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It's not just Ariana Grande; female pop stars are becoming terrible dancers

Ariana Grande at the Billboard Music Awards
Ariana Grande at the Billboard Music Awards
Getty images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Last week, Ariana Grande, an overachieving tribute from District 4, unleashed a video for her song "Break Free." The zippy track is the second dance hit Grande released this summer, coming on the heels of "Problem."

But if you look at this video (and the video for "Problem"), you'll notice an utter lack of dancing, despite the songs being impossibly dance-y tunes. Instead, there are lot of shots of Grande's hair, like this:


Ariana Grande takes off a helmet in "Break Free" (Vevo)

And this:


Grande shows off her pretty hair (Vevo)

There is one short dance sequence:


Ariana Grande's short dance sequence in "Break Free" (Vevo)

But the dance moves to hair-shot ratio in "Break Free" is hopelessly skewed toward hair. It's also part of a larger narrative surrounding Grande's rapid rise to the top of the pop charts: Grande can't dance, so she's incorporating hair flips and tosses to hide that fact.


Grande at the Iheartmusic awards

Grande's hairography is just a microcosm of the way record execs have influenced how we expect female pop stars to look and behave. To be a pop princess, you have to have hair and know what to do with it. The dancing and singing is secondary.

A pop music princess's hair is really important

From 2004-2007, Britney Spears was displaying erratic behavior. She was going into gas station bathrooms barefoot, driving with her baby in her lap instead of a car seat, and filing for divorce from Kevin Federline. But it wasn't until 2007, when Spears shaved her head and entered rehab, that people began feeling like something was truly wrong.

"Bald and Broken," an ABC News headline stated. "In what's become one of the most stunning moments in her career, she headed into a hair salon and shaved her head with clippers," Rolling Stone wrote, declaring Spears's shave one of the 25 boldest career moves in rock history.

"Your hair is your biggest form of expression when you're a pop star," Ursula Stephen, Rihanna's hairstylist said in an interview with Buzzfeed.

A look at the hoopla over Britney's extensions, Beyoncé's pixie cut and later her bob, Rihanna's asymmetrical snip, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj's wigs and weaves, Miley Cyrus's chop, Lady Gaga's multicolored and multilayered locks, and Christina Aguilera's dye jobs proves Stephen right.

It's been established that the music industry can be a sexist place. Record labels and managers often control a singer's look and appearance . And longer locks are a requisite for female pop stars. They represent sensuality and sexuality and are one more heavy-handed reminder that female pop stars are young, sexy women, as evidenced by Britney Spears's iconic whiplash-inducing performance at the VMAs in 2000:

There's no better indication of hair's importance to a female pop star than what happened after Spears shaved her head: shortly after her shave and stay in rehab, she was once again sporting extensions — her hair was perhaps even more important than her mental health it seemed.

Pop star rule #1: Long hair is sexy.

The 1966 musical Sweet Charity has an iconic sequence, "The Rich Man's Frug", choreographed by Bob Fosse, that vaulted the high ponytail whip into pop cultural consciousness and helped solidify the idealization of long hair:

That scene became so iconic that Beyoncé riffed on it for her video "Get Me Bodied":

In "Get Me Bodied", Beyoncé references the importance of the hair flip. "Pat your weaves ladies pat pat pat your weaves ladies/… now flick flick flick, pose for the camera," Bey sings.

The flicks she's referencing represent the kind of movements models make during photo shoots. Beyoncé's ownership over her weave, her hair enhancements, is a nod, from pop music's reigning queen no less, to the idea that long hair is something that's sexy. Fast forward a few years to Azealia Banks's "212" and Nicki Minaj's "Itty Bitty Piggy", and you'll notice sly references to the long-haired princess Rapunzel.

But unlike some of her fellow female pop stars, Bey appears fully in control of her appearance. And, well, she can dance.

How Britney ruined the hair whip

In the late '90s to early 2000s, pop music came down to a battle between Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. Christina was the better singer, but Britney was the better dancer. It's an extension of the Janet Jackson-Whitney Houston rivalry in the '80s. Jackson had a feathery voice and was an excellent dancer; Houston was the vocal powerhouse.


