In the days of Britney and Christina, pop songs hit you over the head with high-pitched hooks and big club beats—repeated ad nauseam on MTV in videos featuring armies of dancers with washboard abs. But Solange Knowles, heir to that pop tradition via her sister, Beyoncé, doesn't have back-up dancers. In her video for "Losing You," she bounces in place dressed in a variety of wild prints and vintage pantsuits accompanied by smiling Sapeurs, the colorful dandies of the Congo. The track, a cool arrangement of dreamy synths and vocals off her newly released EP, True, comes courtesy of producer Dev Hynes (a.k.a. indie singer-songwriter Blood Orange) on a record label run by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor.
Solange isn't the only female pop singer eschewing a sugary-sweet sound and a glossy persona. Sky Ferreira also collaborated with Hynes for the song "Everything Is Embarrassing," off her recent EP Ghost. It's a sultry, catchy '80s-style pop tune with lingering echoes and stark piano chords. Ferreira hasn't always sounded like this. Despite being only 20, she's become something of a Madonna, reinventing herself from conventional pop singer to alterna-rocker to her current status as indie ingenue.
More accomplished is Jessie Ware, whose album Devotion landed on Pitchfork's "Best New Albums" list alongside acts like Wild Nothing and Bats for Lashes. When everyone from Katy Perry to bearded music nerds are singing your praises, you must be doing something right. Put together by a team of talented producers including Kid Harpoon and Dave Okumu of the Invisible, her songs, like those of Knowles and Ferreira, are heavy on synthesizers and down-tempo beats. Despite the indie sound, this is pop music through and through, with endlessly hummable hooks and soaring vocals. Think Whitney Houston if she spent her twenties haunting rock clubs in Shoreditch.
And you can't talk about this new breed of female pop stars without mentioning style. Gone are the tight-fitting superhero costumes and sky-high heels—and good riddance. Instead, Knowles, a Brooklyn resident, dresses in vintage duds and bold patterns from Kenzo, the French label now run by Opening Ceremony's Humberto Leon and Carol Lim. Ferreira, with her silver bed-head hair, pouty lips, and impossibly big eyes, seems tailor-made for a Terry Richardson photo shoot, whereas Jessie Ware, in her video for "Wildest Moments," sits poised in a slim white blazer, sensible black top, and tasteful silver collar. Madonna's cone bra it is not. Not that there's a shortage of larger-than-life, glossy pop these days (see: Gaga, Lady), but it's refreshing to watch artists tweaking the formula.
—Keith Wagstaff is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him @kwagstaff.