America, it would seem, is on a bender. From the shot-fueled mayhem of Jersey Shore (the most popular show in MTV's history) to a special booze-themed episode of Glee, to the blog Texts From Last Night immortalizing those crucial missives sent while sloshed, there seems to be no way to slake our collective thirst for entertainment exploring the fun of drinking—though attempting to do so has become a popular and lucrative pursuit.
Nowhere is this quite as clear as in the music industry.
Bourbon, scotch, beer, and their friends have proven themselves to be successful muses for many current chart-toppers, like Far East Movement, whose Billboard no. ı hit “Like a G6” enthuses, “When we drink, we do it right, gettin' slizzard”; Katy Perry, who sings of “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” that “It's a blacked out blur/ But I'm pretty sure it ruled”; underage Myspace sister act Millionaires, whose viral Internet sensation “Alcohol” urges “Come get fucked up/ Gimme my alcohol”), and almost the entire oeuvre of Ke$ha, the reigning queen of this particular shindig. Her 2010 tribute to hard liquor and carpe-ing the diem, “TiK ToK,” spent longer at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart than any female musician's debut single since Debbie Boone's 1977 hit “You Light Up My Life.” The song sets Ke$ha up as a freewheeling good-time girl, as did her album, Animal (also a no. 1). Her website is keshasparty.com. In case you didn't get it the first few times—Ke$ha really likes to party.
Getting fucked up is no new theme in pop music, of course, and you don't have to reach back too far into the canon to find a wealth of rock and hip hop jams (to say nothing of country music) endorsing the pursuit of a cold one or 30—Snoop Dogg's “Gin and Juice,” Beastie Boys' “Fight for Your Right,” Chumbawumba's “Tubthumping,” Andrew W.K.'s entire catalog. But there's never before been such a crop of booze-soaked party anthems that explicitly celebrates what it's like to combine getting fall-down drunk with being female.
In addition to those already mentioned, Lady Gaga, Pink, and others have all recently performed and/or penned songs that rhapsodize long nights out (Ke$ha, on “Tik Tok”: “Tonight/ I'mma fight/ Til we see the sunlight”); adult beverages (Pink's “So What” brightly claimed, “I'm gonna drink my money”); pursuing casual sex with pointed callousness (Ke$ha again, on “Blah Blah Blah”: “Don't be a little bitch with your chit-chat/ Just show me where your dick's at”); and engaging in good-humored hedonistic excess (Perry's “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” casually name-checks ménage à trois, getting kicked out of bars, and sleeping with a stranger, before cheerfully vowing to “do it all again”). These songs are cut from quite a different cloth than, say, Amy Winehouse's mournful odes to boozy self-destruction; each song paints the narrator as a sassy, knowledgeable guide, in control of and fully engaged with the wild situations in which she finds herself.
Young women boozing it up is also nothing new in pop culture—the flapper, one of America's first youth cultural ambassadors, was renowned for, among other things, her ability to throw back liquor (a July 1926 editorial in the Dallas Morning News listed the flapper's scandalous identifying characteristics as “bare knees…and [a] hip flask”). Women singing dance songs about heterosexual desire is no novelty either: Though disco celebrated a rainbow of gender and sexual expressions, songs about the power of female lust, sung by the ladies themselves—Anita Ward's “Ring My Bell,” Andrea True Connection's “More, More, More,” and Donna Summer's booty-call anthem “Hot Stuff,” among others—were a staple of the genre.
Today's party-girl pop continues down the avenue of non-explicitly politicized, pleasure-focused rebellion against gender norms carved out by flappers and disco divas. But while flappers rejected repressed Victorian sexuality and gender expectation by flirting with jazz and Prohibition liquor, and disco denizens embraced new sexual freedoms by inhabiting a musical universe where every possible expression of desire was set to a synth beat, party-girl pop explores what it means to be a certain kind of young woman in an era where young women have more choices about life, lifestyle, and the pursuit of pleasure than ever before. The genre's lyrics and attitude examine the tension between the concepts of “good girls” and “bad girls,” and the push and pull between pleasing others and claiming pleasure for oneself, in a way that could only be explored in this era of social media. This is done in two ways: by conjuring the fantasy of a nonjudgmental safe space where its listeners are free to party however they choose, and by engaging with, and subsequently deflating, the idea of the “drunk girl.”
