Pop culture and our society at large are constantly sending messages to girls and women that justice and equality is overrated or is somehow unnecessary. Cue these fierce anthems of female empowerment, recorded by women artists from the 1960s until the present, which help combat patriarchal notions that are deeply engrained in our psyches. Why not make a playlist and play it on an endless loop from now until the Women’s Day, and beyond.
(In no particular order; click on the song title to hear the song and read the lyrics via YouTube)
1. “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel
Ah, how many times have we heard this song from the Disney movie, Frozen? Actually my kids were a bit old to become obsessed with a Disney movie so I never heard it enough that I got sick of it. This anthem is performed by Idina Menzel, who is possibly one of the best female vocalists of all time. But it’s much more than that—the movie plus that song equals young girls growing up to see that not all princesses are crooning, “Someday my prince will come…” and that they should be who they want to be, who they are: “Don’t hold it back anymore…” Also, the song teaches that everybody makes mistakes and to tune out the naysayers, something even we adult women sometimes forget to do.
2. “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyonce
This song just might be the quintessential female empowerment anthem. “Who run the world? Girls!” Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth (especially since a certain highly qualified woman sadly did not win the electoral college), but isn’t it important that we teach our girls to think that they can or could some day? My favorite line is “Boy you know you love it how we’re smart enough to make these millions. Strong enough to bear the children, then get back to business” Who runs the world? Men, still. Yet this song is a step in the right direction.
3. “Roar” by Katy Perry
Katy Perry’s anthem is the story of her evolution from mouse to lioness! (Well, she did come from a strict, religious upbringing so I’m going to assume without knowing for sure that it’s at least partly autobiographical.) This is such an inspirational song for girls and women everywhere with a message that it’s ok to be assertive and strong, and also how to be resilient. Coming from the enormously popular Perry, it is a message that can really resonate.
4. “Material Girl” by Madonna
OK, this one is kind of the 80s—greed is good—version of an anthem, but it’s Madonna! Her entire career has been about female empowerment. Remember the time she said early on that her goal in life was “to rule the world”? To put that statement into context, this was the 80s—before there was such a thing as the concept of sexual harassment and relatively few women in professional careers or the upper echelons of power in our country—and she was a female symbol of strength and power (even though some of our own parents might have seen her as a bad influence). As for the song itself, the point is in the end, which in essence is: I don’t need you, a man, in any event, because I make my own money.
5. “Confident” by Demi Lovato
Well, what is wrong with being confident? Absolutely nothing—it should be no-brainer that it is better to be confident than not. The issue is that our girls have a confidence problem relative to the boys, which partly explains why girls do well in school and testing, but then get passed over for the guy when the time comes to get a job. So if one of their favorite artists is telling them it’s a good thing to be confident, well, that can only be a good thing.
6. “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor
An earlier feminist anthem released in 1978, within a year of when we learned that the Equal Rights Amendment was not to be, this song is actually about a woman’s plucky determination to get by without her man who wronged her. He has the nerve to walk through the door and she’s not having it. The emotion and passion of this song is impossible to resist.
7. “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten
This: “Like a small boat on the ocean, sending big waves into motion. Like how a single word can make a heart open. I might only have one match but I can make an explosion.” And it goes on from there. I love Rachel Platten’s defiant “Fight Song”! Apparently, so did Hillary Clinton; the song was often played after her rallies and special events.
8. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper
This 80s song, widely considered to be and used as a party or dance song, actually has a “hidden” feminist message. The song is about a young, unmarried, working woman (an increasingly common demographic by then), who holds on to her right to live her life on her own terms. Not her mother’s, nor her father’s, nor some guy. And this: “Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world. I wanna be the one who walks in the sun. . . .” I have to give props to Cyndi Lauper too for “True Colors,” which has become an anthem for the acceptance of people who are different from the norm, including the LGBTQ community.
These are words of the strength of a fully grown woman.. “I am woman, a girl no more,” Lady Aneessa sings to her generation, softly yet oh so powerfully.
10. “Respect” by Aretha Franklin
This still-beloved classic from the 60s still says it all in a word. Respect. Respect yourself, and respect others. Everything else will then fall into place.
11. “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift generally writes songs about relationships, both good and bad ones, but every so often she makes an exception. This 2014 song off her smash “1989” album sends the message to girls (and all of us) that they shouldn’t get hung up on what others think or say about them. Just do what Taylor does and Shake. It. Off. In this era where cyberbullying happens all the time, and there have even been incidents of teen suicides at least partially attributable to cyberbullying, this message is a very important one to convey.
12. “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson
While ultimately about the end of a relationship, this popular anthem is also about not needing a man for happiness. Kelly Clarkson sings this song like a mantra and it’s a good mantra to have during the times of trouble that we all face in a lifetime (and as we all face having a known misogynist in the White House).
13. “Just a Girl” by No Doubt (Gwen Stefani)
So, the casual listener might think this song is actually about submission, but it is completely sarcastic and ironic. I love the lyrics to this song: “Oh I’m just a girl, pretty and petite, so don’t let me have any rights.” The lyrics also slyly get at victim/slut shaming, as well as street harassment: “The moment that I step outside, so many reasons for me to run and hide. I can’t do the little things I hold so dear, ‘cause it’s all those little things that I fear.” Make sure you point out the sarcasm to your kids—if not heard that way, it is actually a terrible song!
14. “No” by Meghan Trainor
What better antidote to misogynistic songs about acquaintance rape, such as “Blurred Lines,” than Meghan Trainor’s pop tune? Basically this song is about a woman repeating “no” over and over again to a guy who is trying to hit on her. It’s such a simple word and yet there is no word more empowering for girls and women. Really, just one “no” should suffice but Meghan has to say “no” to a number of come-ons because of some boys/men who have now been conditioned to think that maybe, just maybe, “no” means “yes.” “My name’s ‘no,’ my sign’s ‘no,’ my number’s ‘no,’ you need to let it go.” Yes!
15. “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross
A song from the early 80s from the great Diana Ross, “I’m Coming Out” has a message similar to the one in “Let It Go”—I’m free to be me!
16. “Brave” by Sara Bareilles
Saturday Night Life satirized this tune, and it was pretty funny, but really if you listen to the lyrics, they’re not about saying everything that’s on your mind with no filter, like your great-aunt Bertha. One big problem girls and women have is that over time we become increasingly silent. We are afraid of what others might think of us. We are afraid that our points of view will be belittled or worse. Sara Bareilles tells us we should be brave “and let the words fall out.”
17. “Me Too” by Meghan Trainor
Trainor declares: “I thank God every day, that I woke up feeling this way. And I can’t help loving myself and I don’t need nobody else.” It would be great if we could all be like Meghan, too.
18. “Flawless” by Beyonce (ft. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
I personally am not a lover of the word “bitch,” and this song uses it quite a bit right at the beginning. The song’s power, however, is in the voice of the feminist writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who eloquently reminds us of the meaning of the word “feminist” and that we don’t need to be married to a man to be fulfilled in life. Adichie asks, “[W]hy do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?” Why indeed.
19. “Scars to Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara
A recent hit song, this anthem tells us that we don’t have to look like models. We are all beautiful because of the “light that shines within.” As Cara implores, “You don’t have to change a thing. The world could change its heart.” I would go one step further and say the world should change its heart and stop treating women as objects. Still, this has a great message and deserves a spot on your empowerment playlist.