Pop Star Goddesses author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong on better living through diva worship
In these trying times, it will take no less than a hero to unite the lonely souls of a heartbroken America. We need someone to give us the strength to persevere, to remind us of humanity’s profound greatness. Someone like Beyoncé.
“It’s a funny time to be promoting a book about pop star goddesses, but here we are,” says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Pop Star Goddesses: And How to Tap into Their Energies to Invoke Your Best Self (who previously chronicled TV history in the books Seinfeldia and Sex and the City and Us). Or maybe it’s the perfect moment to spend a lot of time immersing yourself in the candy-colored worlds of Katy Perry and Carly Rae Jepsen. “On the one hand, super serious things are happening [right now],” says Armstrong, an EW alumna. “On the other hand, you can save the world by staying home to read a book or listen to music or watch Netflix. So we need distractions.”
The illustrated tome offers a whole sparkling catalog’s worth: Each of its 35 chapters focuses on a different modern pop icon, explaining her artistic history and cultural impact in great detail and then pairing her with an ancient goddess who represents a similar energy. Each chapter concludes with exercises to help you channel that pop star goddess’ unique power (e.g., Mariah Carey: “Dress up to hit the gym”), journaling prompts to help you get inspired by them (Janelle Monáe: “What does being a free-ass motherf---er mean to you in your own life?”), and, of course, an essential playlist of their most divine tracks.
The introduction honors the holy quartet of Madonna, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Cher, all of whom influenced the more recent divas covered in the book’s chapters. The ultimate list includes Armstrong’s own favorites, with additional attention to having a variety of ages (Carla Bruni! J.Lo!) and musical styles beyond pure pop, like Queen Latifah, Laura Jane Grace, and Miranda Lambert. (Armstrong is quick to add that, since she had to write the book long before publication due to art demands, “Billie Eilish and Lizzo would 100 percent be in here” had the timeline allowed for it.)
Above all, “I had to be able to say she represents something,” Armstrong says. “I think it's pretty hard to really stick as a pop star unless you have a bigger energy that you represent to people.” In short: She had to be a goddess.
In doing the dual research of both music history and ancient religions, “I realized that my thesis was very sound, because we really do treat our pop stars like goddesses,” Armstrong says. “They have mythological stories. We’re not going to know the details of Beyoncé and Jay-Z's relationship, ever — and we shouldn't. But that's kind of not the point; the point is actually the story we know about them. That’s how gods and goddesses worked.”
The same players pop up between ancient mythologies, too, and these goddesses appear in each other’s histories (like the feud between Taylor Swift and Katy Perry), and meet the same recurring characters who pop up throughout the book, like John Mayer (who encounters… Taylor Swift and Katy Perry).
John Mayer absolutely doesn’t get his own chapter, though, nor Justin Bieber nor a single Jonas Brother; this is about powerful female energy. “Think about Justin Timberlake. What did he represent besides, like, dude who could sing a falsetto? Which is cool — he’s made some really good music. But I think we really don't require this of the men the way we do of the women,” Armstrong says. “You have to be very strong and special to last as a female pop star. Because we do put women in the public eye through so much more than we put men through.”
The perfect example of that is Timberlake’s own ex and Pop Star Goddesses’ Artemis, Britney Spears. In the book, Armstrong calls her infamous breakdown “the ordeal that turned her into a true goddess,” which signals a major tenet of this mythology. “We really tried our best — I mean we as a society — to destroy her,” Armstrong says. “And you know, I love that we didn't, and it's only because of her. She really went through it and she came out the other side.”
The chapters go in alphabetical order, but if you’re looking to channel Britney’s resilience, Gaga’s conviction, or Rihanna’s cool, Armstrong encourages you to skip around and spend time with the goddess that speaks to you on a given day. And for quarantine, our current collective low point? Britney, of course, is an icon for getting through a dark time; Kacey Musgraves’ “chill energy" makes her a great indoor muse; and goddesses like Celine Dion have a work ethic to inspire anyone trying to write their King Lear. But a crisis of this magnitude — especially for people stuck inside with their partners — might be best suited to Queen Bey.
“We put her in the middle of the front on the cover for a reason,” Armstrong points out. “She’s kind of the goddess of everything.”
Pop Star Goddesses is now available.