The ‘Espresso’ Theory of Gender Relations (2024)

Culture

Sabrina Carpenter, Chappell Roan, and Charli XCX are ushering in a new kind of bad girl.

By Spencer Kornhaber
The ‘Espresso’ Theory of Gender Relations (1)

The men dominating the Billboard Hot 100 this summer are doing traditional male things: picking fights, playing guitar, bellowing about being saved or sabotaged by the opposite sex. Meanwhile, what are the women of popular music up to? Being brats.

Brat may sound like an insult; Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” certainly didn’t appreciate the term in 1985. But when the hipster diva Charli XCX titled her new album Brat, which spawned a wave of memes with its bile-green cover, she crystallized a cultural mood: Seeming a little immature, a little selfish, a little nasty, has taken on an air of glamour. Although riffing on the archetype of the bad girl is pop tradition, the new insouciance has a distinctly mischievous bent. It’s the sound of young women cracking jokes with one another against a backdrop of growing alienation between the genders.

Take, for example, the pillow-voiced, poisonously witty Sabrina Carpenter. The 25-year-old former Disney Channel actor has been in the public eye for years—she’s now gearing up for her sixth album!—but her stardom only reached escape velocity in recent months, after she opened for Taylor Swift on the Eras Tour. Her fate was sealed by a hit, “Espresso,” whose success feels meta: Carpenter sings about being so hot that men can’t stop thinking about her, in a melody so catchy that listeners can’t stop thinking about it.

Musically, “Espresso” is less of a scorching double shot than a café au lait—sippable, swirling, and warm. Its disco-funk instrumentation sounds very 1980s, but the song’s breathiness and bounce recall Britney Spears. Like Spears, Carpenter is an artist of enunciations, drawing out the lisp-y sibilance and plummy vowels of the word espresso. Lyrically, the track reworks the idea of Spears’s “Oops!…I Did It Again,” but for Carpenter, breaking men’s hearts is no oops. She brags of her “twisted humor,” her romantic sadism: “He looks so cute wrapped ’round my finger.”

The Spears comparison also sheds light on what makes Carpenter feel novel. So often in pop history, feminine performances of sexual power have seemed, on some level, shaped by and for men. Carpenter might appear to fit that mold with her vintage-pinup fashion aesthetic, all teddies and tiny skirts. But the who, me? attitude that she projects is knowing and ironic. She’s a girly-girl who’s singing past the straight-male gaze, to women, commiserating in exasperation. It’s as if Betty Boop were sentient, and writing withering songs about the guys who ogle her. Or, to use the references of Carpenter’s generation, she’s like a Bratz doll—those self-possessed, rather intimidating daughters of Barbie—come to life.

Carpenter is really the meeting point between Spears and a very different performer, Swift. The breezy, countrypolitan production of Carpenter’s newest smash, “Please Please Please,” is credited to Swift’s go-to collaborator, Jack Antonoff. The lyrics are a marvel of glitter-pen songwriting about one of Swift’s favorite topics: dating within the social panopticon. Mocking a doofus boytoy who keeps embarrassing Carpenter in public, the lyrics suggest a story while letting the listener fill in the details. “Heartbreak is one thing, my ego’s another,” Carpenter sings, subtly acknowledging what makes the song radical. Here’s a quivering-lip, pleading pop ballad directed from a girl to a guy, but the guy isn’t the girl’s priority. Her reputation is.

What if the girl ditched guys altogether and threw a party about it? She might sound like Chappell Roan, another rising star rewriting the rules of lovelorn pop. The 26-year-old Roan is a big-belting, costume-flaunting Missourian whose production choices—sparkling synths, shuffling rhythms—harken back to early Madonna hits such as “Borderline.” Her songwriting toes the line between gut-bustingly funny and just gutting. And she’s queer in a refreshingly confrontational way.

Cynical as it sounds to point this out, queerness has all too often accompanied mainstream-musical blandness and pandering in recent years. Roan, however, sings about gayness not as an abstraction but as a fact of her life. And she seems frustrated—in a productive way—with how the self-acceptance slogans that she grew up singing along with still clash against modern society in all sorts of ways. Her 2020 sleeper hit, “Pink Pony Club,” is an inverted country song: She tells her mom she needs to run away from rural serenity to find her place in urban chaos. Her cabaret-ready falsetto sounds fantastical, but the song’s emotions are real, rooted in Roan’s own relationship with conservative family members.

