Is there a campaign to make all Top 40 hits by female artists sound like an endless stroll through Forever 21?
Consider the latest from Becky G, the Mexican American rapper from Inglewood whose mix of Disney-like cuteness, street smarts and lyrics representing her family, her neighborhood and La Raza had me guessing she’d be one of the few to break through with her voice intact.
But then I went on YouTube and saw her “Shower” video.
It opens with the 17-year-old on a bed covered with CoverGirl products and her own effervescence. Over a canned club beat she sings about a boy: “Got me feeling like I can’t be without ya … Well you’re the reason why I’m dancing in the mirror and singing in the shower. La La Di, La La Da, La La Da.”
Cut to a scene of Becky G in a mesh top and miniskirt, singing in the shower.
If there were a pop-music equivalent of the Bechdel test for lyrics sung by a female — in movies and fiction two women must talk about something other than a guy — “Shower” would fail. More notably, the song also fails the Becky G test.
I heard “Shower” several times on the radio this summer, but until that YouTube moment, I had no idea it was her.
Why? Because “Shower” sounds like Ariana Grande, who sounds like Selena Gomez, who sounds like that other girl who sounds like Katy Perry.
It does not, however, sound like Becky G, who once rapped on top of a rusted-out car about taco trucks, poverty and her dad who works “his fingers to the bone.”
At the risk of sounding like a truther (and for the record, I really do believe Stevie Wonder is blind and Elvis is dead), regressions like Becky G’s are starting to feel like part of a conspiracy to neutralize every original female voice in pop.
Don’t get me wrong, we need stupid “Wrecking Ball” moments. Perry’s “Roar,” for instance, is a personal favorite — empowering in a fist-punching-through-cotton-candy sort of way.
From ABBA to Iggy Azalea, empty calories are part of our pop culture food pyramid. But pink sparkly junk food shouldn’t be the only thing on our plate.
When is that last time you heard a new female rapper break through in the vein of, say, Kendrick Lamar or Frank Ocean? What about high-profile female rockers competing with the Black Keys or Jack White? Surely there are Ed Sheeran types, girl singer-songwriters chasing him up the charts?
And before you even go there, Lorde can’t carry that entire mantel. Remember, the New Zealand teen is considered “a fluke” for taking over with “Royals” — a song that isn’t perky or about a boy. She’s a party in reverse, an anomaly who had to incubate her voice on an island, thousands of miles away from the influence of a desperate American record industry.
Becky G, the rapper a.k.a. Rebecca Gomez, was 14 when 41-year-old producer-songwriter Dr. Luke (who’s made hits for Kesha, Miley Cyrus and Perry, including the anthem “Roar”) discovered her via videos she’d posted of herself rapping over hits by über stars.
Wearing a baggy hoodie and smiling to expose a Mike Tyson gap between her teeth, she rapped “Two brothers, a little sister,” over Jay Z and Kanye’s “Otis.” “I wish the money from my deal would come a little quicker. My daddy’s workin’ 80 hours a week. I love him more than I’m lovin’ this beat.”
She also rhymed about a failed record deal she once had where they tried to make her sound like something she wasn’t.
The second time around, Becky G was introduced into a system that’s created many of today’s hits. Often described as song factories, high-powered producers like Dr. Luke or Max Martin employ teams of chart-gaming beat makers, music writers and lyricists to come up with winning material. They match the song to the girl and with careful planning and luck a hit is born.
While the Justin Biebers of the world also get pumped through that same mill, there are other avenues open for men who are vying for the mainstream but would prefer not to sound like a Jonas to get there. The boys also don’t require stripper-pole themes like the girls who have to walk the line (in heels) between Hello Kitty and Hustler.
Becky G has been trotted out for the past few years to do guest vocals on tracks with other high-grossing personalities (enter Pitbull). Test marketing has become more and more the norm in a music industry that needs sure bets far more than it needs to nurture new original voices.
No one knows this better than “Tik Tok” star Kesha, who is seemingly trying to exit the very labyrinth Becky recently entered.
The singer-songwriter was 18 when she signed up with Dr. Luke and became Ke$ha. Now 27, the tall blond who sang “Don’t stop, make it pop, DJ blow my speakers up” seems ready to leave the party.
The singer recently dropped the $ in her name and has alluded more than once to feeling creatively trapped and bullied.
Now out of rehab for an eating disorder, Kesha is working on material she says is reportedly “very different.”
Becky G could likely say the same about “Shower,” the first single off her forthcoming debut album. It’s different, at least from what she did before. And it’s of course her first song to crack the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
But I’m hoping “Shower” doesn’t represent the direction of the rest of her album. I’d like to hear new songs from the old Becky G.
That would be the Becky G who rapped that she was the real thing and that she’d never change — a noble but near-impossible strategy for girls in the pop music game.
FOR THE RECORD:
Dr. Luke has not written or produced hit songs for Lady Gaga as an earlier version of this story stated.