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The Best Empowerment Anthems

March 8, 2021

By El Hunt

Each year, International Women’s Day celebrates women around the world, and protests against sexism and inequality – the first ever event took place in New York in 1909, and has spread across the globe since. And from stridently political feminist anthems to uplifting songs about self-love, empowerment and giving the finger to outdated standards, these are the anthems worth belting out, loud and proud.

When Alicia Keys blazed a searing hot trail with ‘Girl on Fire’
A soaring record of rebirth, 2012’s ‘Girl on Fire’ found Alicia Keys rising phoenix-like out of the ashes that have burned her in the past. While the New York artist’s previous record ‘The Element of Freedom’ dealt with heavy themes – the grief of losing her grandmother while weathering heartbreak – its successor is lighter, and creatively liberated, featuring a diverse roll-call of collaborators ranging from John Legend and Emeli Sande to Jamie XX and Frank Ocean. And the title track blends the old, vocal powerhouse Keys with the new, forward-looking innovator: atop echoing drums that pound out a resistance march, the album’s inferno title-track features Nicki Minaj, and celebrates women’s resilience and power.

When Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin joined forces for ’Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’
In 1984 Annie Lennox set out to write an anthem for women’s liberation inspired in part by the suffragette movement – the result was the shimmering ’Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’. The intention of this disco-flecked pop gem couldn’t be clearer: “this is a song to celebrate the conscious liberation of the female state,” it boldly declares. When it came down to laying down the track, Eurythmics knew the song needed another powerful woman at its helm; an equally formidable figure to stand in unity with Lennox. And so they flew to Detroit and enlisted the legendary Aretha Franklin. It’s a classic feminist anthem that has endured to this day – and back in 2011, Lennox performed the song in London to mark 100 years of International Women’s Day.

When Beyoncé got all her ladies in ‘Formation’
The capitalist systems which oppress Black women are deeply ingrained, and on ‘Formation’ Beyoncé lays out her ability to skilfully thrive despite this intrinsic racism. “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it” she chants defiantly atop a wonky trap beat that nods to her Houston hometown. Pride in upbringing is woven through the fabric of ‘Formation’, which also explores Beyonce’s history (“My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana”) and sees the singer crowning herself a “Texas bama”. Flipping around a word frequently used as a derogatory slang term to describe working class Black people from the Southern states of America, ‘Formation’ celebrates personal histories, Black power, and the seismic change that can happen when people gather and organise.

When Little Mix’s ‘Shout Out to My Ex’ refused to play the blame-game
Across pop culture, the looming spectre of the dreaded ex – and even worse, their new partner – is a common target for contempt. With ‘Shout Out to my Ex’ Little Mix spin this narrative around, moving the focus back onto personal growth after heartbreak, and uplifting other women instead. “Here’s to my ex, well look at me now,” they sing triumphantly, raising a metaphorical glass half-full,  “I’m all the way up, I swear you’ll never, you’ll never bring me down”

When P!nk wished ’U + UR Hand’ a good night
Laced with snarling hints of punk-rock, and underpinned by a beat built from snappy cowbell and suggestive gasps, P!nk deploys a deliciously cutting putdown on ‘U + UR Hand’ – sarcastically telling persistent men to quit hassling her on a night out. “I’m not here for your entertainment,” she warns, “you don’t really want to mess with me tonight.” And as a whole P!nk’s 2006 album ‘I’m Not Dead’ saw the singer explicitly embracing feminism in her music; something she’s continually practiced as an artist since. Focused on uplifting and celebrating other women, she’s refused to take part in feuds with other women in music, expertly shut down body-shamers, and voiced her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

When Natasha Bedingfield stared at the blank page before her on ’Unwritten’
An infectious early-noughties pop staple – and incidentally, the theme song for The Hills – the empowerment themes in ‘Unwritten’ are subtle, but effective. A song about proudly writing your own narrative rather than following the well-trodden path, Bedingfield alludes to breaking free from traditional gendered stereotypes: “We’ve been conditioned to not make mistakes,” she says, appearing to speak to women specifically, “but I can’t live that way”.

When Dolly Parton shouted out the countless women bored by their ’9 to 5’
Penned as the theme song for the feminist themed comedy film of the same name, Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’ has become an standalone anthem for underpaid and frustrated workers thanklessly slogging away everywhere. Underpinned by the percussive clacking of a typewriter (Parton created the noise using her acrylic nails) and strutting horns, many of the obstacles in this daily grind are gendered ones: “Want to move ahead but the boss won’t seem to let me,” she sings, alluding to the glass ceiling that prevents women rising up the ranks, “I swear sometimes that man is out to get me”. On the horizon, however, there’s also hope that fairer times are ahead. “The tide’s gonna turn,” Parton suggests, with a challenging glimmer “and it’s all gonna roll your way”

When Celine Dion didn’t want to be ‘All By Myself’
Originally a twinkly-pianoed soft rock number, Canadian singer Celine Dion took on a titan task in 1996 when she attempted to equal the melodramatic power ballad prowess of Eric Carmen’s original version of ‘All By Myself’ – and better yet, she succeeded. Being performed by a woman gives this hulking great song a certain resonance; Dion released her cover at the height of “girl power” in pop and lyrically, she looks back distantly on carefree, unattached times. “When I was young, I never needed anyone,” she sings, “and making love was just for fun. Those days are gone.” Though it’s no anti-independence manifesto, ‘All By Myself’ puts forward the idea that it’s also okay to yearn for somebody else to lean on every once in a while.

