Thank you for coming to my lecture this evening.
I’d like you to imagine a world in which male musicians are routinely expected to act as submissive sex objects. Picture Beyonce’s husband, Jay Z, stripped down to a t-back bikini thong, sex kitten-ing his way through a boulevard of suited and booted women for their pleasure. Or Britney Spears’s ex, Justin Timberlake, in buttock-clenching, denim hot pants, riding on the bonnet of a pink chevy, explaining to his audience how he’d like to be their teenage dream.
Before we all become a little too hot beneath the gusset, of course, these scenarios are not likely to become a reality. Unless for comedy’s sake. The reason for this is that these are roles that the music industry has carved out specifically for women. It is a male dominated industry with a juvenile perspective on gender and sexuality.
From what I can see, there are three main roles women are allowed to fulfil in modern pop music, each of them restrictive for both artist and audience. They are mainly portrayed through the medium of the music video. You’ll find them very familiar. I call them: the “one-of-the-girls’-girls”; the “victim/torn singer”; and the “unattainable sexbot”.
The “one-of-the-girls’-girls” role is a painfully thin reduction of feminism that generally seems to point to a world where so long as you can hang out with girls, it’s possible to sort of waive the evils that men do. This denigrates men and women equally and yet is commonly lauded for being empowering.
The “victim/torn singer” can be divided into the sexy victim (i.e. Natalie Imbruglia in her Torn video) and the not-so-sexy victim.
One female artist who does not use her sexuality to sell records is Adele. However, lyrically her songs are, almost without exception, written from the perspective of the wronged woman, an archetype as old as time. Someone who has been let down by the men around her and is perpetually in a state of despair.
But to me, the “unattainable sexbot” is the most commonly employed and most damaging, a role that is also often claimed to be an empowering one. The irony behind this is that the women generally filling these roles are very young. They’re often previous child stars or Disney tweens who are simply interested in getting along in an industry glamourised to be the most desirable career for young women. They are encouraged to present themselves as hyper-sexualised, unrealistic, cartoonish objects, using female sexuality as a prize you can win.
When I was 19 or 20, I found myself in this position, being pressured into wearing more and more revealing outfits. And the lines I had spun at me again and again, generally by middle aged men, were: “You look great”; “You have a great body, why not show it off?” Or, “Don’t worry, it’ll look classy. It’ll look artistic.”
I felt deeply uncomfortable about the whole thing, but I was often reminded by record company executives just whose money was being spent. Whilst I can’t defer all blame away from myself, I was barely out of my teenage years and the consequence of this portrayal of me is that I am frequently abused on social media, being called “slut”, “whore”, and a catalogue of other indignities that I’m sure you’re also sadly very familiar with. Now I find it difficult to promote my music in the places where it would be best suited, because of my history.
The culture of demeaning women in pop music is so ingrained as to become routine. From the way we are dealt with by management and labels, to the way we are presented to the public. We can trace this back to Madonna, although it probably does go back further in time. She was a template setter. By changing her image regularly, putting her sexuality at the heart of her image, videos and live performances, the statement she was making was: “I’m in control of me and my sexuality.” This idea has had its corners rounded off over the years and has become: “Take your clothes off, show you’re an adult.”
Rihanna’s recent video for Pour it Up may have over 40 million hits on YouTube, but you only have to look at the online response to see that it is only a matter of time before the public turns on an artist for pushing it too far. But the single, like all of Rihanna’s other provocative hits, will make her male writers and producers and record label guys a ton of money. It is a multibillion dollar business that relies on short burst messaging to sell product. And there is no easier way to sell something than to get some chick to get her tits out, right?
When the male perspective is the dominant one, the end point is women being coerced into sexually demonstrative behaviour in order to hold onto their careers. This idea repeated over generations can’t but have a negative effect on women, whether they are in the industry or not.
I need not point out that these roles are interchangeable for artists and they are not prescriptive to all female musicians. For every chart topping star who fits neatly into one of these archetypes, there are 20 other artists who may not have the same earning potential but have carved out their own roles as human beings, not objects. One has only to look at Julia Holter, Haim or Poliça to see strong women, unrestricted in their art by their gender or sexuality.
Throughout the industry, wherever you find women, they are doing brilliant things. Trina Shoemaker is a three time Grammy award winning engineer. Mandy Parnell is a mastering engineer who has worked on some of the best received albums of the last 20 years. And Marie Allsopp this summer became the first ever female conductor of the last night of the Proms. She recently said, “There is no logical reason to stop women conducting. The baton isn’t heavy. It weighs about an ounce. No super human strength is required. Good musicianship is all that counts.”
As a society, we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these authority roles. Out of 295 acts and artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 259 are entirely male, meaning that Tina Weymouth’s part in Talking Heads makes them one of the 36 female acts. The Association of Independent Music’s 2012 membership survey revealed that only 15% of label members are majority owned by women. PRS claims that only 13% of writers registered are female. The Music Producers’ Guild? Less than 4%.
Last year, I toured with an exceptionally talented sound engineer. And last week I launched a publishing company that unintentionally has all female staff. Honest, unintentional! But I am constantly disappointed to find out how few women are working in certain parts of the industry.
