As we move into the final months of 2019, we also reach the end of the second decade of the 21st century. A lot has changed in the last 10 years, and woman have continued to be at the forefront of the evolving music landscape.
Today, we’re looking back at 12 women who have changed the landscape of mainstream music in the last decade. These are women who emerged, reinvented themselves, or have seen a career-defining surge in popularity during the 2010s, building on the women who came before them in the decades past. After artists like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé ushered in the new decade, these 12 women have made an impact, whether by challenging what’s getting mainstream attention or by carving out a unique spot of their own. They have made massive changes to popular genres, the way music is consumed and sold, and the way women are represented in the entertainment industry.
From Adele to Ariana Grande to Lizzo, here are 12 of the women who’ve transformed modern music.
Throughout the 2000s, rap and hip hop were frequently a part of mainstream music. In the 2010s, Nicki Minaj emerged as a new voice among woman rappers, and her music quickly crossed over into mainstream appeal. Songs like “Super Bass” and “Starships” solidified her early career, while her 2014 song “Bang Bang” with Ariana Grande and Jessie J confirmed her place in pop.
Nicki gained recognition in part for her colorful imagery – often including bright wigs and costumes – as well as her uniquely fast flow and playing with alter egos and accents. She carved out space for female rappers in the mainstream. Only a decade since we first heard Nicki’s music, she’s already become one of the most influential female rappers inspiring a new generation. Her reach is so great that no female rapper can escape being compared to her, likely because she’s already occupied nearly every niche imaginable as she changes sound and look at a rapid rate.
Few women have had such monumental impact on music as Adele. Music would have to be 100% completely off your radar for you to have missed Adele out here earning the highest-selling album not only of the 2010s, but of the 21st century. Oh yeah, she also holds the second highest-selling album of the 2010s award, too. That’s two for two, considering Adele hasn’t released any other albums this decade. Adele’s accolades don’t stop there: Her 2011 album 21 sat atop the Billboard 200 list for longer than any other album by a woman in music history. Her follow-up album, 25, broke first-week sales records in numerous markets, include the US and the UK. Singles like “Rolling in the Deep,” “Someone Like You,” “Set Fire to the Rain,” and “Hello” were number 1 hits that are still regularly played today. She’s won numerous awards, including 13 Grammys – that is, every single one she’s been nominated for this decade.
Suffice it to say, Adele is a force to be reckoned with. But unlike other hugely popular women at the time – like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry – Adele’s popularity didn’t stem from hitmaker-produced party anthems or a gimmicky image meant to capture people’s eyes and then ears. As Adele herself told Rolling Stone, “I make music for ears, not eyes.” Her music never chased the ever-changing trends that arose year by year. It didn’t rely on synths and autotune. Instead, Adele’s music was old-school in its simplicity, featuring organic instruments, soulful ballads, and one powerful voice. This wasn’t music made to be popular, but it was certainly a pleasant surprise when it impacted the mainstream. Adele’s success proved that heartfelt, old-fashioned music could still hold an audience’s attention.
Taylor Swift was an established country singer in the late 2000s, but early this decade, her music started losing some of the twang as she moved in a more pop direction. Her 2012 album Red saw the transition through, and by 2014, Taylor was ready to take over the pop world with her album 1989. Since then, Taylor has been inescapable. From Red onwards, all of her albums have reached #1 in both the US and the UK, and her many singles are constantly played on radio. Taylor is one of the highest-selling artists of the 2010s, and she has won a vast number of awards, including 10 Grammys.
Taylor is one of only a few artists to make a successful transition from country music to mainstream pop. While some have straddled success in both simultaneously – see Shania Twain – it’s not as common to see the switch in genres, and especially for it to be welcomed so heartily. On top of quality writing and musicianship, Taylor’s success also shows what a good business woman she is. Her marketing and image have always been well-managed, and it’s paid off. Whether she takes all of her music off Spotify or adds it all back a few years later, the industry follows her lead. She’s been setting trends and making the rules for much of this decade. Taylor is one of the leading icons of the 2010s, and she doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.
Lana Del Rey
From the time we first heard “Video Games” in 2011, Lana Del Rey has captivated people. Her major label debut album, Born to Die, presented an artist with a developed sound all her own, drawing on New York cool swagger and Old Hollywood flair in her blend of modern trip hop and retro-sounding baroque pop. Despite negative press early on, Born to Die has gone on to be the second longest-charting album on the Billboard 200 by a woman this century (following only Adele’s 21) and third by a woman in the chart’s history (the other album is Carole King’s Tapestry).
Since Born to Die, Lana has gone on to release a series of successful albums, each more critically lauded than the last, culminating in her universally acclaimed 2019 record, Norman F—ing Rockwell. Although Lana’s singles have never had much presence on mainstream radio, her album sales, critical reception, massive fanbase, and overall influence have made her an icon of the decade. She represents an undercurrent of alternative pop and indie pop – especially written and performed by women – growing in popularity. Indie pop girls have had an increasing presence in mainstream music, and the early success of Lana (and, notably, Florence + the Machine before that) has led to warm welcomes of Lorde, Tove Lo, and, most recently, Billie Eilish. Lana Del Rey is in a lane all her own, but she is sure to continue impacting music in the years to come.
