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Do Songs by Female Pop Stars Always Need to Have a Feminist Message?

We should allow female artists the space and agency to be creative without subscribing them to a set of rules that male artists are still largely exempt from.

by Emma Garland
Jul 27 2015, 5:52pm

This piece originally appeared on Noisey UK

Britney Spears and Iggy Azalea’s video for “Pretty Girls,” released in May, is consistent with everything we’ve come to expect from Britney Spears and Iggy Azalea: two white, blonde women singing about the power of good looks backed up by a dance team of topless buff dudes, loads of gloriously trashy denim ensembles, and Iggy as a robo-Valley girl. It was immediately slated for being “shallow” and "that it set feminism back 100 years"—meaning, of course, that it didn’t come laden with a heavy-handed pro-woman message. True enough, Beyoncé’s “Flawless” it was not, but does that mean it should be dismissed? Or should we be concerned that two women can’t make a pop video without also making a statement about feminism?

Just eight months before releasing her self-titled magnum opus and touring it beneath “feminism” in pink lettering, in all caps, 50 feet tall every single night, Beyoncé told British Vogue that feminism can be a “very extreme” word, almost hesitantly aligning herself with its meaning. Similarly, when Taylor Swift was asked by Ramin Setoodeh in 2012 if she considers herself a feminist, she replied: “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls,” and now her 1989 tour is being hailed as a tribute to the power of female friendship. Both have come to embrace feminism, which perhaps is a sign of the times. In the recent past, it was a news story when a female artist said they were a feminist (see: the entire Lilith Fair line-up), and that seemed like a bad time for women in music. Now, it’s a news story when a female artist says they’re not a feminist (Meghan Trainor, Katy Perry, Madonna), and this is considered a good time for women in music. But have we created an environment in which female artists are being judged only on their feminism?

This latest preoccupation with feminism and pop can be traced back to Miley Cyrus’ video for “We Can’t Stop”. Released in June of 2013, it is memorable for a number of reasons. First: it was our introduction to the Miley we know now—a Miley graduated and divorced from her Disney beginnings, re-packaged as a problematic hybrid of pop queen and trap star. Second: it was wildly controversial just for the fact that, during her three year gap between singles, Miley leaped from releasing PG-rated choreographed dance routine videos, to wrestling for hot dogs in a leotard, dry humping inanimate objects, and slapping women’s arses—this was her “Vanessa Hudgens does Spring Breakers” moment. Finally: “We Can’t Stop” opened up a narrative about sexuality and responsibility that altered the way in which we interpret female artists today. It’s no surprise, then, that whenever a mainstream female artist drops a new music video the first question on the tip of our collective tongue isn’t regarding the direction or the artistic vision, but instead: is it feminist?

Between “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines”, both of them together at the VMA’s, as well as open letters from the likes of Grimes, Kitty Pryde and Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry about the role of women in the music industry, 2013 was the start of a perfect storm for debating sexism in pop culture. The amount of people talking about it became impossible to ignore, and we’ve now reached a point where we’ve come to expect our female pop stars to show an awareness of feminist issues and engage with them. And—whether it’s Beyoncé performing before a TV audience of 8.3 million people at the VMAs in front of a backdrop of quotes taken from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists”, or Nicki Minaj calling out how black women’s influence on pop culture is repeatedly approximated by white artists but not rewarded to the same degree—that is certainly something we see happening more frequently.

Whether a music video by a female artist is feminist or not has since become the primary yardstick we use to determine its value. From Miley Cyrus to Lily Allen, Meghan Trainor to Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez to Taylor Swift, music videos released by some of the chart’s biggest hitters in the last two years have all found themselves at the centre of debates about how we present and perceive women in general. This is not an argument you’ll see levelled at, say, Kanye West’s “Bound 2”, Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home”, or Pitbull and Chris Brown’s “Fun”.

For example, take Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money”. When Rihanna debuted the song live at the iHeart Radio awards in March, it was met with pretty much blanket positivity. Rolling Stone called it a “confident club banger”, Vulture described it as “a slice of ratchet heaven”, and Huffington Post even made a case for it as a reparations song. Yet when the video was released four-months later, the entire discussion pivoted to the video's feminist credentials.

The general argument, as neatly put Arielle Bernstein for Salon, is one of: “Is ‘BBHMM’ a power anthem, reclaiming troubling images of sexualized violence, with an empowered black woman at the helm, or is it simply feeding into a culture that habitually features beautiful, tortured women as a trope?”

Stripping a white woman and hanging her upside down is an undeniably powerful image in a climate when white women’s role in racist violence has become an increasingly important discussion, so you can't deny that "BBHMM" is to do with the representation of women. But Rihanna's role in the video—as it has been with all her videos—is a character-based one, and that's something we seem to struggle with when it comes to understanding female pop stars. Speaking to British Vogue in 2011, Rihanna said: "See, people—especially white people—they want me to be a role model just because of the life I lead. The things I say in my songs, they expect it of me and [being a role model] became more of my job than I wanted it to be. But no, I just want to make music. That's it.”

