Musing On Music #2

by Hannah Weiss

Who runs the world? The mismatched harmony of female pop stars and feminism.

Feminism is pop music’s latest buzzword.

In recent years, women have dominated the top of the charts. Beyoncé’s Lemonade shifted 900,000 copies in three months. Taylor Swift allegedly earned over $73.5 million in 2015. At the same time, it became fashionable to assume the mantle of the feminist. Are girls finally running the world in Beyoncé’s preordained revolution, or is the music industry’s brand of feminist-lite rhetoric merely a new way to package pop?

In his 17th century theory on gender, French philosopher René Descartes claimed that a women’s body was a tool to be used to her advantage. 200 years later, Miley Cyrus is proving the point, although perhaps not in the way Descartes intended. The star’s infamous VMA performance combined teddy bears and twerking to send shockwaves of horror through America. It was interpreted as overly promiscuous, with Cyrus displaying an appalling disregard for the innocent fans who had grown up with her as Hannah Montana. Yet the singer disagreed; instead claiming the performance as a means to celebrate her sexual liberation and free the shackles of her squeaky-clean Disney image. It’s a catch 22 situation – to shame Cyrus for her provocative behaviour is to police female sexuality, and imply that it is something to be supressed. Yet Cyrus is ultimately part of the music industry; the machine that churns out hyper-sexualised videos of women; turning them into objects of male desire until such images become normalised in society. In this sense, Cyrus lying naked on a wrecking ball, or miming oral sex with inanimate objects props up the prejudice. But her blatant, exaggerated take on what the majority of female pop stars do to sell records is what makes the audience pause. It’s not just a hot girl dancing. It’s a woman completely aware and in control of how she displays her sexuality – and that’s not something we see often.

Taylor Swift, another pop powerhouse, is sweetness and light to Cyrus’ maverick rebel. Swift recently came out as a feminist, yet her work suggests the opposite. The video for Bad Blood features cameos of Taylor’s star-studded girl squad, an emblem of her support for other women – yet the song is about tearing down a female rival. Her songs too often disdain other women; tracks like You Belong With Me, Speak Now and Invisible see her side-lined in favour of a more provocative woman, “she wears short skirts / I wear T-shirts” (You Belong with Me). The video for her 2015 hit Shake It Off sums up the fallacy: we see Swift crawl between the legs of a line of twerking black women, awkward and confused. Swift’s presentation of her own purity jars with the sexualisation of the dancers around her and arguably exploits their image, thereby undermining her support of feminism. Correspondingly, Swift has been termed a ‘white feminist’, supporting the movement, and other women, only as it benefits her. An infamous Twitter dispute with Nicki Minaj reveals this bias. While Minaj questioned the VMA snub of her video for Anaconda and justly highlighted the discrimination against black artists – in this decade five of the seven winners for Video of the Year have been white –  Swift (who was nominated), assumed Minaj was personally attacking her and took offence. Swift’s misunderstanding of the issue evidenced the layers of bias that exist in the music industry – and indeed in society – as the debate which remained brief and civil between Minaj and Swift was amplified into a full-blown catfight by the media, ready as ever to competitively pit women against each other, while the deeper discussion of white versus black recognition by industry awards went largely unnoticed.

Nicki Minaj is not mainstream music’s only female rapper but you’d need to do some digging to discover Becky G. The triple-threat singer, rapper and actress was discovered posting videos on YouTube and signed by Dr Luke in 2012. She has since become one of pop’s new princesses, as the brand ambassador for Cover Girl make-up, dating fellow YouTube sensation Austin Mahone and dropping a top 20 summer single. But along the way, critics argue that Becky G has changed. Her original mixtape was an in-your-face, lyrically deft blend of Hip-hop and Latin pop. Becky G once wrote about her grandparents crossing the Mexican-American border, the artists that inspired her and her desire to stay real. But Shower, her top-20 2014 single, was about a boy. Indeed, none of Becky G’s tracks released under the tutelage of Dr Luke would pass the Bechdel test. Her unique sound, even her skill as a rapper, have been side-lined in favour of bubbly pop confections that are barely distinguishable, sonically or lyrically, from similar tracks by Selena Gomez or Ariana Grande. The reason is clear – for while women may be climbing the charts, the men behind the scenes are in control. According to a 2015 Music Business Journal report, less than 5% of record producers and engineers are women. Women may be the new face of pop, but behind the scenes men still pull the strings to make them sing.

For powerful stars like Beyoncé to proclaim themselves as feminists is certainly admirable. But when the music industry is steeped in inequality; it will take more than positive soundbites and Twitter hashtags to truly affect change. One step at a time.