The term “drunk girl” could be applied to a wide range of female-identified people who happen to have had a few too many, but the “drunk girl” who holds the American media in thrall has a very specific collection of attributes—many of which are, coincidentally, shared by the new faces of party-girl pop. She's young, conventionally good-looking, cisgendered, able-bodied, and single. She's new to sex, altered states, and other kinds of grown-up fun, and is thus both extremely gung-ho and particularly vulnerable, to both predators and the judgment of others. She is privileged and almost always white; the pop-cultural media machine that props up the drunk girl mythos is the same media machine that finds the sexuality of women of color threatening. (What was “scary” about Scary Spice, again, besides the fact that she was black?) And she is most definitely immature, and thus unintimidating to a media establishment that unfailingly caters to the desires of heterosexual men. She's a tribe apart from a Winehouse or a Courtney Love—women whose hard partying has placed them firmly in the “bad girl” camp from the very beginning. One of the drunk girl's greatest identifying characteristics is that she is, basically, a “good” girl merely flirting with the microrebellion of alcohol consumption and losing control, and as such is dependent on a complicated structure of rules to maintain that “goodness” despite her experimentation.
The drunk girl as an icon has existed for decades—popping up most frequently in movies, TV, and books as an uptight character who needs to loosen up, a process that is generally played for laughs. In teen films of the 1980s, for instance, a girl's drunkenness was often portrayed as the state in which she was most tolerable or enticing to men—see Sixteen Candles and its infamous “Be my guest” scene in which drunk girl Caroline's boyfriend passes her off to a stranger for a ride home. Increased awareness of and concern about date rape in the '90s made it a bit harder for media-makers to play situations like this for laughs, and being titillated by a woman unable to give consent became much more taboo. Similar scenes still occur regularly in pop culture—the Seth Rogen comedy Observe and Report garnered widespread criticism for a scene in which Rogen's character is encouraged by a passing-out Anna Faris to continue having sex with her—but audiences are meant to find them more disturbing than humorous.
Enter the new drunk girl. Arriving on the scene in the late '90s, infused with the energy of girl power's commercial victory lap (and subsequent watering down), this new female party animal had her roots in the collegiate spring-break scene and was a wholly different creation than her slumped-over, '80s-movie predecessor. She entered America's homes via MTV's spring break coverage and the ubiquitous late-night commercials for Girls Gone Wild. She gloried in doffing her top for other bar patrons and partygoers or theatrically making out with other heterosexual women in front of a camera lens, but she was also just an average college coed—an idea stressed by GGW with film titles like Sexy Sorority Sweethearts, and by their frequent assurances that all of their actors were amateurs, rather than professional adult performers. This drunk girl didn't pass out—instead, she hooted, table-danced, and acted out her sexual fantasies, which just so happened to be appealing to straight men.
The implication of all this seemed to be that this new drunken performance was just the kind of thing lots of women ached to do—if only they weren't so bound up in society's moral hang-ups. Which is not to say that these women got no pleasure out of their performative wastedness—according to an exhaustive, disturbing 2006 profile of GGW honcho Joe Francis in the L.A. Times, many of them found it “liberating” or “fun” to do shots and strip for the cameras. Still, it was also clear that their genuine pleasure was secondary to that of their viewers: One participant, who masturbated on camera, stated in the same profile that, “It didn't feel good to me at all, but I was totally faking it because I was on Girls Gone Wild.” The takeaway? It was acceptable for “good girls” to experience the pleasure of drunkenness, so long as its ultimate end product was pleasure for heteorsexual men (a point made in less graphic terms in the 1999 teen rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You).
But once a drunk girl becomes more interested in pleasing herself, sexually and otherwise, than performing for others, she quickly becomes a joke and an annoyance. And pop culture decrees that though drinking might enhance a girl's appeal, the judgment of when she's “had enough”—when her performance is to be considered humiliating rather than fun and alluring—lies with her audience. Former Saturday Night Live player Jeff Richards essayed his “Drunk Girl” character as an overbearing, overweight ditz; Jersey Shore's whiny, perpetually schnockered Snooki is regularly shown wielding vibrators and squatting in bushes for comic relief.
It's this post-GGW female partier who, in the 2000s, became a staple of male-sung pop and rap tunes. Emo band Something Corporate's 2002 song “Drunk Girl” protested that romantic activities initiated by women who'd had a few were inherently meaningless. On 2007's “Drunk and Hot Girls,” Kanye West is irritated by a young woman intent on satisfying her own desires instead of his (“Stop dancing with your girlfriend and come dance with me…We go through too much bullshit just to mess with these drunk and hot girls”). And Jamie Foxx's 2009 hit “Blame It (on the Alcohol)” posits that not only is a drunk woman up for anything (“Just one more round and you're down, I know it”), but that her drunkenness makes sexual encounters not count (“Shorty got drunk/ Thought it all was a dream”).