In the same way that Quentin Tarantino is an inconsistent maze of sexism and feminism, while many of his female characters are powerful, nods to women of B-movies past, and deserving of victory—the same can be said of Rihanna and “BBHMM”.

“That’s not me That’s a part I play," Rihanna goes on to tell Vogue about the video for "S&M", "You know, like it’s a piece of art, with all these toys and textures to play with.” Ultimately, the same applies to "BBHMM". Without the video, though, there is still a song—and many elements of the video outside of it’s feminist narrative—that seem to have been overlooked. The fact that it was written by a 20-year-old girl, the fact that Rihanna co-directed the video, the fact that everything Rihanna is doing at the moment is very conscious and considered because she's putting together an album she could perform 15 years from now.

Yet, a lengthy Google search will drag up hundreds of editorial pieces about the “BBHMM” video (The Guardian alone hosts six), but barely any reviews of the actual song. Compare that with Drake’s video for “Hold On We’re Going Home"—a video with a mobster narrative in which Drake plays a kingpin whose lover is kidnapped by a rival gang, resulting in seven minutes of revenge, gunplay, and violence against women—which provoked a grand total of zero editorial pieces. Perhaps it’s because it’s shot like a HBO drama; full of heavy shadow and green light filter, perhaps it’s because it’s narrative of “man doing anything within his means to rescue a female love interest” is one we’re completely accustomed to, or perhaps it’s because it’s coming from a male rapper with no obligation to be particularly progressive in terms of gender roles, but nobody had any feminist theory to throw at Drake. It seems illogical, though, that “Hold On We’re Going Home” wasn’t subject to anywhere near as much scrutiny as “BBHMM” when they are essentially different versions of the same video.

Similarly, Axwell /\ Ingrosso’s video for “On My Way”, released in February this year, featured a hell of a lot of masculine posturing resulting in a massive Fight Club-style bare knuckle boxing match in a basement. It has over four and a half million YouTube hits, but did it receive any widespread criticism about its depiction of violence that is arguably more realistic and sincere than anything “BBHMM” serves up? Not even a few words on Thought Catalog. Perhaps the realisation that feminism is a hot key word you can make money off hasn’t quite extended to men yet. This wave of feminism seems to be more about shifting the media narrative from telling women how to make their men happy, to telling women how to represent other women. Essentially, male artists can fuck around and do pretty much whatever they want in a music video and people will ultimately view the music above all else (even when you consider how much backlash “Blurred Lines” received, it still stayed at number 1 for 12 weeks and remains one of the best selling singles of all time). Women can’t seem to get away with that, though, and it diminishes women’s capacity for artistic creativity if all they can be is vessels for a feminist message.

Maybe this has something to do with the fact that many singles drop audio first now, followed by a video a few weeks or often months later, leaving even more room for the discussion to move on and focus mostly on the track’s visual aspect. By the time the video rolls around, the music is basically an afterthought. If things continue going the way they are, I wonder if the cyclical nature of opinion pieces arguing for and against the feminism presented by female artist’s music videos won’t end up strangling their artistry altogether. This is an interesting thought when you consider that, despite being three of the most talked about and culturally significant artists right now, neither Rihanna, Beyoncé, or Nicki Minaj fair well in the UK charts, none of them have had a UK number one in years.

The fact that feminism has entered public dialogue on a mainstream scale is a good thing, even if it is ultimately responsible for swathes of BuzzFeed articles with titles like: “19 Times Your Baby Totally Embodied Gloria Steinem”. Now, more than ever, we are actively critiquing pop culture and politics for their representation of the sexes. What was once a largely maligned movement is now widely accessible, and though it still has its problems with intersectionality, there is a more heightened awareness around topics that—five or so years ago—wouldn’t have left the confines of DIY spaces or LiveJournal, let alone have entire issues of national print magazines dedicated to them (see: Dazed & Confused and Elle UK). The fact that you can’t scroll through Tumblr—a site that hosts 72.9 million posts per day—without encountering a barrage of blue armpit hair and Angela Davis quotes is testament to the fact that we’re now fully immersed in a new, digitally-driven era of feminism. It only makes sense that mainstream journalism would follow suit. We look at pop culture through a feminist lens now, and that is a sign of progression, but let’s not let it be the only way we judge whether an artist’s output is valuable or not.

As with all forms of art, there are multiple spaces for pop music to exist, and not all of them have to be bound up in politics. It’s a woman’s prerogative to do whatever she wants. There is room for Beyoncé to inhabit a feminist space if she chooses to, and for Britney to keep a distance from it if she chooses to, and it doesn’t mean that one is lesser than the other. Reducing the dialogue around all our biggest female artists to what they mean for feminism is limiting - we should allow female artists the space and agency to be creative without subscribing them to a set of rules that male artists are still largely exempt from.

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