Always being re-defined and re-invented, this genre as a whole is designed to not have the mass-appeal that pop songs on the charts have. Avant-pop can be described as: experimental, purposefully unusual, meant to challenge the listener. It re-defines expectations while still being accessible and living in the pop category. Brooklyn Rail described avant-pop as “re-sequenc[ing] the Legos of song structure, so that (a) none of the charm of the tune is lost, but (b) this very accessibility leads one to bump into weirder elements welded into the design.” This creates a world for artists to experiment outside of the pop blueprint: so long as it’s innovating in one way or another, it can be counted in this category. The genre as a whole has threads that link back to the ‘60s with notable innovators being The Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the Beach Boys, among others. However as time evolved, women began to find their footing in this genre and take the lead.
Though there are many credited with the inception and evolution of avant-pop, there are a few big figures whose contributions are worth noting and stories are worth hearing.
Born in Iceland in 1965, Björk’s expansive career includes nine solo albums as well as three albums with her previous project The Sugarcubes. Still active in the music scene, her eclectic style takes inspiration from electronic, alternative dance, psychedelic hip-hop, jazz, alternative rock, and classical music among other genres. Her distinctive soprano voice is elastic and she explored the unusual in her intonations and vocal performances. She’s self-labeled as a pop artist, however her genre-bending and lengthy career solidifies her status as avant-garde royalty. She explores the topics of nature, technology as well as her changing sense of self. She’s also known for her collaborations over the years, as someone who consistently works with others on music, direction, photography and fashion. Although this practice has helped her creative endeavors, she also believes this is part of the reason why she is under-credited in these collaborations. In a 2016 interview with the London Evening Standard, she said: “If a guy had done all the [arrangements and production] on his album, he would have credit for his work. It’s always like […] I just turn up and sing and go home.”
In Stephen Graham’s book (Un)Popular Avant-Gardes: Underground Popular Music and the Avant-Gardes he asserts: “Preoccupation with form-as-content is prevalent in underground music, alongside a concerted dedication to innovation.” Björk falls right in line with this view and consumers have taken notice. In 2015, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition of her work including her music, costumes, films, instruments and objects that were sources of inspiration. Though she began her career decades ago, Björk is unafraid of evolving and continuing to push and inspire in the new generation of avant-garde pop. Her most recent work is a collaborative album with Venezuelan producer and DJ Arca, who is another woman pushing this genre forward.
Another pioneer of the avant-pop genre is English singer and songwriter Kate Bush. From the beginning of her career in 1975, Bush was inspired by historical/literary references, horror films, as well as comedy. She usually wrote from the point of view of a character or person other than herself. In her songs she tackled “taboo” subjects of teen pregnancy, suicide, incest, queer couples and love — all of which were considered especially unusual and daring during this era. She’s also credited as the first artist to have a wireless headset with a microphone. As a trained dancer, she wanted to be able to move along with her music because physical form was always apart of the experience of her artistry. Another first and precedent Bush set was releasing a film accompaniment with her album Wuthering Heights, a note that current artists such as Beyoncé and Frank Ocean have taken in their projects. Other artists that have claimed inspiration from her career include: Regina Spektor, Ellie Goulding, Charli XCX, Tegan and Sara, Kate Nash, Grimes, Solange Knowles, Coldplay, Adele, Stevie Nicks, Tori Amos, Lily Allen, and Big Boi of Outkast among others.
In a 2016 interview with The Fader, Bush was asked “There’s a statistic that only 5% of music producers are women, to this day. When you started working in production, were you aware that it was a role dominated by men?” To which she responded:
“I was aware that it was very male-dominated. But what mattered to me was that I was able to make the whole experience a much more personal expression and to be able to experiment on my own terms. It allowed me to use the production to express the actual songwriting in a way that I wanted.”
The way that Bush was able to present something with such hope and vitality as well as sorrow and melancholy created a surreal understanding of her work.
English dancer, singer, and actress FKA Twigs is another must stop on the tour of avant-garde women in pop. Though she’s a newer voice in this world, her artistry has already made huge waves. Known for her haunting vocals and genre-less style, her music can be described as raw, ethereal, and hymn-like. She was quoted in a 2014 article from French magazine Le Monde saying:
“I do not comply with any musical genre. I like to experiment with sounds, to provoke emotions by placing my voice on certain atmospheres.”
She, like Bush, is also known for her visual accompaniment to her music. As the director of most of her music videos, she experiments with visuals that match her daring use of sound. A true athlete: expert at wushu sword-play as well as pole dancing, her videos often feature her physical power as well as emotional. Her most recent album, “Magdalene,” was inspired by the historical figure and how she feels a sameness in her own story. The idea of being an incredible woman living in the shadow of a high-profile man is what inspired her to learn more about Mary Magdalene’s story. In an interview with radio KEXP she explained: “Connecting with Mary Magdalene over the past couple of years, spiritually, I started to explore the concept of the virgin-whore, which is the idea that, as a woman, you can be pure, and you can be innocent, and you can be like a fresh flower — but at the same time, you can be dangerous, and seductive, and all-knowing and healing. It’s been incredibly exciting for me to know that that’s okay and it exists and I am as much sacred as I am sensual.”
Twigs has also recently opened up about an abusive past relationship as she pursues litigation against her assailant. In a recent interview with Elle Magazine she stated “It’s hard to do this publicly…but I want people to know my story. If I can’t help people through my experience, it makes my experience 10 times worse. There has to be a point to this — a reason why this happened to me. It’s not just about my [personal] recovery.” A woman who refuses to quit on her craft, her wellness, and her purpose as an artist and human shows no signs of slowing down. She’s announced she’s been working on a new album after her single “Don’t Judge Me” was released in January of this year. She also has a project in the works with Getty Images to curate and make accessible a breadth of Black historical content to empower creators and storytellers with the images necessary to explain the narrative of their work.
If FKA Twigs represents the modern iteration of vocal avant-garde pop, then SOPHIE’s work covers the rest. A self-taught producer, singer, songwriter and musician, SOPHIE was best known for her completely unique production treatments. A notoriously media-shy creator, she began her career hiding her identity. It wasn’t until 2017 that SOPHIE started to share more about herself, including her identity as a trans woman. Her hyper, industrial, metallic and adrenaline infused pop changed the landscape for the genre as she texturized sound. In a 2013 interview with Pitchfork, she described her approach to making music:
“It’s about getting to the molecular level of a particular sound — realizing what that sound actually is made of, and why it behaves a certain way when processed or cooked. Then you use those molecules to build new forms, mixing and reappropriating those raw materials, and of course, it should be bloody delicious.”
Both a solo artist and a frequent collaborator, she’s worked with Madonna, Vince Staples, Charli XCX, Kim Petras among others on her label, PC Music. She’s also credited with pioneering “hyperpop,” an emerging genre that employs her style of fast-paced and out-of-the-box rewiring of pop music. SOPHIE sadly passed away earlier this year after an accidental fall. Though her life was cut way too short, it’s nearly impossible that her legacy will not live on in her collaborators and those who are now exploring in the genre she helped to establish.
All of these women have uniquely different experiences, yet all can be defined under the broad tag of avant-pop. The meaning of this word lends itself to this conclusion naturally: basic structures of pop music with subverted expectations. Though each of their sounds vary, all of them challenge the listener to a new perspective. It’s what has made these women’s stories, contributions, and power inspirations to other artists and genres. The duality of being at the fringes as well as the center of pop is the mystique and importance of these women and their careers. All of them unafraid to bring something new to the table in a room full of men. Their legacies have and will continue to push the envelope of the meaning of pop music and how it will evolve in the future.