But Shorty must sober up eventually, and when she does, she is expected not only to shoulder any shame or guilt she personally has over any actions taken while drunk, but also to repent for societal conventions she's broken. She now must play out a redemption narrative to get back into society's good graces, repenting for her behavior—even the behavior that was considered sexy the night before. Indeed, the shame/redemption arc of the drunk girl has been on public display since the mid-2000s, when the phenomenon of the hard-partying Hollywood starlet or formerly squeaky-clean Disney pop star made regular headlines. As the chaotic nocturnal lives of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Nicole Richie, and Lindsay Lohan met the court of public opinion, the drunk girl narrative played out on a massive scale—fans took back their approval (much of which was initially given based on their interest in the stars' glamorous nightlife), and thus took back the starlets' licenses to experience pleasure. The stars followed suit by claiming that their brief vacation from the norms of acceptable female behavior were not—not!—intentional, but rather regrettable mistakes, apologizing that their pleasure did not take into account what would best create pleasure for others.
Which brings us to today's party-girl pop stars, most of whom are in their early 20s and thus spent some of their crucial adolescence witnessing a culture obsessed with drunk girls both famous and ordinary. Perhaps that's why they actively invert drunk girl culture by focusing their music on the pursuit of pleasure not to please others, but to amuse themselves. The likes of Ke$ha and Katy Perry are often lumped in with the hard-partying boldfaced names of the past decade, but they shouldn't be—the shame required to construct a redemption narrative is simply not to be found in their lyrics. (To wit: “I threw up in the closet/ But I don't care,” sings Ke$ha on the self-explanatory track “Party at a Rich Dude's House.”) Contrary to the stock image of a drunk girl as a naive coed corrupted by alcohol, a camera crew, and her own repressed desires—or a boozing starlet performing contrition to regain status in the media—the party-girl popster paints herself as a gregarious, aggressive, self-aware woman who just wants to have some stupid fun, and she extends to her listeners the opportunity to do the same. As Ke$ha noted of her fans in an October 2010 Newsweek interview, “We're ready to have fun together because we're sick of trying to be perfect.”
And unlike the drunk girl, the party-girl pop star primarily exists to entertain a female fan base. (Many reviews of Ke$ha concerts remark on her large female audience; recent coverage of one by Kansas City TV station KCTV5 pegged concertgoers as 75 percent female.) The world of party-girl pop—where a girl can “leave for the night” and know that she “ain't coming back” without worrying that anyone will judge her—is a fantasy, much as disco offered the vision of a sexually liberated utopia to a world struggling with radical changes in sexual mores.
But even while marinating in this dance-floor drunktopia, it's impossible to forget that we live in an era where a vast majority of media and public service messages maintain that drunk girls are “asking for” trouble. A 2008 study out of the University of Windsor surveying 280 male and female college undergraduates found that “women's voluntary consumption of drugs prior to a sexual assault reduced perpetrator responsibility and blame and increased blame to the victim.” And a 2010 campaign at the University of Minnesota warned students of “the other hangover”—namely, the damage to one's sexual reputation that can result from drinking (which was helpfully illustrated by an image of a faceless woman raising her shirt for several men).
And yet, at the same time, the increasingly publicly documented nature of youth—via blogs, photo sharing, and social networking—is rendering the good girl/bad girl dichotomies that drive this discussion increasingly obsolete. When everyone's beer-bong photos from freshman orientation are online forever, it becomes harder and harder to judge just women for their public performance of pleasure, not only because much private pleasure has now been turned into public pleasure by social networking, but because the myth that certain kinds of women who act out their public pleasure in certain ways are “bad” and unlovable is becoming harder to believe. The right to experiment (as well as the right to fuck up) is a right that has been traditionally extended to young men far more than women, under the idea that experimenting could go wrong and turn a woman from a good girl into a ruined bad girl; the (sometimes) accidental activism of party photos on social networking sites shows the actual reality of pleasure in women's lives, which seldom fits into the good girl/bad girl dichotomy.
Is party-girl pop a trend with a limited shelf life? Most likely—just like disco, it's a movement not necessarily built to last, but rather built to expertly reflect its era. And in the near future, party-girl pop's biggest hits will probably strike listeners as somewhere between quaint and ridiculous (kind of like the way many of us feel now when we listen to disco goofiness like Musique's “In the Bush”). But today, it is valuable in its large-scale reflection of changing the meaning of pleasure and autonomy among young women, both to create a culture for girls themselves and to give older people a peek into these changing mores. And that deserves a toast.
Gabrielle Moss has written for Venus, Lost Magazine, and BitchFEST: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine. Her musings on Taylor Swift, the nature of memory, and rad margarita recipes can be found at cassingles.blogspot.com.