This girl is on fire. This girl is on fire. This girl is on fire.
Have you belted out those words yet, along with Alicia Keys? You should. And so should your daughters. It feels good.
And it reminds me (stay with me here) of a very small, mousey-voiced white lady from the ’80s.
The very first time I saw Cyndi Lauper on MTV, I was astounded. There she was in tulle and with assymetrical rainbow hair, singing in a squeaky voice, commanding the whole screen. It was the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video and all those women dancing wildly and embracing their own kind of girliness — it shifted me a little.
A few weeks later, I was hitting stop-rewind-play (kachunk-whizzzzz-kachunk) with Cyndi Lauper on a loop on my pink boombox in my room. And a few months after that, I was playing it on my guitar (shhh, no laughing). Madonna sang into my ears just as often, but she wasn’t singing directly to me. She was aloof and untouchable to me. Cyndi Lauper was me, without the big plastic glasses and Guess overalls. Her songs became my anthems and I felt free and on fire when I listened to each tune over and over and over.
As the years and tracks rolled on, my anthems were belted out by TLC, Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, Queen Latifah, Missy Higgins, Shawn Colvin, Kate Nash, Sarah McLachlan and many others. Their songs lit something up inside of me and helped me through finals and breakups and job interviews and first dates and the first mile I ever ran and the quietest moments alone in the dark of my room.
That girl power crosses genres and generations. I know that because my mom’s special song for me is “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King. She sang it to me when I was an infant and we danced together to it at my wedding. She told me once she wanted me to hear it over and over to remind me that I am never alone. That could have been my very first feminist lesson about how women can connect and lift each other up.
Now that I am a mother of a son, I hear the lyrics of songs differently, wonder how I can light a fire within him with music. While he’s singing “Firework”, eyes closed and arms out, I hope that he knows the message is for him, too.
But I am also focused on the girls, the daughters of my friends, my son’s classmates, the babies who have a whole new generation of music to play. What singers and songs and tiny phrases of lyrics will make these girls stand taller, run faster, smile bigger, dream wider?
Your playlist for your daughters (and yourself) surely already includes Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and a few of those Cyndi Lauper faves. Here are the songs to download today and sing tomorrow so your girls wanna shout, dance and take over the world, too.
1. Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys
With a unyielding drum beat perfect for stomping, boxing, tearing down glass ceilings, this song is a call to be big and bold and blazing.
Oh, we got our feet on the ground
And we’re burning it down
Oh, got our head in the clouds
And we’re not coming down
2. Who Says by Selena Gomez
“We took Jillian to a Selena concert a few years ago,” mom Jeanne Eschenberg Sager says, “and watching all the little girls standing up singing ‘I’m just beautiful me’ put tears in my eyes.”
3. Who I Am by Jessica Andrews
This one with just enough pink-hued soft edges and country twang is perfect for tweens who need reminding that their clumsy-clueless-big raindrop tears and goofy friends are all OK.
Sometimes I’m clueless and I’m clumsy
But I’ve got friends that love me
And they know just where I stand
It’s all a part of me
And that’s who I am
4. Nobody Ever Told You by Carrie Underwood
Whatever the music business and magazine editors and agents are placing on Carrie Underwood, I like to think she’s not taking it. Why? Because she sweetly yells about things like Shania karaoke and unapologizing and letting Jesus drive her car. Oh, and stripping off the makeup to see more clearly the gold we are underneath it all.
Take off all the makeup girl
Shine your light, show the world
Don’t be shy, don’t be scared
You don’t have to hide under there
Let’s throw away all the magazines
Turn off the static on the TV
Wish you could see yourself the way I do
5. Fly by Nicki Minaj and Rihanna
I am not a girl who can ever be defined.
Set aside the talk-show and tabloid controversy about these two artists for a moment and focus on the keep-pushing-forward momentum of this song. No matter what outlandish wigs Nicki wears or what missteps Rihanna makes, they are certainly propelling their careers without being still or stagnant long enough for anyone to define them. I’ll take that.
6. Good Woman Down by Mary J. Bliger
I am pretty sure the country would be a much stronger place if Mary J. could preach it to every single young woman. For now, we will have to glean her lessons by playing and replaying all of her albums.
7. Perfect by Pink
Bombarded by thousands of messages telling girls to be smaller, quieter, cuter, skinnier, cooler, less, more — all before high school — this song rings out what every mama wants her daughter to feel in the deepest way: you are enough just as you are.
8. 32 Flavors by Ani DiFranco
Before Pink, there was Ani in bubblegum extensions with a guitar and independent label, using profanity and combat boots and poetry to cry out to other women to see themselves as powerful. This one was covered in a one-hit pop chart-topper, but the original is emotional, raw, and empowering. No Women’s Studies degree required to teach every single lyric to your rising phoenix.
9. Make Your Own Kind of Music by Mama Cass
Take your Adele back a few decades to the powerhouse Mama Cass. Pilar, mom of three, says it might make her retro, but she sings this one with her daughter.
Make your own kind of music, sing your own special song
Even if no one else sings along
10. Run the World (Girls) by Beyonce
Far more aggressive than Beyonce’s previous hits, this song took some hits of its own. And with lyrics like, “Strong enough to bear the children and get back to business,” Beyonce is not kidding about how she and many other women are keeping the wheels turning.
11. Respect by Aretha Franklin
As timeless as the Queen of Soul herself, I want to believe every little girl coming up will be stronger, wiser and more confident listening to Aretha and the path she cleared for the artists we are cranking up on our phones today. And when your daughter’s not getting the re-re-re-respect she deserves from others, re-re-re-remind her to sing it to herself.
12. Stronger by Kelly Clarkson
Many mamas I spoke to told me this song is regularly on play in their cars and homes. What makes it even better is that the woman who wrote and sings it has said she takes her girl-fans seriously and that she will never apologize for her curves or her independence. That intention radiates in songs like this one.
13. Skyscraper by Demi Lovato
Teen television and pop star Demi Lovato brought her personal struggles with bulimia and self-abuse to the public, openly discussing her treatment and joining body-positive and anti-bullying campaigns to help empower other kids. This ballad seems like a message to herself — and to fans — about being steely during unstable times.
14. Beautiful by Christina Aguilera
Quiet the screams of irritation and the eyerolls at Xtina’s distracting cleavage and bad public behavior for just long enough to let the good message of this song sink in for your daughter. Hey, even ladies wearing plate hats are beautiful on the inside and we all could use hearing this about 400 times a week:
I am beautiful no matter what they say
Words can’t bring me down
I am beautiful in every single way
15. One Step at a Time by Jordin Sparks
Are you — and your baby girl — not ready for heels and prom and belly-baring? Jordin Sparks, in her wholesome way, stands up for taking life one step at a time. And I love her for singing confidently about slowing down and enjoying where you are, like this:
There’s no need to rush
It’s like learning to fly
Or falling in love
It’s gonna happen when it’s
Supposed to happen
16. Unwritten by Natasha Beddingfield
Hopefully, your daughter will be spared the life-wasting saga of LC and Heidi and the rest of The Hills gang that was set to this song for too many seasons of our lives. And maybe, if you play it enough times, you can cast out the scenes of Audrina Patridge and Kristin Cavalleri screaming in a club or arguing in bikinis that are plastered in your brain to really hear the lyrics again. You know, for the sake of your daughter’s as-yet-unwritten story.
17. This One’s for the Girls by Martina McBride
This one is full-on country twang and rally and rhymes. But there’s a sweetness about it you will relate to in at least one of the verses. And isn’t it great to hear your daughter singing along to a song written just for her?
What song do you and your girls turn up to 11?