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Powerful In Pink

On a color, women pop stars, and the VMAs

The 2016 VMAs opened to a wash of electric pink. Rihanna, the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard honoree, posed alongside a cast of dancers dressed in militaristic jumpsuits, as ornate as strait-jackets. Lighting soaked the stage like a blush eclipse; on the night of a massive career milestone, Rihanna literally wore rose-tinted glasses. The next time she performed that night, presenting a medley of her reggae and dancehall-leaning songs, the stage was awash with pink, and she was still wearing a furry pink bra. She's always loved the shades of pink. But her four-part Vanguard set began with her most stridently pop hits: "Don't Stop the Music," "Only Girl (In the World)," "We Found Love," and "Where Have You Been." Flaunting a pink Hood By Air baby tee with a matching corset, hitting the synchronized choreography we expect from her, the singer looked the picture of a pop princess taking her throne. With Rihanna, the term "pop princess" doesn't even sound like a pejorative; it just sounds accurate.

Throughout the night, the color emerged again and again. So did women — the 2016 VMAs featured more performances from women than from men, and out of the 17 categories, female acts clinched 10 victories, the most prestigious honor of the night going to Rihanna. Ariana Grande began her performance of "Side by Side," from her theatrical album Dangerous Woman, first riding a pink stationary bike and then men in bright bodysuits. She was cloaked in neon, girly athleisure. Her collaborator, Nicki Minaj, had entered the VMAs building wearing navy and slick black hair. But when it was time for Minaj to perform along with Grande, she chose a hot pink bodysuit and sported a blonde wig. Minaj's earliest guises were all about the glorious garishness of the color and all that it connotes — she's got two albums out by the name of Pinkprint — and her most famous alter ego is "Barbie." Projected onto these three women, all dominant in their respective corners of pop musicianship and celebrity, pink glows supreme, soft, and hard, all at once.

Historically, the VMAs have been a spotlight for women in pop. Rihanna has been nominated 22 times. Last night, Beyoncé surpassed Madonna to become the artist with the most wins in all of VMA history. Nicki Minaj, who has been repeatedly snubbed in male-centered categories at the Grammys, wins at this ceremony. In earlier years, artists like Janet Jackson and TLC made the VMAs a platform for their commercial and artistic success. Since the '90s, the pop music charts have been increasingly dominated by women; created as an alternative to industry-influenced machines like the Grammys, the VMAs have grown to reflect what listeners want, rather than what industry heads think they want. Pivoting to the influence of audiences, in most creative industries, means acknowledging the selling power and artistry of women. That the culture at the show is often loose also meant we were watching these women, from Madonna to Britney during her "Slave 4 U" performance in 2001, brandish the sexuality that would be otherwise curtailed.

Three of the biggest pop stars of any gender did just this last night, and they did it in pink. "By embracing and advocating for poptimism, the VMAs have also become a bastion of respect and support of women artists," critic Britt Julious recently wrote in Esquire. For all the ways pop music has evolved since the VMAs' inception, the broader culture's demand that women contend with false critiques of "non-artistry" has been consistent. The conversation can be circumvented, though, even rendered irrelevant, by female stars like Rihanna, Minaj, and Grande, all artists who lean completely into the ideals of pop. "Pop princess" will never be a dig at the VMAs. Last night, showered in varying shades of pink — literally the color of bubblegum — girl pop reminded us all of its sovereignty.

Check out all of our 2016 VMAs coverage.