Pop's Dueling Definitions of Dangerous Women

New albums from Fifth Harmony and Ariana Grande take two different sonic and lyrical approaches to an age-old dichotomy.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

In titling her memoir Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham subverted a phrase that some people might otherwise use to diss her brand of oversharing, sex-positive womanhood. But on their new album 7/27, Fifth Harmony’s song “Not That Kind of Girl” seems to put its title back in the hands of traditionalists. Over a confetti-like explosion of ’80s tropes—Prince synths, Michael Jackson enunciations, Whitney Houston runs—the girl-group’s members warn guys at the bar not to incorrectly classify them based on their hotness. Missy Elliott shows up to clarify exactly what the misunderstanding might be: “I’m not the kinda girl you can freak on the first date / I’m straight, that’s right, I’ll make ya wait,” and “What you think, I’m a thot?”

It’s a somewhat surprising sentiment in an era where slut-shaming is so often, well, shamed. Especially since, after forming on The X Factor in 2012, Fifth Harmony have skied in the wake of Beyoncé and other titans of aughts pop feminism, using the notion of #flawlessness and being not bossy but a boss for slick, heavily rhythmic dance anthems intertwining romance and empowerment. But “Not That Kind of Girl" is a rare finger-wagging formulation of a viewpoint otherwise contained in affirmations. The group sings about sex plenty, but their current hit “Work From Home” is typical in portraying freaky bedroom fun as glorious mostly in the bounds of a relationship. Another track, “Gonna Get Better,” is about sticking with a guy even when he can’t pay for nice things. Club culture, they suggest, doesn’t have to be hook-up culture, surely to the relief of some of their teen and tween fans’ parents.

The tendency to portray one gender’s goodness and badness as tied to promiscuity and material desperation has, as the music critic Ann Powers explained during the summer of “Blurred Lines,” been with pop probably for as long as pop has existed. The last mass realization of how creepy the motif’s implications could be came from Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” a song that sounds innocuous until you notice all the condemnation Drake hurls at a woman who seems like she’s having a liberated, enviable fun with travel and bubbly beverages.

Though the good girl/bad girl trope’s rooted in gender norms, it can also serve aesthetic functions and be scrambled based on situation and singer. Take Ariana Grande’s new album Dangerous Woman, which puts its concept in the title and in its cover. The ponytailed ex-Nickelodeon star is in her bad-girl phase, except she’d prefer “woman” to “girl.” Pitchfork’s Quinn Moreland counted 19 instances of the word “danger” in the lyrics; “scandalous,” “reckless,” and “bad decisions” also show up. Grande seems to be using these keywords more earnestly than she did in her great recent SNL hosting turn where she complained about lacking for a true controversy to rocket her to grown-up stardom. (The donut-licking debacle of 2015, apparently, didn’t quite get her there.) But she and her songwriters are also playing with the meaning of dangerous womanhood, trying to turn a story of loving commitment into something edgy—in part to serve Grande’s image and in part to serve up more interesting music.

The rumor that Grande’s dating her backup dancer Ricky Alvarez remains artfully half-confirmed, with the singer refusing to provide specifics in interviews yet members of her camp anonymously dishing to the press about which songs off her album refer to him. It’s a strategy that supports Dangerous Woman’s theme of inexplicably forbidden romance. “It used to be easy / For someone to steal me /
Now all my emotions /Are all cause of you, boy,” she sings on “Sometimes,” whose acoustic guitars and “la la la”s suit her smittenness. But elsewhere, she’s freaked out: “Don’t let them see us,” she cries on the gloriously rippling house single “Into You.” This anxiety about what seems like a cute age-appropriate relationship perhaps owes to Grande’s status as one of the most scrutinized young women on Earth—the same concept behind Taylor Swift’s cheekily gothic “I Know Places.” Or perhaps the danger meme more has to do with the universal realization that falling for someone is a risky proposition.

Most importantly for listeners on the hunt for memorable summertime pop, Grande’s team (the album’s executive-produced by Grande, Max Martin, and Savan Kotecha) have back up the lyrical concept by injecting darker flavors into bubblegum. Dangerous Woman reaches for Shirley Bassey vibes as much as it reaches for the expected Calvin Harris ones, and tying the track list’s self-conscious stylistic diversity together is a deep, distorted synthesizer tone that recalls heavy metal guitars or flickering Tesla coils. That sound lies under the chorus of “Into You,” creating crucial tension. It envelops the workout-playlist excellence of “Everyday,” where Future repeating the track’s title feels like a beacon flickering in a dust cloud. The production adds moments of queasy fright to the mall pop of “Sometimes,” the reggae sugar rush of “Side to Side,” and the overdetermined rock-and-roll epic that is the title track. Along with Grande’s vocal agility and Martin’s talent for unlocking the gate between the ears and the longterm memory, the distinct rumbling motif makes Dangerous Woman one of the better pop releases this year.

Fifth Harmony’s 7/27 also has a sonic trademark that fits with the narrative it spins about elevating oneself through fierceness. Rather than going low and growly a la Grande, their producers have affixed neon and pastel highlights to their solidly written R&B and hip-hop-inflected jams about what being independent but in love feels like. Sometimes this is done pretty cleverly, as on the sequined excitement of “Not That Kind of Girl.” “All in My Head” brings in the most exuberant rapper of our times, Fetty Wap, to very catchy effect. For “I Lied,” the chorus goes, “Love never got me this high,” and as the girls sing those last words a barrage of electronic screeches not unlike dolphin sounds shoot up in, yes, the high end.

But one problem: Those sounds, and many of the other ones on the album, are becoming very familiar to the average radio listener. Many tracks feature Blood and Kygo, producers-of-the-moment whose use of tropical music signifiers (and a riff that’s earned a pretty compelling plagiarism lawsuit) helped give Justin Bieber’s Purpose its appealingly serene vibe last year. The success of that album and its influences makes 7/27, and all the other recent pop works mining the same sonic vein, feel second-generation: bliss out of a box. I won’t label any of these women, Grande or the members of Fifth Harmony, good or bad, but I do know which one has done a better job of making the old feeling of falling in love sound new again.