“I looked high and low for fucking, Hannah,” Ryann Donnelly tells me in a sweet American accent with an almost deadpan expression. “High and low, but the fact is there’s not a lot of sex in music videos. There’s a lot of seducing the camera, but not pseudo porno. It’s pretty rare, seeing what you would perceive as penetrative fucking in music video.” I adore the idea of an academic watching hundreds of vidoes on their laptop for the purpose of analysis, squinting for evidence of something going somewhere. But Donnelly is a musician too – she fronted Seattle-based horror punk band Schoolyard Heroes, who were signed to Island Records from 1999 to 2009. The art of the music video is something she's been seriously considering her entire teen and adult life.
It’s hard to pinpoint the first ever time it happened. The original real sex scene was supposedly Marilyn Manson’s “Heart-Shaped Glasses” with then-girlfriend Evan Rachel Wood. In terms of acted-sex, one possibility, Donnelly says, is David Bowie’s “China Girl”, although that is just rolling around on a beach. In actuality, she says conspiratorially, “Justify My Love” by Madonna might just be it. The black and white film shot in a hotel room, features a man thrusting on top of the singer. Its references to BDSM, bisexuality, and voyeurism would barely register as a discussion point were it released today, but in 1990, it was banned by MTV and other TV networks. When Madonna was asked by ABC whether she would make more money selling it on VHS rather than airing it, she retorted, “Yeah, so? Lucky me.” Sex sells, but it does more than that.
Donnelly’s first book is a strange thing. Released in April on Repeater, Justify My Love: Sex, Subversion and Music Video is a mix of genres. It’s a tender and corporeal autobiography of what it means to express yourself as a female musician when everything feels bound by the playful but taut restrictions of love, sex and power. It’s also an edited pHd that Donnelly did at Goldsmiths on the topic of sex and gender in music video. So it’s a (very good) Girl In A Band story and a theory book.
To paraphrase Donnelly's personal story, which then informed the study: She's a teenager when she gets romantically involved with her band boyfriend, an overbearing force who orders more wildness in her performance. She channels the full force of confused feelings into live movement and finds sex and self-possession in front of a crowd. How, she wonders, to best translate that to film and picture. When her band is signed by a major label, she starts an intense sexual relationship that continues over many years with an older engaged man, Ian, who is chosen to make their music video. She sends intimate videos to him: necklaces being fastened, ribbons cut around a naked body. Meanwhile Donnelly is left behind while other strange agitators in pop like Lady Gaga reach superstardom.
The book offers rather than argues that music videos have played a fundamental role in revolutionising how we think of sex and gender. “People reference music videos more often than they realise, and in a way that’s discrepant from the music itself,” she says. They’re widely consumed and have interrupted and engaged with our lives to evolve our individual and collective sexual politics. They’ve influenced and been ahead of social change. I’d have agreed with her before having read the book, and after reading, wholeheartedly do. Interestingly, she points out that often the songs themselves are almost innocuous or meaningless. The formula: make a big pop mainstream tune and be allowed subversion or high art in the music video.
It’s significant what the videos en masse, discussed in the book, tackle. To name a few: There is homomasculinity and homofemininity being normalised (the pearl embellishments and angelic appearance of Frank Ocean in “Nikes”; the wild fur and ejaculation fizzy drink in Boody and Le1f’s – “Soda”). There is cyborg feminism (the robotic sexual bodies of Lady Gaga – “You and I”; “Brooke Candy – “Opulence” and countless others) that suggests we can remake ourselves, that bring theatrical qualities of gender into view. There’s the sex education advocated in videos during the AIDS crisis (George Michael – “I Want Your Sex”; Salt-N-Pepa – “Let’s Talk About Sex”; TLC – “Ain’t Too Proud 2 Beg”).
It’s almost totally women and queer people who created the tent pole and iconic videos that Donnelly describes. “Men rarely put themselves in a position where subversion acts as a compromise to their identity rather than a challenging of identity,” she tells me. She refers to 00s mainstream emo and rock/goth bands as the only time really this happened. The camp of Gerard Way in make-up, flicking his long hair and leading a funeral parade in My Chemical Romance’s “Helena”. HIM’s “The Kiss of Dawn” where Ville Valo, equally pale and melancholic takes a traditionally feminine performance. And, of course, there’s Marilyn Manson with the many kinks and almost gender queering of his videos. (But, hey, remember they don’t challenge patriarchal norms explicitly.)
The book comes back multiple times to Lady Gaga. With her videos Gaga repeatedly became the conduit for queer culture to enter the mainstream. It’s a murky reach to say Lady Gaga prepared the mainstream for more queered pop culture, or to say that she is a reason we have openly queer artists. Or to explicitly say her videos were an arguable part of real life LGBTQ progress. But Gaga’s presence is undeniably there. When Donnelly is decoding how to launch herself into pop music with a creative and visual freedom. In traces of later videos, by other women and queer artists.
Almost three decades on from “Justify My Love”, what is the future of sex on video? Donnelly believes artists will lean further into the realm of art film, since platforms like Apple Music and Tidal help us reconsider the formats. She points to Solange, Beyonce and Dev Hynes as examples. “We’re expanding towards film as 'Film' is compromised by, well, how many sequels do we see? It’s so weird. I think there’s a real craving for the art of cinema. I think music videos will get much longer.” As artists like Hayley Kiyoko, Kehlani, King Princess, or Troye Sivan share their sexualities and preferences, that openness converges in body, fashion, performance, song and video in a way that’s more casual. The formula of pop song plus subversive video no longer feels as relevant.
At the end of our interview, after I’ve turned the dictaphone off, Donnelly says perhaps she should watch more Ed Sheeran videos. We verbally roll our eyes and she says that the most daring she’s seen of his features a female boxer love interest (“Shape Of You”). I say I’ll have a look at some. She replies: “If Ed Sheeran is doing anything remotely subversive let me know”.'
You can find Hannah on Twitter.