In the eighteenth century, writers of popular magazines would ramble around London and observe the gossip, the trade deals, the coffee house chit-chat, and afterwards would gather what they felt were the most pertinent details of urban life into an article. The readers of these articles were the very people whose behaviour the journalists had been observing. This created a positive feedback loop whereby everyone would gradually do/say/drink more and more of what the London lifestyle magazines told them was fashionable. Such was the inception of the public sphere and ‘society’ in the modern sense of the word.
Today, chart music functions in exactly the same way as those early lifestyle magazines. The things we hear in pop music lyrics affect our fashion sense, our sexuality, our language, the image of our own bodies, and our ethics. In the weeks that follow I will focus on several different songs, music videos, and albums which have shaped our society; some of which reinforce what is “normal”, and some of which attempt to shatter social norms and redraw them in more inclusive ways. This week, I look at Fifth Harmony’s Work From Home and its accompanying music video.
Work From Home is based entirely on the subtle and ingenious pun on the word “work”. The singer’s partner is “always on the night shift” and is trying to persuade them to, as the song’s title suggests, “work from home”. Now I know this might sound crazy but I think “work” in this context could mean both labour and (*turns to Editor* “Jess, is it legal to use the word “sex” on the internet? It is? Great!”) sex. So the singer is aware that her partner is constantly spending nights away from her with other women. And here we encounter the first major problem with the song: the only way the female singer can confront her partner’s repeated infidelity is through a system of euphemism; this suggests that it is somehow wrong for women to confront frankly and openly their problems in relationships. The singer is not speaking/singing on her own terms, but on those which she assumes will be more accommodating and sympathetic to her cheating boyfriend. The female role model we get in Work From Home then is pretty much the opposite of the strong assertive persona in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, for example. Evasion and submissiveness take precedent over strength and assertion.
The antifeminism of Work From Home’s lyrics is reinforced by a robustly sexist music video. On screen, the members of Fifth Harmony are on a building site amongst a team of male construction workers who are shown to be constantly distracted as the girls caress hammers and extend tape measures (the symbolism of which shouldn’t require explanation). There is a crucial dissonance here between the lyrics which suggest that the singer is idly at home – “I’m sitting pretty, impatient” – and the video which shows the singers disruptively hanging around the workplace. This is virtually a statement that a woman’s place is in the home. Let’s just take a moment to remember that this isn’t a sexist joke told in the nineteenth century at a gentleman’s club, this is a pop song released in 2016…
After listening to Work From Home, the listener is supposed to sympathise with the singer. She is, after all, asking for a “normal” monogamous, heterosexual relationship, and everyone can relate to that, right? To reinforce the point that the nuclear family is the standard social unit, the music video shows us a house being built. In both the lyrics and the video we are shown the construction of the stable domestic environment.
By depicting highly regressive gender roles and social values, the masterminds behind the Fifth Harmony franchise have succeeded in reinforcing a practically Victorian set of misogynistic and heteronormative orthodoxies. The entire performance is about as progressive and gender fluid as a Winston Churchill speech, and we can see reflected in it every harmful “normality” which will be imposed in school playgrounds for decades to come.