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Turning the Tables: Your List Of The 21st Century's Most Influential Women Musicians

Beyoncé performs onstage during Coachella on April 14, 2018.
Larry Busacca
Getty Images for Coachella
Beyoncé performs onstage during Coachella on April 14, 2018.

What does it mean to be influential? When the Turning the Tables team got together to create a list of the most influential women and non-binary artists of the 21st century, we found ourselves challenged by just how much ground that word – "influential" – can cover. It's a question that only led us to more questions: Who gets to decide what comprises an artist's legacy? What does it mean to shape the sound of a moment? What does it take to truly last?

We made our list, in part, because of how frustratingly common it is for conversations about influence to be centered on men. Women and other people marginalized by their gender, meanwhile, are seen as playing supporting roles in the story of popular music. And the question of influence so often gets told as a history, through a perspective that is removed from the moment it describes. Our list argues that expertise actually lies in the hands of the people who lived through that moment, knew how it felt and documented it in real time. So when we made our list, we thought of it as an exercise both in taking stock of our present moment and in helping create a blueprint for the future – not unlike how writer Sydnee Monday described, for our series, theAfrofuturistic world-building of Janelle Monae's music.

We think our selections — which complement our list of the 21st Century's 200 Greatest Songs made by women and non-binary artists — illustrate much of what "influence" can describe: from Tegan and Sara's ability to bring their queer identities into mainstream pop to Meg White's no-apologies template for placing her work at the center of her public persona; from Sharon Jones' heralded revival of soul to Destra's broadening of the sound of soca; from Carly Rae Jepsen's explicitly millennial fandom to Big Freedia's particularly local sound.

We know that canons reflect the people who make them and the moments in which they are made — and that's why we wanted to open up our conversation to you. We asked you to tell us which women and non-binary artists are the most influential of this century. And while there was considerable overlap between NPR Music's list and yours, your responses, too, helped us broaden our understanding of what influence can mean.

You certainly showed up for the many of the same chart- and conversation-dominating artists as we did: Queen Bey tops your list, and Taylor Swift and Rihanna aren't far behind. These artists' fans are well-known for their passion and fervor — and so, too, are fans of artists like Lady Gaga (No. 2) and Kesha (No. 17), who made your list but didn't make ours. Fandom isn't the same thing as influence, of course, but they share something essential: the quality of bringing us together, making us feel seen and setting the terms for how we'll move into the future.

While the majority of the artists you picked are pop singers, your comments show that this commonality doesn't mean they all exert influence in the same way. You remarked on artists' command of their instruments (one fan pointed out Adele's "showstopping voice;" another, Florence Welch's "four-octave vocal range"); their inventiveness around genre; their ability to be honest and authentic in their songwriting.

You also reminded us of the power of making a canon in real time. Eighteen years isn't an extraordinarily long time, but — for reasons mundane and tragic — we've seen this span of time encompass the entire arc of some influential artists' careers. (Amy Winehouse, for example, who released two beloved albums before her death in 2011, came in at No. 9 on your list.) But most of the artists who made it onto your list have risen to prominence only recently. We saw huge swells of support behind newer artists who represented something particular for you: artists like Halsey, Camila Cabello and especially Hayley Kiyoko, whose queer identity and advocacy resonated particularly strongly with you in this moment of increased LGBTQ visibility.

We're building this canon together in a moment when many influential musicians' careers still evolving. Considered against the long history of women's contributions to popular music, that these artists may be relatively green. For many of them — especially artists like Cardi B (No. 15) and Kehlani (No. 21) who, so far, have only released one studio album each — their most stirring, powerful or history-making work may very well be ahead of them. But you know what makes them matter to you now, and why you think their work will resonate across time.

Over 1,000 of you participated in this poll, which concludes this second season of Turning the Tables. You voted for hundreds of women and non-binary artists you consider the most influential of this century. Below, you can read through the list of your top 25 artists, along with your reasons for why they're so important to this moment. This project is centered on the idea that it's possible, and important, to consider greatness as we experience it, not just in the rearview mirror. Your contributions to our project remind us to continually ask not just who will be remembered, but how and by whom; to recognize this moment as the first step towards the future. –Marissa Lorusso

1. Beyoncé

"Beyoncé is a powerhouse. Her mere presence is enough to encourage young black girls to strive for greatness. She doesn't shy away from saying things as they are, and her focus on every detail of her music makes it that much more important." –Niharika Palakodety

"Beyoncé is a rare artist who can mediate commercial and critical sensibilities with style and ease. Easily one of the greatest legitimate vocalists to grace the radio, Bey is an absolute force to be reckoned with and a yardstick against which to measure the artistic and commercial viability of her peers. A queen indeed." –Eric Fram

"It's hard to think of a more iconic artist than Beyoncé. From Lemonade to Coachella to a video at the Louvre, she continues to expand our definition of what a musician can be." –Naveed Jazayeri

2. Lady Gaga

"When Lady Gaga rose to prominence there was absolutely nothing like her in mainstream pop, and a few years later, you saw a pop landscape full of would-be doppelgängers doing their best to keep up with her. As one of the first big artists of the 'Internet age,' her work set the standard for the next decade of female pop artists. And with her contrarian nature, she has continually zigged when we wanted her to zag, making for a diverse career with many years ahead of her." --Garrett Chappell

3. Rihanna

"Rihanna has pushed the boundaries of all the genres her music can be classified under. She is truly pushing the bounds of what it means to be a woman in music." –Mackenzie O'Brien

4. Hayley Kiyoko

"She has influenced an entire new generation of youth to be comfortable with their own sexualities and does this with dreamy pop music that lifts spirits." –Manpreet

