially the whopper year that followed, women became the most dominant force in pop, trumping the boys in almost every category. Even rapper Eminem called on a woman — for so long his artistic foil — to help sell one of his biggest hits, Love the Way You Lie, a duet with Barbadian bombshell Rihanna.
The numbers are staggering, with women taking the top spots for digital downloads, money earned and albums sold, to name a few. The current crop of female dynamos is sharing the wealth, too. Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Adele and Nicki Minaj fortify a stronghold built by Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Gwen Stefani, Pink and Kelly Clarkson.
The streak shows little sign of waning thanks to another vocal group: a rabid fan base composed of women (they want to be just like the stars) and men (they want to date them). Their froth and fervor drive which songs get played on the radio, which artists major record labels push and which acts benefit from the top writers and beatmakers.
Orlando Davis, morning host and program director for WLLD-FM 94.1, a leading hip-hop station in the Tampa Bay area, says Beyoncé & Co. are dictating what the rest of us are hearing, buying, living. "Ladies set pop culture. They rule the roost, control everything. They've always been dominant; they just haven't been this prevalent."
Give 'em the hook
For as stylish and incandescent as Rihanna and Perry are, for as bizarro as Lady Gaga and her meat dress can get, none of them would be surfing the chart tops if they didn't have what really counts: ridiculously catchy songs that hook and don't let go.
"Rihanna and Adele and Katy: Their songs never burn," says WFLZ-FM 93.3 program director Tommy Chuck. "People never seem to get tired of them."
If you do grow bored, there's always another infectious track waiting. Rihanna recently followed Only Girl (In the World) with S&M and We Found Love. Adele had Rolling in the Deep, Someone Like You and Set Fire to the Rain. Perry weaved together California Gurls, Teenage Dream, Firework, E.T. and Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), which made her the first female artist in history to score five No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hits off a single album, 2010's Teenage Dream.
Some artists string more than hits together; they string years of hits together. Billboard named Taylor Swift the most financially successful music artist of 2011; she was also the magazine's most-played artist in 2010 and 2009.
Legendary songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, whose credits include Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli's The Prayer, Melissa Manchester's Don't Cry Out Loud and Carly Simon's Nobody Does It Better, says today's female pop stars are crushing because their songs are so relatable.
"If you get to the core of it, it's about connection," says Sager, whose first hit was 1965's A Groovy Kind of Love. "When I was in my heyday of writing and performing, I'd have people come up to me and say my song got them through a particular moment in their life. The same thing happened with Lady Gaga's Born This Way. People felt, 'That's my story. She's telling my story.' Taylor Swift has her own way of saying something, too. Beyoncé sang 'put a ring on it' — and he did! People relate to that."
She found love in a digital place
These are high-tech times for sure, and female performers are plugged in and then some.
A month before Robyn Rihanna Fenty turned 24, the pop star was given an early birthday present. Nielsen SoundScan, the music sales-tracking system, declared her the biggest-selling digital artist of all time. From 2004 to 2012 — from bouncy debut single Pon de Replay to ubiquitous smash We Found Love — she sold 47.5 million digital downloads.
That's a telling stat, especially since digital is the fastest-growing sales division in music — up 17 percent to $2.62 billion in 2011. It's also where the girls are: A recent study in the United Kingdom shows that women spend more time listening to digital music than men do, according to media group Emap.
The proof is in the pop charts. The Fergie-led Black Eyed Peas were the second-highest digital sellers (42.4 million), followed by rapper Eminem (42.2 million), boosted by Love the Way You Lie. Gaga (42 million), Swift (41.8 million) and Perry (37.6 million) finished out the top six.
Then there's Adele, the British soul singer who swept the main categories at this year's Grammy Awards. The 23-year-old chanteuse didn't crack the top spots in total digital sales, but her song Rolling in the Deep is the biggest-selling digital song of all time by a woman in the United States, according to Billboard magazine. Plus her 2011 breakup special 21 sold more than 6 million copies, the biggest-selling album — by any gender — of the last year. She took over for Gaga, whose Fame Monster LP was the top worldwide seller (6 million) in 2010.
Boosting all of these sales is a heavy — some might say smothering — presence on your radio dial, where advertising has always been aimed primarily at women. Now the music is, too.
"Pop radio is mainly targeting women," says 93.3's Chuck. "That's who we care about. And it's certainly what the record labels are pushing, too."
"It's all about Top 40 radio," says Craig Marks, editor in chief of Popdust, a leading online music site. "That's the dominant musical format of our time. If this was 10, 15 years ago, when rock had more juice, this wouldn't be as obvious."
Fans dictate what sells, while labels dictate what they think fans want more of. And these days, a hot female pop star is nothing but dollar signs.
"It's easier for record labels to imagine marketing a female pop artist, because you can market to both men and women," Marks adds. "Dudes will at least be interested in a Katy Perry if she's cute enough. But when it comes to, say, a Justin Bieber, he has an exclusively female audience."
Besides radio, music is now sold through TV shows, commercials, YouTube, Facebook and MySpace. Magazines and tabloids also treat women as their biggest stars. "Women want to read about women," says Marks. "The path for a female artist is more and more well defined."
The Britney Effect
In 1999, a former Mouseketeer turned teen sex kitten cooed Baby One More Time. Since then, Britney Jean Spears has sold some 100 million albums worldwide. Britney begat fellow midriff popster Christina Aguilera, who in turn begat a tween version, Miley Cyrus, who in turn inspired High School Musical, which hooked music buyers at a pretween age.
"Young females are an extremely vocal, free-spending audience," says Popdust's Marks. "They're loud and they get involved. They're loyal."
At the same time, another monster influence was gearing up: reality-TV behemoth American Idol, whose two biggest champs, Kelly Clarkson (2002) and Carrie Underwood (2005), are also among the biggest-selling artists of the 21st century. Clarkson's latest single, Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You), has topped three different Billboard charts. Underwood's new single, Good Girl, debuted at the top of the digital country chart.
It's a self-perpetuating cycle. Female artists have been able to build enduring careers (certified divas Carey, Dion, Aguilera, Beyoncé) while paving the way for fresh new superstars (divas-in-training Adele, Minaj, Miranda Lambert).
Where the boys are
Yes, there are a few dudes on the radio as well. But what's interesting is that many of them, a la Eminem, rely on that not-so-secret ingredient for success. Miami rapper Pitbull is scoring hit after hit, but often with Jennifer Lopez helping out on his hooks (On the Floor, Dance Again). Male DJs such as David Guetta are charting, but they need Minaj (Turn Me On) to do the singing. Flo Rida's recent hits were dominated by guest vocals from the late Etta James (Good Feeling) and Sia (Wild Ones). Maroon 5's Moves Like Jagger was boosted by Aguilera wailing at the end. And one of the hottest songs on the radio, Drake's Take Care, features regular duet partner Rihanna.
"It is cyclical, but it's also what really takes off. And right now, that's the girls," says Chuck of 93.3.
"But every five to 10 years, there is a new cycle of teenagers."
Chuck's job as a radio programmer is to take the pulse of pop. And for the first time in a long time, he sees Y chromosomes on the horizon.
"The movement right now is that boy bands are coming back," he says. "Fun., One Direction, the Wanted. Justin Bieber has a good new single called Boyfriend."
Of course, boys don't fawn over silly boy bands.
But girls sure do.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.