Sia Furler – better known simply as Sia – has been releasing albums since the 1990s, both on her own and with her previous band, Zero 7. However, it wasn’t until she released 1000 Forms of Fear in 2014 that Sia became a household name. Its lead single “Chandelier” became a massive hit worldwide, earning critical acclaim, awards and nominations, and countless covers performed by other artists like Sara Bareilles and Kelly Clarkson. Sia’s follow-up album, This is Acting, saw similar success, with “Cheap Thrills” proving again that Sia could earn radio hits. And her radio hits weren’t just sung by her; Sia has written numerous songs for other artists, including singles for Rihanna, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, and Katy Perry. She’s a known hitmaker, both for other artists and for herself.
What made Sia’s own music remarkable – apart from her expressive and impressive vocal abilities – was how she chose to present her image. Unlike most celebrities, who build a career on face recognition and an over-the-top image, Sia hid her face away from audiences. She famously performed wearing oversized blonde wigs that covered her eyes or facing away from the audience and towards the band. Sia stated that she wanted to maintain some level of privacy and avoid the scrutiny celebrities often face. Nonetheless, without the imagery that aids most artists, Sia found success based on the merit of her music alone.
At first glance, Tove Lo may sound like your average pop star. Her music can be as accessible as Britney Spears, the melodies and instrumentation instantly enjoyable. However, Tove subverts the seemingly simple pop music with bold lyricism not commonly heard in mainstream music. Tove freely sings about taboo subjects, unabashedly discussing themes of sex and substance use, and doesn’t clean up her language. Expected in rock or rap, not so much in pop. But Tove is a modern woman, and her music captures how times have evolved. Our new generation of listeners doesn’t have the same expectations of what women can and can’t do in music, what they can and can’t say. Ladies like Tove Lo and Lana Del Rey have broken down those walls and ushered in a new era of what woman can sing about.
Tove Lo got her start writing songs for other artists, and even with her own pop career going strong, she still regularly writes for other singers. She wrote Ellie Goulding’s hit “Love Me Like You Do,” as well as singles for Girls Aloud, Hilary Duff, and Icona Pop. With Tove Lo’s own music, early songs like “Habits (Stay High)” and “Talking Body” put her on the map. Now, four albums in, Tove Lo is still on top with her latest hit, “Glad He’s Gone,” and still proving how popular the indie pop girl can be.
Janelle Monáe is perhaps the most unique and distinctive artist on this list. Her musical style harkens back to funk and psychedelic soul, but with modern twists of R&B, hip hop, and pop. While the music is bright and immediate, though, Janelle’s lyrics move into new territory, incorporating themes of science fiction and Afrofuturism. Janelle has made daring albums and songs, leading to some to think of her as the new generation’s David Bowie or Prince.
Despite the unconventional themes of her music, though, Janelle has seen encouraging success growing from each of her three albums. Her records have performed well and gained her a loyal fanbase, and her 2018 album Dirty Computer earned critical acclaim and a nomination for Album of the Year at the 61st Grammys. You may best know her as the feature on fun.’s 2011 anthem, “We Are Young,” but know that Janelle Monáe has been serving quality this whole decade. She’s poised for an even stronger 2020s.
After getting her start on Broadway, Ariana Grande got her breakthrough acting in the Nickelodeon show, Victorious. But following in the steps of Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus before her, Ariana Grande was able to seamlessly transition into a singing career – in large part thanks to her impressive voice, which has often been compared to Mariah Carey. Indeed, Ariana’s range and control set her apart from most of her contemporaries, and her voice has earned her the success and accolades she’s seen in the last 5 years.
While Ariana’s first album was a mild success, her 2014 record My Everything saw a swift upswing. Songs like “Problem” with Iggy Azalea and “Bang Bang” with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj were big hits, while her album Dangerous Woman continued her success. But it was in 2018 when Ariana truly took over. Her album Sweetener saw numerous singles, like “God is a Woman,” but then Ariana recorded a second album only months later. Thank U, Next has led to three massive singles, including its title track and “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”
Ariana has changed the game in terms of how many singles and albums an artist can release in rapid succession. She’s rewriting the rules, proving that an artist doesn’t need to wait 3 months between single releases; she can put out a new song every few weeks and see them all dominate radio. Ariana Grande is altering how music is consumed, and her prolific catalog and undeniable vocal talents will guarantee her as a figure in the 2020s, too.
Following her #1 2017 single “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B was poised to release her debut album, Invasion of Privacy. The album was nominated for Album of the Year and won Best Rap Album at the 61st Grammys. Meanwhile, its hit single “I Like It” – featuring Latino artists Bad Bunny and J Balvin – was nominated for Record of the Year. Indeed, the song was a huge crossover success with cultural impact. It’s also notable for being sung in both English and Spanish, as most hits in the US are just sung in English. Cardi B has fused Latin hip hop and Latin rap with the English-language urban mainstream. Not only is she bringing Spanish-language rap into heightened popularity, she’s also making waves as a woman bringing about this advancement.