So, is it simply all down to sexism? Myths about women perpetuated by men? Nicki Minaj seems to think so. In what has now become known as her “pickle juice rant”, she talks about how she is derided for demanding a certain level of professionalism from the people she works with. She says: “When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss.” Minaj is one of the many top-flight female artists who use alter egos in their work. Her other personalities are often men who rap violently about women.
So, to what extent are these myths about women perpetuated by women themselves? In a very recent, very public, spat between the legendary Sinead O’Connor and the infamous Miley Cyrus, mother O’Connor wrote a concerned open letter directed at Miss Cyrus who herself responded by ridiculing O’Connor’s bipolar disorder on Twitter.
If women are going to become free agents of their gender’s destiny and music in a music world which is reliant upon shouting loudest over the clamour, it stands to reason that online pissing contests only serve to detract from the strong messages put forward by such artists as Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu. Their recent collaboration on Q.U.E.E.N. is an elegant and empassioned rally cry for what Monae identifies as, “everyone who has felt ostracised and marginalised”. And yet it is women that she addresses most specifically, ending with the line: “Electric ladies, will you sleep or will you preach?”
The recent flapping about Miley Cyrus’s blah blah blah has clearly struck a chord with people like O’Connor and opened up a worldwide debate on the use of female sexuality to sell product. Annie Lennox cut to the juggler when she talked about the age propriety of what she called “dark and pornographic” music videos. She has called for videos to be rated as films are, with extra ratings being applied to the most sexually explicit.
It is interesting to note that anyone of any age has been able to watch Christina Aguilera’s simulated masturbation in her Dirrty video since the website began, yet you must sign into the site to prove your age if you wanted to watch Bjork’s stunning video for Pagan Poetry. Whilst I would argue that neither videos are acceptable viewing for young eyes, I know which one I would rather explain to my young child.
Whilst channels like YouTube and Vimeo have a responsibility for dealing with these issues, radios shouldn’t think they are beyond criticism. As Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director General, announces the new iPlayer channel for BBC1, the question must be asked: should programmers take into consideration the image of an artist when deciding whether to play and promote their music?
There are countless examples from the last few years of songs that have been in high rotation that have little to no artistic worth, but are just plain rude. I’ve been asked to give some examples, but I don’t want to give the Daily Mail an excuse to ignore the rest of this lecture.
BBC radio is notorious for misreading sexual metaphor and innuendo as innocent, most famously with Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. But, more recently, there doesn’t seem to be decently barrier at all, unless you’re dealing with words like: “fuck”; or “shit”; or “hippopotamus cock”. If there is no sanction put upon music that is written so zealously about genitalia or uses soft porn in its promotion online, what will stop artists feeling that making their videos and live performances more sexy will undoubtedly drive up their online views and subsequently encourage more radio play?
And so, to Blurred Lines, which many in this room have no doubt added to their playlists. The Blurred Lines video, which had the biggest part in jettisoning a song by a mediocre artist into the biggest track of the year, was on YouTube for just over a week before it was taken down and remains on Vimeo without any age restrictions. The indefensible Robin Thicke stated in an interview with GQ that his intention was to do everything that is completely derogatory towards women because he respects them so much.
He continued saying, “People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman.’”
It is highly disappointing to know that the director of this video is a woman, Diane Martel, who also directed Miley Cyrus’s twerking for the first time in the video, We Can’t Stop and is responsible for an objectionable little number by Leyla Label called, of all things, Lolita.
What is possibly more disappointing than this is the appearance of the exceptionally talented Pharrell Williams at 2013’s round table of chauvinism. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Cyrus quoted a message to her from Williams, who said of her VMAs blah blah blah, “The VMAs was nothing more than God and the universe showing how powerful anything you do is. It’s like uranium. It has the power to take over lives or power entire countries. Now that you have seen your power, master it. You are not a train wreck. You are the train pulling everyone else along.”
With this kind of encouragement it is no surprise whatsoever that young women feel it necessary to be more and more shocking in their bid to be the most forward looking.
Canadian electronic artist Grimes, whose third record Visions was met with universal acclaim says, “I don’t want to be infantalised because I refuse to be sexualised.”
To my mind, what this industry seems to want of its women increasingly is sex objects that appear childlike. Look at the teddy bears everywhere. The Britney Spears Rolling Stone cover with the Teletubby from 1999. I state again: Lolita.
The terrifying thing is, the target demographic for this type of music is getting younger and younger. Jennifer Lopez seemingly trying to engulf the camera with her vagina on Britain’s Got Talet earlier this year is a mild example of how frequently carnal images creep into the realm of what is deemed OK for kids.
But ultimately it does not need to be like this. Sex can be art. Look at Bjork’s The Patene, a highly sexual and sensual record by a woman entirely in charge of her career and sex. The same can be said about almost every Prince record, and should be. Both are artists, adults and human beings, intelligently addressing a human subject, not exclusively a male one.
I support Annie Lennox’s plea for ratings on videos.
If Rihanna had not grown up watching the videos of the ’90s, then it might not be quite so essential for her to portray her sexuality so luridly, so constantly and so influentially on the next generation. If the power was taken away from sex in pop by making it harder for younger viewers to access it, then maybe the focus would shift to making works of artistic beauty and conscience. And fundamentally that would actually be putting the power back in sex for a future world where women are able to portray their sexuality as it is for them.
Tabatha Leggett is a senior writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.