The more important conflict in her music is with her peers, not her elders. She’s dated men and found them hopelessly repressed—“He didn’t ask a single question / And he was wearing these fugly jeans,” she sneers on “Super Graphic Ultra Modern Girl.” She has also dated girls who are on the fence about dating girls, making the expected she-likes-me, she-likes-me-not anxieties all the more maddening. Her 2024 streaming smash “Good Luck, Babe!” is a sarcastic kiss-off to a woman who’s in denial about her own desires. The dream of a straight happily-ever-after is turned into a nightmare:

When you wake up next to him in the middle of the night
With your head in your hands, you’re nothing more than his wife
And when you think about me, all of those years ago
You’re standing face to face with “I told you so”

What’s especially punkish is how Roan makes her provocations while wearing Americana drag. Earlier this month, at New York City’s Governors Ball festival, she emerged from a large apple and was dressed as the Statue of Liberty. “In case you have forgotten what’s etched on my pretty little toes: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,’” she said. “That means freedom in trans rights. That means freedom in women’s rights. And it especially means freedom for all oppressed people in occupied territories.” Later—after she’d changed outfits to resemble a New York City taxicab—she looked sternly into an onstage camera and announced she’d rejected an invitation to play a Pride event for the White House.

Presumably motivated by President Joe Biden’s policies toward the war in Gaza, the statement of defiance fit neatly into Roan’s performance. Part of the script that queer-friendly musicians have long followed is that they stump for Democrats. But Roan, like many young people right now, is not particularly interested in the status quo she was raised with. Singing beautifully, dressing flashily, and working a crowd does not, in this moment, necessarily mean making nice.

The namesake of “brat summer,” Charli XCX, makes music that doesn’t sound much like what Carpenter or Roan are doing. But the 31-year-old is certainly a role model for unconventional pop princessdom. Over the years since breaking out on Icona Pop’s 2012 hit, “I Love It,” she’s had a few flukey moments of mainstream success, the most recent of which was her contribution to the Barbie soundtrack. But for the most part, she’s been building her brand as a cult artist, known for futurism and noise. And Brat, her sixth album, might be her noisiest work yet.

The album was marketed as XCX’s great gift to nightclubs, but that was a bit deceptive. For all of its rave-inspired beats, almost none of Brat does that traditional dance-music thing of pulsating smoothly to create a steady body high. Instead XCX and her producers have constructed intricate songs whose rhythmic layers feel ever-so-misaligned, calling to mind a flyer that’s been repeatedly xeroxed. Kids’ cartoons seem to be an inspiration: Slurping and crashing sound effects jostle against cutesy, high-pitched synths. When the approach works—as on “360,” “Club Classics,” and “Everything Is Romantic”—it’s like trampolining on a planet with unstable gravity.

On one level, the album’s aggressive sound is just meant to convey swagger. XCX sings, in her signature cybermonotone style, about “looking like an icon,” playing her own music on the dance floor, and doing party drugs. But she cuts the hedonism with an outsize dose of earnestness. Personal details have always been in her music—refer back to her excellent quarantine-autofiction album, How I’m Feeling Nowbut this album seems influenced by the broader, memoiristic turn in pop music of recent years. And Brat’s subject matter is relatively novel for XCX.

Read: The legend of Charli XCX grows

She’s not singing about “Boys,” but about how “it’s so confusing sometimes to be a girl.” There are songs about idolizing mean-girl podcasters, feeling threatened by her male friends’ female squeezes, and having awkward rivalries with other women in the pop world. While listeners are baited to guess at whom she’s really referring to in all these songs, they’re also urged to consider the tensions inherent in modern feminism’s simultaneous encouragement of careerism and sisterly solidarity. Going her own way in the music industry has required XCX to be strong and sharp and uncompromising. These songs explore how those values can subtly shape someone’s personal life over time.

The most surprising song on Brat, the glitchy ballad “I Think About It All the Time,” considers a concrete drawback to prioritizing pleasure and ambition. She sings about visiting friends who have recently had a baby; the encounter inspires XCX to consider, seemingly for the first time, whether she herself wants to have a kid. This is a very adult question—but XCX discusses it in a pointedly jejune way. Stylistically, her lyrics forgo metaphor or even clever turns of phrase. On the level of substance, she’s essentially considering motherhood in terms of that great enemy of club-goers, FOMO: “I’m so scared I’m missin’ out on something,” she sings. The song isn’t just a page of her diary; it’s a dare to judgmental listeners. What are they gonna do, call her a brat?

The truth is that streaming is allowing XCX, and so many other artists, to succeed with a version of pop that doesn’t try to please everyone. Instead she’s using idiosyncratic songwriting and production to speak to more specific concerns. A cosmopolitan, highly online Millennial with tons of gay fans, XCX is making music capturing real dilemmas for a cohort that’s settling down later, if at all. Carpenter and Roan, Gen Zers, are singing about the hellscape of modern dating with a world-wise sigh. In all cases, these women’s feistiness stems less from youthful rebellion than from mere candor—and from the assurance that growing up, in the conventional sense, is just optional.

Spencer Kornhaber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The ‘Espresso’ Theory of Gender Relations (2024)
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