The controversial positing of the female body within the sphere of pop music is hardly a new phenomenon; each and every generation of women has both encountered and been forced to consider the way in which mainstream music has continued to degrade, fetishise and disempower the female image. Yet the last 12 months seem to have reflected a larger society that is only beginning to get to grips with an issue that has always been present, and one that is highly visible. Headlines have been disproportionately dominated by a twerking, slack-tongued young woman, whose unabashed displays of sexual physicality have perhaps opened the door to a genuine discussion on the issue, beyond its historically academic confines. Recognition of the blatant misogyny in music has tended to simmer tentatively beneath the surface, occasionally breaching the membrane of public rhetoric; yet in this age of digital social media, the topic has been unleashed with a tremendous vivacity across the Internet, where countless opinions have culminated in a fanfare of anger and uncertainty.
Within such flurries of heated discussion and debate, there will always be instances of measured and thoughtful perspective. Word on the Curb, a spoken word project that I have been working on and which I made reference to in my first post, recently had the chance to film a piece with Leo 'Subzy' Chandler, a young spoken word artist/rapper from London. Written for our pilot series 'The 90 Second Project', 'Miley Cyrus' tackles the issue from a contemplative position that rests on the question:
"Does Rihanna or Miley Cyrus have true autonomy over the public displays of their bodies?"
This is not a radically profound question in and of itself, yet it is one that sits pertinently within the current climate of this feminist discussion. Are we losing sight of the ulterior motives and reasons for the construction of these female bodies within pop music?
The distortion of this reality is evident in the palpable sense of anger voiced in the divergent reactions to Lily Allen's music video for her new single, 'Hard Out Here'. The song is ostensibly an attack on the higher powers in the music industry, and is symbolised in the video by an old, white, suited man who hovers over the operating table on which Lily Allen is undergoing liposuction. It is a catchy song that clearly delivers its message:
"Don't you want to have somebody who objectifies you? Have you thought about your butt? Who's gonna tear it in two? We've never had it so good, uh-huh, we're out of the woods. And if you can't detect the sarcasm, you've misunderstood."
The lyrics alone do Lily Allen credit, both in their critical exposition of the exploitative practices that mould female artists into 'bitches', and in the somewhat crudely staked claim for feminine power in the line,
'Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits.'
Yet it is the video that has provided the stumbling block to her message. Concerns surrounding the marginalisation of gender and sexuality have been met head on with those of race, leading to accusations such as "Here's yet another video of a white woman performer using the bodies of black women as props", as well as more creative ventures. Ironically, the chosen symbols of female oppression within many music videos--naked dancers, bottles of champagne and chrome rims making distinct points of reference to commercial Hip-Hop--have been construed by many as reflections of racial insensitivity, and there is feasible reasoning for why Lily Allen could be guilty of a racist perpetration, albeit unintentionally. Yet I think in such instances we are running the risk of heaping the blame upon the shoulders of the artist, and thus impairing our ability to observe the bigger picture.
Miley Cyrus' recent exploits have fuelled the same dualistic critique of race and sexuality. The two sit uncomfortably alongside one another and any seeming distinction between the two becomes largely blurred when white artists such as Cyrus debase the female body within the context of a genre of music that is closely tied to race like Hip-Hop; Hip-Hop itself has led a dangerous dance in this respect over the last decade, with some of its more commercially viable performers having presented a rather unwholesome image of the female body. Cyrus' enthusiasm for 'twerking', in addition to her recent collaborations with Hip-Hop artists such as Mike Will Made It and French Montana, presents a caricatured package of a set of cultural practices that she has little grounding in, which has provoked understandable ire. However, punitive models of thought which seek to primarily demonise the Miley Cyruses and Lily Allens of the industry again negates criticism of those industrial structures that impose restrictions on artists and even seek to mould their public characters.
In his poem, Subzy muses on the issue, asking:
"Is Miley becoming sexualised
to stop being infantalised, or believe that the only way she can further her career is by selling sex from the get go? Either way, her music videos entrench the industry's sectionalisation of black culture within a narrow realm, which continues as long as artistic freedom is constrained by corporations who refuse to let go."
The history of tyrannical major music labels is well-documented, and musicians with a strong sense of musical integrity often prove to be a rare commodity in an environment that is populated by profit-hungry CEOs and artists willing to cooperate. Record labels have been given the constant reassertion that sex sells, and the white middle-classes continue to constitute a greater consumer power. So why do we continue to hold these same artists who are promoted by these labels in such high esteem? Moreover, why do we expect them to present a progressive image of the female body or ethnic minorities for that matter? Such high expectations rest uneasily on such fragile shoulders and fall predictably flat, whilst we in turn castigate the artist without a moment's hesitation. Claims that Rihanna and Miley Cyrus represent a new wave of feminism are misguided in this instance, yet in their transgressions we should acknowledge their place in instigating a new wave of social criticism towards the men that lurk behind the scenes, restricting and debasing popular music.