Beyond gender, language, and style, Cardi B is also changing how we consume music. Her debut album was unique in that it was only available digitally upon release; a physical release wasn’t ready until months later. With CD sales ever in decline, she challenged whether it was worth it to release music physically… at least initially.
Cardi B has been a polarizing figure in the last two years, but her presence is undeniable. She’s a new generation of female rappers, and she blends her own Latina heritage into a space that’s becoming increasingly mainstream.
Camila Cabello got her start as part of the girl group, Fifth Harmony, upon finishing in third place on The X Factor in 2012. Following the likes of Kelly Clarkson a decade earlier, by the 2010s it was no longer controversial for artists to get their start on televised singing competitions. After the group found success with songs like “Worth It” and “Work From Home” in 2015 and 2016, Camila Cabello decided to leave the group and pursue a solo career. Like Gwen Stefani, Beyoncé, and so many other women gone solo, Camila’s success on her own was a gamble, but it paid off.
Probably everyone has heard her 2017 single “Havana” by now. Camila’s presence as a solo artist was never guaranteed, but the overwhelming success of that song solidified it. “Havana” was the best-selling digital single of 2018, and led her self-titled first album to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200. This year, Camila secured another hit with “Señorita,” her duet with Shawn Mendes. It’s gone #1 in 36 countries and is impossible to miss if you have access to a radio. Camila is the most popular Latina woman in popular music since Shakira. Her music may not often be sung in Spanish – at least not yet – but it brings in Latin styles. She’s part of the growing presence of Latinx music in the mainstream, and the leading lady in that space.
In 2016, Billie Eilish started releasing original music into the world. Things started picking up traction in 2018, and by 2019, she’d earned her first hit. And what a hit it’s been: “Bad Guy” has been all over radio this year, peaking high on charts around the world. It’s a unique musical style, labeled nu-goth pop or pop-trap. It builds on the indie pop girl sounds heard earlier in the decade. Billie’s debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, showcases her unique style and production, pulling from electropop and avant-pop. The record has been met with praise from critics and fellow artists alike, and topped charts in numerous countries, including the US. Billie Eilish has only just emerged as a force in mainstream music this year, but already it looks like she has a big career ahead of her.
Beyond her musicality and skill, Billie Eilish is also notable for her age and imagery. She’s only 17, and she presents herself as a cool teenager. She has actively chosen not to portray herself sexually; instead, she’s known for wearing baggy clothes, dark colors, and goth accessories. Like Avril Lavigne 17 years earlier, Billie Eilish has been presented as a tomboy, a relatable young woman whose focus is on the music, not her looks. Indeed, she’s frequently been compared to Avril, and is sure to have a career that’s just as impactful.
Lizzo has been releasing music independently for most of this decade, but this year is when it all came together for the singer-rapper. In large part, we can thank her 2017 song “Truth Hurts,” which only just now became a massive hit two years later. It’s spent 6 weeks atop the Hot 100 so far, and it has led to increased sales for Lizzo’s major label debut album, Cuz I Love You, released in April 2019. “Truth Hurts” is only a bonus track on the deluxe edition, which goes to show you can never know what song is going to stick.
Lizzo weaves together pop, funk, R&B, and hip hop, and she filters everything through her unabashed empowerment and positivity. Indeed, Lizzo isn’t shy about being fat; instead, she celebrates it and exudes confidence. Her positioning shouldn’t be as unique as it is, but it’s refreshing to see someone redefining what it is to be beautiful and confident. The entertainment industry is more than ready for a game-changer like Lizzo.
It’s impossible not to feel as amazing as Lizzo sounds in her lyrics. Her undeniably catchy music will make you shout your self-worth and find the humor in things. No joke, Lizzo’s music makes you feel “Good as Hell,” and we can’t wait to hear more of that in the coming years.
2010s Music in Review: Playlist
These 12 women and countless others have carved out a space for themselves in music, expressing their unique creativity, building on the successes of others, and changing what’s considered popular or mainstream. They’ve changed not only the style, but also the way music is consumed, what’s heard, and what role women play in the industry.
Let their impact remind you of all you can and will accomplish. Whether you’re in entertainment or another industry entirely, consider how you can change the game and grow into a career that lifts you up and inspires other women. Reflect on all you’ve accomplished in the last decade, and get ready for all you have ahead of you in the 2020s.
This blog was written in partnership with Hidden Jams.
Amanda Whitbeck is Vice President of Operations at Petite2Queen. Since earning her master’s degree in Global Entertainment & Music Business from Berklee College of Music, Amanda has played key roles facilitating growth at start-ups. She’s also worked in diverse sectors of the music industry, from live events promotion to entertainment journalism. She brings her expertise in music business, writing, and website development to Petite2Queen.
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