When Whitney Houston celebrated the ‘Greatest Love of All’
It’s fitting that songwriters Michael Masser and Linda Creed originally penned ‘Greatest Love of All’ to soundtrack The Greatest – a biopic about the boxer Muhammed Ali. In her cover – the most ubiquitous version of this self-love power ballad – Whitney Houston’s soaring vocal floats like a butterfly, but her determination to thrive on self-sufficiency stings like a bee. When Houston sings of empowering future generations to see their inner brilliance clearly, she’s singing to a utopian place where superficial beauty standards pale in comparison to living kindly and generously.

When Sade wondered ‘When Am I Going to Make a Living’
Released in the early ‘80s, the crucial messages at the heart of Sade’s ‘When Am I Going to Make a Living’ remain relevant 37 years later – particularly when it comes to anybody creative trying to hustle outside of the suited-and-booted, male dominated city. It’s a contrast also highlighted in the music video, which shows Sade Adu strolling through a sea of lunching office workers and refusing to join the daily grind. “They’ll waste your body and soul if you allow them to,” Sade sings: “we’re hungry but we won’t give in”

 

When Shakira spoke her truth with ‘Hips Don’t Lie’
A brass-laden blend of reggaeton and salsa, the goal of ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ is simple – engineered to make you move, it seizes on the electric chemistry of meeting a formidable partner on the dancefloor. Joyfully showing off her physicality, Shakira’s in charge of the seduction from the start: “Don’t you see, baby? Así es perfecto” she boasts, accompanied by serious salsa snake-hips. Acting her flustered counterpart, the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean is swept along, even trying his hand at beginners Spanish. Unsurprisingly, the song was an immediate hit upon its 2006 release, and has endured ever since.

When Solange issued a warning  – ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’
Shortly before releasing ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ Solange published a powerful essay entitled ‘And Do I Belong?’. The singer had been at a Kraftwerk show with her family, where a group of white woman harassed her after she stood to dance to her favourite song – the writing also details the hostility Black women experience in white-dominated spaces every day. And on the shimmering, minimal groove of ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ many of these same ideas find a musical home as Solange unpicks the quiet violence of being made to feel like an othered spectacle. “Don’t touch my crown,” she warns, refusing to mute any aspect of herself.

 

When Ms Lauryn Hill strode out ahead of all the ‘Lost Ones’
In its entirety, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ is a declaration of independence – and cleared a space in male-dominated hip-hop for powerful women and Black feminism. And propelled by crisp snares and a wonky hook which interpolates aspects of Sister Nancy’s dancehall classic ‘Bam Bam’, ‘Lost Ones’ deploys a carefully harnessed rage at being overlooked, and flexes Hill’s artistic prowess. “Every man want to act like he’s exempt,” she raps pointedly, “when he need to get down on his knees and repent”. It’s a searing takedown, calling out the sexism that so often diminishes women’s achievements.

When Miley Cyrus blazed her own trail through the ‘Midnight Sky’
Strutting with 80s synth-pop panache, ‘Midnight Sky’ was the moment when Miley Cyrus – originally typecast as a squeaky-clean Disney star thanks to her starring role in Hannah Montana – officially shook free from an image she’d been trying to escape for years. Long picked apart by the press for every misstep, no matter how small, Cyrus refuses to apologise for who she is on ‘Midnight Sky’, with gravelly rock’n’roll aplomb. “It ain’t so bad if I wanna make a couple mistakes,” she dismisses, appearing to reference society’s particular fixation with scolding rebellious women.

 

When Doja Cat crowned herself a ‘Boss Bitch’
Taking a sizable chunk of inspiration from euphoric noughties dance-pop, and nodding approvingly in the direction of her contemporaries Megan Thee Stallion and Nicki Minaj, ‘Boss Bitch’ refuses to take part in the tired tradition of pitting successful women against each other. Instead, LA rapper Doja Cat focuses on her own fierce work ethic. “Don’t need a report, don’t need a press run, all of my bad pics been all my best ones,” she raps,  refusing to be dragged down by media negativity “I wear the hat and I wear the pants, I am advanced so I get advance.”

When Jain commended emotional honesty on ’Oh Man’
Born in France and raised in Dubai, Congo and Abu Dhabi, Jain paints her globetrotting pop with a diverse palette of influences – and her second album ‘Souldier’ melds vibrant, cartoonish melody with quieter moments of contemplation (the title-track was written in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016). Both facets of Jain combine perfectly on the soft-edged ‘Oh Man’ – a musical letter to a man who has fallen in love, and hard. “You better cry man, cry man, it only means you care,” Jain sings, welcoming the kind of tenderness that toxic ideals around masculinity often shy away from with open arms.

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