5. Taylor Swift

"It is not merely her clever lyrics, catchy melodies and undeniable business savvy that are responsible for her massive level of success. At the heart of what has drawn millions to her music is that, though she may be singing about herself, people see and recognize a piece of themselves and their own journey through listening to hers. Her music seems to say, 'This is where I'm at, this is how I feel. Have you ever been there?' I think even she has been surprised over the last decade-plus by how many people answer that question with a yes... For better or worse, when she speaks, people listen." Kaitlin Schuler

6. Janelle Monáe

"By coming out as 'a free-ass motherf*****' in 2018 and by labeling herself both 'young, Black, wild and free' as well as 'the American nightmare,' 'the American dream' and 'the American cool,' Janelle Monáe has transcended pop star status to become a veritable influencer of all things COOL: music, youth, queerness, Afro-futurism, masculine femininity and nonconformity to modes of being that are beyond outdated — they turn to fertile compost under Monáe's warm, watchful gaze. Prince was right to christen her his mentee, and in her 'emotion picture' Dirty Computer, the student has shown signs of beginning to surpass the master. Monáe's personal story is the definition of 'the come up:' born to blue collar Blacks in Kansas, grinding for more than a decade to build an empire based on her bottomless artistic energy and raw natural talent, she now uses her power and influence to link up, promote, and 'put on' other young POC talent." –Lovisa Lloyd

7. Adele

"Adele shattered expectations of what an album could mean in the 21st century, going above and beyond all her contemporaries in sales through the sheer force of her voice and her brilliant, universally felt songwriting." –John-Michael Cuellar

8. Nicki Minaj

"She entered an industry mainly occupied by men, shook it up and paved the way for others to come in." –Ruby

9. Amy Winehouse

"She may not have the biggest discography, but Winehouse's impact can be heard in almost every soulful song released after the mid-noughties. Without her honest lyrics and classic production, so many artists wouldn't be who they are today." –Max Ryan

10. St. Vincent

"Using no gimmicks or easy ways out, she created an image of herself that is unapologetically herself, and it has placed her in a position of cultural leadership. She is deep and honest in her work, a powerhouse in her live performances and an authority on the guitar." –Kyle MacDonald

11. Ariana Grande

"Ariana has shown in recent years through her suffering just how much women can endure, how strong they can be and what they believe in. She is the frontrunner of this generation's pop genre. ... In her recent album she used songs to tackle anxiety, recovery from dark times, female sexual liberation and abuse. She is truly the voice of many." –Nathan Udeh

12. Lorde

"She changed the soundscape of pop music with her first album, bringing 'dark pop' to the mainstream world, and she pushed the envelope even further with the follow-up, not only defining the sound but also encapsulating the thoughts and feelings of her generation as they move through new stages of their lives." –Austin Strifler

13. Pink

"Aside from her amazing vocals, her songwriting is poignant and her performances are always groundbreaking and spectacular!" –Eileen

14. Florence + the Machine

"There are few voices more beautiful than that of Florence Welch. It is impossible not to weep openly — with both joy and sorrow — while listening to a Florence + the Machine album. No one can lift you closer to heaven than her." –JD

15. Cardi B

"She is problematic. She is new. But she's still learning. Her music is honest and it bops hard. You will listen to her songs on repeat and check her Instagram for a pep talk." –Manika Dulcio

16. Lana Del Rey

"Lana Del Rey's music has explored many genres and has put down an undeniably influential name in the history of American music. She's influenced a great deal of artists and has captured an even greater crowd of fans all around the world with her outstanding poetic lyricism. ... and ability to set a stage just for herself. Lana Del Rey is one of a kind." –Daniel J.G.

17. Kesha

"Kesha's newest album is a powerful piece of art. Her continuous fight against sexual abuse is one of the most inspirational things I've ever seen. Her newest album, to me, feels like a feminist war-cry that shows just how strong and resilient we women can be." –Leona

18. Sia

"Sia's songwriting has defined the pop power ballad. Her writing style is all over 21st century pop music. You can tell instantly if a song was written by her." –Eliza K.

"You always hear about Rihanna or Britney Spears being influential. But Sia is the person who wrote their songs and she proved that she can sing them, too." –Rich Gourley

19. Demi Lovato

"Despite fighting through addiction, self harming, eating disorders and much more, she still somehow found time to make influential music for fans to relate to and grow from." –Jessie Stewart

20. Halsey

"She's at her best scenario so far, with two albums and an EP full of meaningful lyrics. Her latest album may have focused on radio friendly songs, but it hasn't lost the intricate aspects that crafted her songs into a unique brand." –Isaaa

21. Kehlani

"She has been through a lot but instead of giving up she always has a positive outcome. ... You can feel her story through her lyrics and her beats are oddly addictive. She has evolved into a great artist and I think that the fact she is always trying to be a better version of herself makes her the great person she is." –Fernanda G

22. M.I.A.

"She created the space in music for folks who hadn't been counted before. Her themes have become increasingly relevant in this xenophobic and digitally monitored time. Her sounds were her own but inspired many after her." –Eric Goodwin

23. Katy Perry

"For a pop princess, she keeps putting out danceable sing-alongs while winking and smirking all the way to the bank. There's enough diversity and range that I don't really grow tired of her. She knows who she is ... and she sticks with what she's good at." –Paula Kalaman

24. Alicia Keys

"Alicia Keys has always been a musician who can be depended on to make quality music. Her entire career she has made not only memorable songs, but songs that are actually good. ... Her music is easily likable, and her talent can not be denied." –Grace Ripley

25. Camila Cabello

"She has one of the best albums of this year, and she cares about the preservation of the Latin culture and the DREAMERS in the USA." –Camila Tocre

Web interns Kristy Guilbault and Madeline Clement contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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