At first glance, the music industry is dominated by women: Beyoncé, Adele, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj et al are some of showbiz’s highest-earning and most popular musicians.
But success is not the end of the struggle; a high profile means greater scrutiny and greater pressure, as 23-year-old pop star Charli XCX knows all too well. Since her breakthrough in 2012 – when she appeared on Icona Pop’s I Love It – she’s been regular tabloid fodder, thanks to her on-stage costumes or her off-stage antics.
Her experiences form the basis of The F Word and Me, a BBC3 documentary exploring what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry – a question Charli is asked often, and which she describes as “annoying, but still necessary”.
She points out that endless media scrutiny is not the only challenge female artists face; they are also subject to criticism from other women for not living up to feminist ideals. But what does it mean to be feminist? Can you wear skimpy costumes and sing about love and sex and make-up and still be feminist?
Not that Charli tries particularly hard to answer these questions. But then why should she? She’s seeking to explain what “the f word” means to her, as a young woman in the spotlight, and not as a pop culture critic or feminist academic.
It’s refreshing to hear from her and her pop star peers, who are admirably self-assured, the embodiment of Spice Girls-esque girl power. Charli has an impressively blasé attitude towards the criticism and press coverage she receives – for her, the media is a faintly amusing nuisance, to be shrugged off, not railed against.
As Charli freely admits, she’s not trying to be a feminist champion, or a role model – being deemed one is a direct result of the lack of women in the music industry. The few who stick their heads above the parapet not only become the targets of unimaginable abuse and criticism, but are also expected to be infallible representatives of their gender.
Charli eschews this role; for her, feminism is something personally empowering, freeing – something that reinforces her own agency and her faith in her own decisions. Her take may not impress viewers looking for in-depth debate, but that’s not what she’s offering. That fact that she’s in a position to speak about what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry, and to introduce feminism – however loosely defined – to a new audience should be applauded.
Watch Charli XCX: The F Word and Me on Tuesday 24th November at 10:30pm on BBC3