8 Trailblazing Women of Pop Music

You might think that pop music is short for “popular” music, but that’s not exactly true. Since its inception in the 1950s, “pop” has come to mean a style of music that is universal, accessible, and reflective of the current social culture. That means that the definition is always changing.

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Female musicians have played a vital role in the development of pop music, and particularly when it comes to breaking down barriers relating to race, social status, gender, and sexuality. These eight women were powerhouses in their own right, and their work helped create the genre of pop we know today.

1. Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin isn’t usually thought of as a pop singer, necessarily—after all, she’s known as the Queen of Soul. However, this pioneering vocal master influenced many genres. Franklin’s legendary career helped shape pop music as we know it today through her unique and skillful combination of gospel music and the blues, as well as rock n’ roll and R&B. Her biggest hits included “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Respect,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” Franklin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the first female artist to earn that honor.

2. Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt was active throughout the 1960s and 1970s when she experimented in genres ranging from folk to country to rock ‘n’ roll. But it wasn’t until later that she became the trailblazer she’s known as today. Ronstadt’s career in the ’70s as a pop pioneer gave her the freedom in the following decade to go in a new direction by releasing a Spanish-language album, Canciones de Mi Padre. It was revolutionary for the time, showing that pop could incorporate many genres, languages, and cultures. Ronstadt won a Grammy for the album and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

3. Gloria Estefan

Cuban-American Gloria Estefan first fronted the band Miami Sound Machine before achieving star status as a solo artist. She helped to popularize the sounds of Cuban and Caribbean music by fusing them irresistibly with pop music. Estefan has a talent for making her culture accessible to the world, which accounts for the popularity of songs such as “Conga,” “Turn the Beat Around,” and “Get on Your Feet.” The eight-time Grammy winner truly helped popularize Latin music in general for a worldwide audience, paving the way for artists like Selena and Ricky Martin.

4. Cher

Before Madonna and Beyoncé, Cherilyn Sarkisian became so famous as a pop star that she needed but one single-word stage name. Cher‘s work as both a solo artist and in Sonny & Cher, her ’60s- and ’70s-era duo with then-husband Sonny Bono, has earned her the nickname of the “Goddess of Pop.” Her career began in the early 1960s when she began performing with Bono and hosted the hit TV show The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. But her solo career following their 1975 divorce was even more iconic. One of her most striking aspects is her ability to adapt to new styles and technologies over a career spanning six decades and counting. Notably, her 1998 hit “Believe” pioneered the use of auto-tune, and gave her a Grammy-winning hit nearly 40 years into her career.

5. Madonna

Few women are more closely associated with pop music than Madonna. The pioneering singer and icon could be called one of the first pop divas. She started out wanting to be a professional dancer, but changed tracks and released her debut album in 1983, immediately gaining attention (especially in dance clubs). Throughout the 1980s, she broke records while becoming one of the earliest pop mega-stars with her music and music videos. She boldly addressed themes of sexuality, religion, politics, and female empowerment, making her one of the most successful female musicians of all time. To date she’s sold more than 300 million records.

6. Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey is best known for her astonishing vocal talent, which covers five octaves. She received classical voice training under her mother, a professional opera singer, before seamlessly transitioning to pop music. Releasing her first album in 1990, Carey became one of the foremost pop singers of the decade. She is best remembered for hits such as “We Belong Together,” “Hero,” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” But her legacy, more than anything, is bringing hip-hop, pop, and R&B together to become one of the most successful singers of the 20th century.

7. Taylor Swift

Pop superstar Taylor Swift is nothing short of an enigma; she managed to completely change musical genres while only increasing her fanbase. Swift started out as a country singer and had several chart-topping hits in that genre. Eventually, however, she moved into pop music (although she rejects being categorized by a single genre). Over the course of her career, Swift has experimented with folk music, rock, hip-hop, electronica, and bluegrass, showing a talent for crossing genres without alienating her fans. Swift’s authentic lyrics and musical sensibilities have cemented her as a revolutionary pop artist for the 21st century.

[RELATED: Taylor Swift Breaks Down Songwriting Process for ‘1989’]

8. Beyoncé

Beyoncé is a record-breaker in more ways than one. This pop star got her start as part of Destiny’s Child before breaking out on her own. Her talent for singing, rapping, and dancing has made her one of the most successful and enigmatic pop singers in history—not to mention one of the most influential. She’s easily one of the highest-earning music artists of the century so far, and as of the 2023 Grammys she has won more Grammy Awards than any other artist, male or female, at 32. Many of her songs, such as “Halo” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” have become iconic, century-defining tracks.

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