Michael and Janet Jackson dancing in "Scream"

This set up the idea that pop stars cannot have both qualities. The theory goes: when a pop princess is a great dancer, she probably is lacking vocal ability and vice versa. The reason Beyoncé and Lady Gaga are currently considered deities (though, Gaga's star has faded somewhat) is because they do both:


Vintage Whitney Houston was a powerhouse vocalist but not a great dancer. Vintage Britney was the opposite.

With the advent of autotune, producers can turn a not-so-great voice into an acceptable one. Hair flips and weaves then, are the autotune of bad dancing.

A lot of that has to do with Spears. Spears, at her best, was an excellent and exciting performer. She was in the same mold as predecessors like Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul. Her video for "Slave 4 U" was built on the idea that she could dance and hair whip so sensuously that it could induce sweat and excitement in anyone observing her:


Spears in Slave 4 U (YouTube)

Spears, who incorporated a lot of belly-dancing and tempered erotic moves into her dance style, influenced dance-heavy acts like Danity Kane and the Pussycat Dolls:


PCD in "When I Grow Up" (YouTube)

But after knee injuries, children, and failed comebacks, Spears lost that dancing ability. The routines she was known for lost their edge, their complication, and all that was left was the hair. The video for "Till the World Ends" is an example of this:


Britney Spears "dancing" in "Til the World Ends" (YouTube)

Even though Spears's dancing was at an all-time low, her music was still well-received. "Till the World Ends" hit a high of number three on Billboard's charts, and "Hold It Against Me" as well as "3" hit number one — higher than what "Toxic", perhaps the greatest Britney song ever, had achieved.

Spears showed that a pop star doesn't need to sing nor dance particularly well to be considered a top performer — all that's needed is a hair toss and a good producer. And acts like Grande, know this better than anyone. To her credit, though, Grande is at least trying to dance now:


Ariana Grande wiggle- dances in "Problem" (YouTube)

In her videos prior to "Problem" and "Break Free", she would just sit on cars:


Ariana Grande sits on a car in her "Baby" video (YouTube)

Can our pop stars dance?

Watching 42 minutes of Grande's live performances makes you come to certain conclusions about pop music in 2014. If this is supposed to be one of pop music's best and brightest stars, you may ask yourself: what happened to pop performances? If our pop stars aren't singing their own music, and not even dancing to the music they're not singing, then what's left? Is this the direction pop music is headed in?

To be fair, Grande is more a symptom than the disease. Rihanna, though she can dance candidly with the best of them, rarely uses complex choreography in her live shows. And Katy Perry's choreography seems like it's purposely made to look bad. Both Rihanna and Katy Perry are masters of showmanship, often times using hair and wigs, sometimes in technicolor hues, to distract from a lack of choreography:

Katy Perry

Katy Perry at the IHeartRadio Music Festival (YouTube)

This "dancing" also makes you appreciate the work that Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, Paula Abdul, and Madonna put into their craft. Selena Gomez, another teen dream like Grande, seems to have a deep appreciation of choreography. Gomez and the criminally under-appreciated Ciara (the rightful heir to Jackson's legacy) seem like some of the last hopes we have to buck this trend:


Ciara at VH1's Divas performance (VH1)

And the type of pop dancing defined by Janet and Michael, is actually alive and well in Korean Pop (K-Pop). K-Pop feels like a universe where Michael, Janet, *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, Britney, and Christina never lost their grip over pop music. Polished boy bands and girl bands that can dance, sing, and make you feel like they want to date you seemingly come out every other week.

K-Pop stars train at a very young age and are often put together by record labels, making them just as manufactured as American pop stars. But as part of that training, they are actually taught to sing and dance:


Minzy of the K-Pop girl group 2ne1 freestyles

Pop music has a long history of valuing its singers more than its dancers. There used to be a perception that anyone could be taught to dance, but you have to be blessed with a voice. That's the reason American Idol and The Voice were created. They were made to strip away the glitz, performance, and dance, to find the "real" talent in American pop acts. Maybe this was a bit misguided.

And now, we might just be paying the price.

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