Women have been present in the creation and production of music since the very beginning, shaping and changing the music industry, the public’s tastes, and popular styles for thousands of years.
We have highlighted 21 of the most influential women musicians of the past two decades in pop music. To qualify, the musician has to be primarily considered a 21st-century act. See who made our list below.
British-born singer-songwriter Adele has managed to become one of the world’s bestselling artists. Her jazzy voice elevates her pop songs from basic to timeless, earning her fans from all generations, and lending weight to her authentic persona. Despite being one of the biggest acts of the current moment, Adele largely stays out of the public eye, preferring to live a quieter life raising her son.
In 2009, Billboard named Alicia Keys as one of the top artists of the ‘00s decade. It was a well-earned honor for one of the most decorated female musicians of all time. And it’s not just her impressive vocals that have launched the “No One” songstress into the stratosphere; it’s also her unwavering advocacy for causes like women’s empowerment, HIV/AIDS, and global poverty.
Despite her untimely end at the age of 27, and her struggles with drugs and alcohol, Amy Whinehouse is still largely remembered for her outsized vocals and incredible influence on pop music. Many other female musicians, like Adele, Lana Del Rey, Florence Welch, Ellie Goulding and Lady Gaga, have acknowledged that they likely wouldn’t have found their own success, or released their own albums, had it not been for the London-born crooner.
The queen of pop-punk, Avril Lavigne helped an entire generation of women deal with the angst of their teenage years. The Canadian-born songstress signed her first record deal at the age of 15, and, despite the fact that she sold her talents to record execs with softer, more country-western songs, she quickly became one of the most visible women in alt-rock. Today, Lavigne has circled back to her roots, releasing a few mellow tracks alongside her iconic grungy studio albums.
With 28 Grammy Awards on her shelves, Beyonce is the most decorated woman in music of all time. She is also one of the wealthiest and most powerful artists in the industry with a following that verges on cult-like. The Texas native is so beloved thanks to her expansive catalog of songs that manage to be reflective of the times while remaining easy to dance to and fun to belt alongside.
Hailing from NYC, Cardi B earned her legions of fans through her unapologetic attitude, refusing to ever feel ashamed or less than for the circumstances she comes from or the controversial lines she spits. Her most recent hit “WAP” ignited global debate for its explicit lyrics, but its catchy beat still made it a chart-topper for weeks. The song’s success also made Cardi the only female rapper to have a #1 single in two different decades (“Bodak Yellow” and “I Like It” both reached the top position in the 2010s).
An avant-garde artist, FKA Twigs makes genre-bending hits that combine everything from pop to electronic to R&B. While her sound is truly original, she’s also well-known for speaking up about domestic and racial abuse and women’s issues.
These days, Grimes is perhaps best known for her relationship with to Elon Musk, one of the world’s richest men, and mom to X AE A-XII. However, she’s a significant musician in her own right, producing dark, ethereal, catchy music. To date, the Canadian singer has released five albums, including well-known titles like “Visions” and “Miss Anthropocene.”
An early ‘00s pop princess, Gwen Stefani first rose to fame as a member of the band No Doubt. Music lovers are sure to recognize several of her biggest hits including “What You Waiting For?” and “Hollaback Girl.” While she’s come under fire on multiple occasions for cultural appropriation, her numerous Grammy Awards and sales numbers speak to her staying power and influence.
When Katy Perry released “Teenage Dream” back in 2010, she breathed life back into pop, which had lain dormant for a few years after artists like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera stepped away from the stage. The album spawned five #1 singles—a feat only ever accomplished by Michael Jackson’s “Bad”—and went platinum eight times. It also established her as a bona fide institution, helping her to become one of the highest-paid female musicians, a judge on “American Idol,” and the voice behind one of the most-watched Super Bowl halftime shows of all time.
The winner of the first-ever season of “American Idol,” Kelly Clarkson has been a powerhouse in the pop scene since she released her first single, “A Moment Like This,” in 2002. In the decades since, she’s had a number of other notable hits like “Because of You,” “My Life Would Suck Without You,” and “Breakaway.” Clarkson has also been an outspoken advocate for artists having more control over their own output in order to have more creative control.
At one point, Lady Gaga was unarguably the biggest pop star in the world. Her albums, “The Fame” and “Born This Way,” sold millions of copies and her outlandish looks (like a dress made of meat and an ensemble made of Kermit the Frog puppets) won her plenty of attention. One of Gaga’s greatest strengths remains her ability to reinvent herself and her sound, a skill that has allowed her to branch out into acting, business, and activism.
Another relative newcomer to the scene, Lizzo is beloved for her fun, positive, uplifting music, and for how transparent she’s been about how difficult it is to break into the industry. What makes her radical message of self-love even more powerful is that it’s coming from a Black, plus-sized woman—all adjectives that are often rejected by modern culture and media—in an unapologetic, frank, and accessible manner.
Lorde's sound-to-color synesthesia (a neurological condition that links musical notes to colors) ensures that her work is always truly unique and disparate, which has earned her legions of fans, including other artists like Kanye West, David Bowie, and Taylor Swift.
A former Disney Channel kid, Miley Cyrus has managed to completely redefine her image over the past decade, transforming from a bubblegum teen star into a gender-fluid rock ‘n’ roll icon. In between these personas, the raspy-voiced songstress has dabbled in pop and country music, dealt with a never-ending stream of controversies (like her 2013 VMA performance with Robin Thicke), and become one of the bestselling female artists in recent history. Off the stage, Cyrus is a huge supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, animal rights, and cannabis legalization.
At one point, Nicki Minaj held the crown as rap’s biggest female star. Her quick wit, raunchy lyrics, and aggressive style were unlike anything other women were doing at the time (though many have copied them since).
For over two decades, Pink has consistently made “greatest women in music lists” even while never being as popular as other artists in her class like Britney and Christina. Still, she’s had more staying power and longevity, thanks, in large part, to her authenticity and refusal to make the more expected move over the one that feels truest to who she is. As a result, Pink has sold over 16 million albums, had 23 songs hit the Billboard Top 40, and headlined Super Bowl halftime shows, international tours, and “SNL.”
The last time Rihanna blessed the world with new music was in 2016 when she released her eighth studio album, “Anti.” These days, the Barbadian powerhouse has turned her focus to her clothing and makeup lines, but in a past life she dominated the charts with 31 top-ten singles and 250 million albums sold.
The unparalleled queen of Latin music, Shakira has managed to become an international star without abandoning her Latin American roots. Her breakout album, “Laundry Service,” sold 13 million copies worldwide, and kicked off her journey to a whopping 80 million album sales over the course of her career. Shakira continues to release projects in both English and Spanish, collecting three Grammy Awards and 12 Latin Grammy Awards along the way.
SZA only released her first album, “Ctrl,” back in 2017, but she’s already become a major player in the R&B game. Her sound, which is often described as neo-soul, is fairly original, but it’s her lyrics, which often talk about themes nostalgia and abandonment, that really set her apart. With nine Grammy nominationsunder her belt already, it’s possible that, in a few more years, she could become as decorated as artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
Unfortunately, Taylor Swift is often viewed as a “less serious” artist as much of her music is aimed at, and beloved by, teenage girls. In reality, the country-turned-pop star is a talented lyricist, has been voted the artist and woman of the decade (2010s), and is the only solo female musician to win Album of the Year at the Grammys three separate times. Additionally, Swift has become a force for change in the music industry over the last few years thanks to her very public battle for ownership of her masters.