How Hailee Steinfeld, Selena Gomez & Other Young Pop Stars Buck Sex Conservativism


Having once been a teen girl I can confirm that the vagaries of sex are a primary concern of those years—unraveling its mysteries, exploring its pleasures. The way that’s expressed, though, is often viewed by adults as alarming, particularly in combination with the only topic that can frighten adults more than teens having sex: social media. Given that “alarm” often turns into “alarmism,” it’s a wonder any teens reference sex outside their peer group at all—and yet it’s always there in pop music, a safe zone for inchoate lust shrouded in bubblegum harmonies and double entendres, where young women can envision their sexuality without enacting too much blunt risk.

Rarely does this self-sufficiency manifest so bluntly—so gloriously teenager-y—though, than in the recent track “Love Myself,” the masturbation-and-self-celebration anthem by Oscar nominee and young Hollywood cognoscenti Hailee Steinfeld. Released in mid-August with a mirrored video that evoked both selfies and a kind of philosophical, autoerotic self awareness, it hit with a double shock and awe, the first surprise being that Hailee Steinfeld could venture outside her Pitch Perfect role into such a delectable, radio-friendly slumber party jammer.

Secondarily, though, was the idea that she would come out swinging with such a sly, line-straddling track, with a meaning that worked on multiple levels depending on your maturity level, or depending on how squeaky clean you needed Steinfeld to be. Tweens could scream along, teens could grind to it, parents could chill.

I’ve been playing it almost nonstop since it dropped, particularly because it is such a lovely dollop of pop music. Written with Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, the songwriters who also wrote much of Selena Gomez’s disappointing 2015 Revival, and produced by Mattman & Robin (also Revival), “Love Myself” builds on a little marimba chord progression, which mirrors Steinfeld’s clear tone. The chorus is mountainous with an echo effect on her sing-song dip—“ANY TIME THAT I LIKE!”—and at 3:16 during its reprise, the beat skitters for two sixteenth notes of bass to drop in before propelling the track out. It’s all so anthemic it landed on the Jem soundtrack, if that tells you anything (never mind that the film tanked), a perfect single geared towards the current generation of burgeoning tween feminists. But the verses were also so suggestive as to almost be explicit:

When I get chills at night
I feel it deep inside without you, yeah
Know how to satisfy
Keeping that tempo right without you, yeah
Pictures in my mind on replay
I’m gonna touch the pain away
I know how to scream my own name
Scream my name

It’s an immensely savvy way to express a burgeoning sexuality, a little awkward but undeniable, and cushioned by its celebratory hooks—outside of Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” and Tweet’s “Oops Oh My” rarely has self-pleasure resounded so brightly. But, by being so subtle on the chorus, Steinfeld avoided and subverted the binary traps that society has set for so many maturing young women pop stars before her, from Britney to Miley. It was also about preserving her image, of course—unlike Miley, Steinfeld doesn’t publicly have much to rebel against, having operated her child career outside the Disney Industrial Complex—but it was still about dipping her toes in the water as she grows up.

It’s tough out here for young pop stars, emerging in the public eye. That’s partly why Miley Cyrus’s transition from doe-eyed TV icon to grille-flashing party gal (who’s had her own dalliances with public self-pleasure) to acid-freaky experimentalist living out her equivalent to her freshman year in college is not all that confusing one bit—since Bangerz she’s been asserting herself sexually as a form of reinvesting control over herself, by literally reclaiming her corporeal being. It’s what Steinfeld’s doing here too, to a much lesser degree, and the rest of her EP, Haiz, asserts it too— “You’re Such a” calls out a dogged dude, implying that the answer to what he is is a “Dick,” but never stated outright. (She does mock him for smoking an e-cig, though, which is a very modern concern. My only regret is that she did not also call him a THOT.) Interestingly enough, she pairs this self-motivated assertion with “Hell Nos and Headphones,” a quiet song about abstaining from drugs and alcohol while the whole party does whiskey and blow. But then, sex is better when you can feel it, anyway.

For whatever reason, the music industry doesn’t often afford these pre-established, multivarious young women any option to express their agency outside of the confined zone of the pop single—a constraint attributable to their tight, lucrative contracts. Even then, expressions of sexuality are pat and subdued, an economic necessity for artists whose corporate overlords view their tween fanbase as broad-sweeping and Middle American, with all the values that accompany it. When Keke Palmer emerged from her Nickelodeon slumber at 14 with her excellent 2007 album So Uncool, she put down the obligatory and age-appropriate first crush ballad entitled, of course, “First Crush.” By 2012, she had dropped the humid anthem “Dance Alone” and was comparing her slow-grind to hydraulics. Was it a kowtow to trends? Not at all, despite the cynicism some may have about the pop machine—again, young women in their late teens wanna exert some autonomy with a sex jam, particularly when they’ve spent their young teens strictly penned in by children’s entertainment empires.

Selena Gomez did this recently too, although her first album, Stars Dance, was infinitely more distinct from the mostly edgeless dance album she dropped earlier this year. It’s remarkable that much of it was written by Steinfeld’s team—did they save all the best tracks for Hailee?—particularly considering how conservative it is sonically, despite Gomez’s assertion of sexual self. Every review I read made much out of the fact that Revival as both a concept and a (pretty great) title single was Gomez becoming herself for the first time, but that idea seemed to mindlessly buy a narrative that was gift-wrapped and handed over. The key was hidden deeper on the tracklist, on the subtle and unassuming almost-whisper-track “Hands to Myself,” an internal narrative that illustrated an adult desire, unleashed. Even its corniest lyrics—“your metaphorical gin & juice,” ugh god—rang a bit true, as though the lack of inhibition was so great that she didn’t even care if she said something dumb. But that’s the root of all these songs anyway: flexing the ability to fuck up and not being shy about it, even on a scale so massive as mainstream radio, is one of the most adult things a gal can do. That’s when you don’t need anybody else, the most.

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Image via screenshot

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