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Music The Enthusiast: The powerful messages in today’s pop anthems are far outstripping those of the past

U.S. singer and composer Demi Lovato performs in concert at the World Stage during the 8th edition of Rock in Rio Lisbon, at Parque da Bela Vista in Lisbon, Portugal, June 24, 2018.

JOSE SENA GOULAO/GETTY IMAGES

Is it possible that the ancient tale of Achilles had things a little backwards? In that Greek myth, when the sea nymph Thetis dips her son Achilles into the River Styx to make him immortal, she fails to ensure the magical water touches his ankle, thus leaving him defenceless against the arrow attack that later fells him. But every parent knows they’re actually the ones who are cursed with the Achilles heel when their children are born. They – okay, we – are rendered vulnerable in ways we could never have imagined: How else to explain why we can be induced into an explosive crying jag by a well-crafted ad for laundry detergent during the Olympics?

Most weekdays, as a reporter and sometimes critic and columnist, I’d like to think my critical faculties are sharp, even cutting when need be. But my two daughters, ages 11 and 14, dance competitively, which is how I’ve come to spend many weekends each winter and spring in some of suburban Toronto’s finest community theatre complexes, cheering on my girls’ troupe and developing an unlikely soft spot for female empowerment anthems.

These songs are a common soundtrack to the dances: simple pop ballads by, say, Alessia Cara or Demi Lovato or Christina Aguilera, which often begin as quiet ruminations about overcoming adversity and build to a belting emancipatory climax. They have the blunt, predictable appeal of the singing-competition TV shows that helped spawn the genre. But when fused to the feats of my daughters and their extraordinary teammates, I am impossibly disarmed.

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Pop culture can be powerfully persuasive. When I was the age my eldest daughter is now, in the early eighties, the songs topping the charts held entirely different lessons, especially in the realm of gender politics.

Songs by women often trod the same path as Physical (No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 10 weeks in 1981-82), in which Olivia Newton-John’s interior life was focused on how to bed a particular man. Meanwhile, from the male bands, there was a run of songs that were as popular as they were creepy (although, perhaps because I was a teenager, I didn’t much notice that at the time): J. Geils Band’s Centerfold, which toggled between lust and dismay at a “homeroom angel” who wound up in the pages of a girlie mag; Tommy Tutone’s 867-5309/Jenny, in which the lead singer crooned to someone, “You don’t know me but you make me so happy … Jenny I’ve got your number / I need to make you mine”; and the Police’s Every Breath You Take (No. 1 in 1983), written and sung by that sensitive new-age guy Gordon Sumner, who pledged that “Every move you make / Every vow you break / Every smile you fake / Every claim you stake / I’ll be watching you.”

A shot from Olivia Newton-John’s music video “Physical,” circa 1981-82.

Canadian Press

Charming, right?

My girls – and, thankfully, their 16-year-old brother – have grown up with a wholly different musical birthright, one studded with triumphant female-centred power ballads from Broadway and the Disney pop factory: Frozen’s Let It Go; Moana’s How Far I’ll Go; Wicked’s Act I finale, Defying Gravity (”I’m through with playing by the rules / Of someone else’s game”); and, of course, Hamilton’s Schuyler Sisters, in which the eldest sister, Angelica, speaking of Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that all men are created equal, says that, when she meets that American Founding Father, “I’m ’a compel him to include women in the sequel!”

Female empowerment anthems aren’t new, of course: Fifty years ago, Aretha Franklin insisted on respect, although it might have been nicer if she’d been able to ask for more than just “a little,” and wasn’t prepared to trade “all of my money” for it. (Mind you, the number had originally been sung by Otis Redding.) But, especially in the early years of mainstream feminism, songs deemed by some as too earnest, such as Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar), were met with mockery.

My daughters have been dancing now for eight years, five competitively, and from September through May they each spend up to 20 hours a week at our neighbourhood studio in Toronto, working with more commitment than I ever mustered at that age. (Or, okay, any age.) I don’t usually see the numbers they’re developing until competition season begins in February and we troop on up to Markham or Richmond Hill or out to Guelph, where they face dancers from seven or eight other local studios for up to four days at a time: as many as 700 dances over a (very) long weekend, each two to three minutes long.

It can be numbing: I don’t ever need to see another troupe of seven-year-olds tapping sloppily through Hey, Big Spender. (The critical faculties don’t desert me entirely.)

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But as the young women take the stage, and claim it for themselves – in a solo, or in supportive groups of two or three or 35 – I regularly find myself swept away by the lessons they are both consuming and sharing with their peers.

This year, my daughters’ studio did a contemporary dance number to a cover of Ingrid Michaelson’s Miss America, which includes the lyrics “I’m always colouring outside the lines / I’ll never be the girl on TV … / Don’t need a crown to make me a queen / I’ll never be Miss America.” The piece began with 20 dancers in pink minidresses and a sash across the chest, striking a series of pageant-like poses. About halfway through, one of the girls slowly removed her sash; the others soon followed, brandishing them in front like a weapon of war.

Not all of the dances are like this, but many are: declarations of confidence, repudiations of the world’s messed-up judgments, and insistences that their protagonist is fine, such as Rachel Platten’s Fight Song (”This is my fight song / Take back my life song / Prove I’m alright song / My power’s turned on), Alessia Cara’s Scars to Your Beautiful (”You should know you’re beautiful / just the way you are / And you don’t have to change a thing / the world could change its heart), or Demi Lovato’s Skyscraper (”Go on and try and tear me down / I will be rising from the ground / Like a skyscraper).

Alessia Cara performs at the Invictus Games Opening Ceremony in Toronto on September 23, 2017.

Chris Donovan/Canadian Press

This past year, I watched my eldest daughter in her first competitive solo, a fierce number for a not-very-naturally-fierce girl set to Leona Lewis’s You Knew Me When, in which the protagonist explains to a former friend or lover: “You knew me when I was on the edge / And my confidence was shattered / You knew me when I didn’t know my worth / Didn’t know how much I mattered / … You knew me then / But you don’t know me now.”

I watched her leap and strut about the stage, launch herself from a standing position into an aerial – a no-handed cartwheel, which she does as casually as eating popcorn – and her growing power took me by surprise because she seemed to possess infinite possibility. I marvelled at the woman she is becoming.

And I wished I could dip her into the River Styx, not to make her immortal – because what parent really wants that for their child? – but to give her some kind of armour against the world’s inevitable cruelties, the arrows that will be shot her way. Music isn’t magic, but it has power. And growing up with these anthems, imbibing their lessons of self-sufficiency and possibility, is a pretty good place to start.

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