Contrast was essential to Rodrigo’s look. The actress-singer-songwriter’s outfit was “Clueless” meets punk, her effortlessly calm demeanor belying some of her debut album’s most affecting songs, including the aptly titled opening track, “Brutal.”
In the tune’s first few lines, Rodrigo asks, “Who am I, if not exploited?” — a line that would not have been out of place as the rallying cry of a protest taking place approximately one mile away. As Rodrigo addressed the Briefing Room, fans and advocates gathered for a #FreeBritney demonstration to call for Britney Spears, who has spoken out about being controlled by her conservatorship, to be freed from its restrictive ties.
The eventful afternoon, which took place last month, proved that if one thing remains consistent in the music business, it is the enduring dedication and attention paid to our young, hit-producing female royalty — and how we inevitably chew them up and spit them out.
At a glance, it may not seem like Rodrigo, 18, and Spears, 39, have similar journeys to stardom, but the overlaps are there. Spears’s career launched when she was a Mouseketeer on Disney’s “The Mickey Mouse Club,” while Rodrigo’s rise to fame was in part propelled by her starring role on Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” Spears’s most famous songs are danceable, catchy, bubblegum-pop hits from the late ’90s and early 2000s. Rodrigo’s debut album “Sour” pays homage to that era with an angsty edge.
But the expectations put on the two pop stars are drastically different. Spears was never expected to take a stand on political issues; her role was to provide earworms with a side of eye candy. Rodrigo’s job description, on the other hand, includes weighing in on social ills, writing heartbreak anthems and (if she so chooses) posting a picture of herself in a bikini. Our most popular pop princesses have certainly evolved. Or have they? Could it be that they’re as beholden to the zeitgeist as ever?
Experts point to a rise in social media, changing market tastes and a heightened fixation on individuality and female empowerment as a reason for the change over the past two decades.
“Hollywood will always give people what it thinks they want,” said Mara Wilson, an author and former child star best known for her work as the title character in “Matilda.” “It all comes back to objectification and turning these young women into objects to be consumed. I think now we’re realizing with people like Britney Spears that women are human beings. They’ve been under so much control for so long and they’ve been objectified for so long. We’re finally having a reckoning with that.”
It’s possible that fans and listeners want their pop stars to play the role of social justice warriors — Gen Z is notorious for naming and addressing issues of inequity. But it’s also possible that girl-boss energy, individuality and unabashed youthfulness are just trendy right now, in the way that low-waisted jeans and hypersexuality was 20 years ago.
“The market has always wanted options,” said Tonya Butler, chair of Berklee’s Music Business and Management department. “Different women view themselves in different ways, and they just want to be reflected in music. Unfortunately, the industry didn’t always offer a lot of options and that was the problem. Now they do.”
Of course, there have been plenty of young female stars along the way who broke traditional molds (think Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Alanis Morissette or Avril Lavigne). What it means to be an “outsider” or to exist within the “norm” has changed over the years as individuality has become increasingly commercialized. In addition to our usual scantily clad blond women, we see fame for green-haired teenagers in oversized band tees. Instead of paparazzi photos of underage girls in clubs, we see girls in tweed meeting the president.
The more popular female empowerment becomes, the more the music industry will pump out people to fill that role, said Butler. Honesty sells, especially when it comes to youth and heartbreak (see: any album from Rodrigo’s inspiration, Taylor Swift).
Industries of all kinds “tend to commodify us, commodify our body positivity, our agency, our female empowerment,” said Alison Trope, director of the Critical Media Project at the University of Southern California. “It’s not just if you’re a person in the [entertainment] industry like Britney Spears or Billie Eilish. We’re all being commodified. All of us.”
Sex is never out of style, but our modern teenage pop stars appear to be less likely to put it overtly on display. It’s hard to say whether this move is a direct response to the criticism Spears and her ilk faced in the public eye — a protection mechanism of sorts.
“I do think there’s a rebellion against being sexual when you don’t want to be,” said Samantha Stark, creator of the New York Times’s “Framing Britney Spears” documentary. “But if the pressure to not be shamed like Britney is the reason to not show your sexuality, then that’s really sad.”
A lot of Spears’s sexuality was a personal choice, such as the decision to roll down her pants to show off her hipbones because she felt it was sexier, said Stark. The look was a trend among teens, but it still managed to shock the public that “teenagers do have sexuality.”
Eilish, 19, famously wore baggy clothes that hid her body shape, so when she posed in a corset for the June cover of Vogue, there was pushback, objectification, anger at her for breaking her self-made image. Eilish responded by thanking the magazine’s creative team for “respecting my vision,” and told her fans to “do whatever you want when you want.” It was her body on her own terms.
The problem with young female stars showing skin or presenting themselves in a sexual light isn’t with them, said Wilson, now 34, but rather the older men who feel like they have the right to comment and lust over underage bodies. That will happen no matter how much skin is showing, she said.
“I thought [being less sexual] would paint less of a target on my back,” said Wilson, who wrote “Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame.” “Unfortunately, I have been sexualized and stalked by people who only know me from children’s movies. It still happens.”
One of the biggest differences between Rodrigo’s and Spears’s respective rises to fame is the proliferation of social media. It’s easier to transition from a media object to a relatable teenager when you can take control of documenting your life. Stars like Rodrigo don’t have to wait and hope for tabloids to show their humanity — they can go on Instagram Live, post a photo with their friends, show their lunch and tweet their thoughts.
That being said, the private lives of our favorite stars are still a commodity.
When Rodrigo debuted her single “Drivers License,” fans obsessed over her relationship with her HSMTM co-star, Joshua Bassett. Rodrigo has said little about the source of her inspiration, but in an interview this January she claimed it was “not important.” She still hasn’t discussed her exes publicly, and her social media presence is mostly devoid of men. In stark contrast to Spears’s barrage of questions and tabloid covers regarding her relationship with Justin Timberlake, Rodrigo appears to have more control regarding her love life, and what information she chooses to share.
The transparency of social media provides a level of protection. When pop stars feel unfairly attacked or objectified, they can air their feelings.
“We don’t know what they were doing to Britney and Mariah [Carey] and Christina [Aguilera]," said Butler, the Berklee chair. “Today, you turn on Twitter or TikTok and we know what’s going on in everybody’s business.”
“Transparency is what led to the shift in treatment,” she added. “It’s the fact that we can say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you can’t do that to her!’ or ‘That’s not fair.’ Thirty years ago, what those women went through was so private. But today, I don’t care how much you want to keep it a secret. Somebody’s going to tell on you.”
This summer was pivotal for Rodrigo and Spears. The 18-year-old made her first big foray into politics at the direct request of the White House after her debut album went platinum, while the 39-year-old publicly spoke up in court for the first time about her conservatorship.
It only makes sense that the pop stars took to Instagram to celebrate their wins. Rodrigo, whose most recent images were all promotion for “Sour,” uploaded a selfie of herself with President Biden and wrote a lengthy caption about the importance of vaccines. Spears, in between posting memes with captions alluding to her legal plight, posted a photo of herself topless, her arms strategically placed, with a simple plant emoji.
Both images received millions of likes. Both images showed how differently fame affects people. Both images proved that there’s not one right way to be America’s pop princess.
This post has been updated.