Work, Bitch: The Increasingly ‘Gay-Friendly’ Marketing of Pop Stars

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[Guest Post by Michelle Ofiwe. Read more from her at The Doorknocker]

Like most of her career post 2009, Britney Spears’ newest single “Work Bitch” has the Internet fumbling to make up its mind. The four minute collision of disco beats and autotune has been swirling around in the whirlwind of media blogs, pop culture commentators and less-than-psyched fans. Somewhere underneath Spears’ candied British accent, you can hear the ambiguousness of millions of fans hoping for some small semblance of a comeback across the varied, scary space of the Internet.

In the aftermath of its release, the single has drawn some criticism over its thinly veiled attempt at “gay marketing,”—a term that not-so-neatly refers to the hunt for the hundreds upon thousands of (sometimes corporate, sometimes not) dollars squirreled away in the pockets of the elite of the queer community. The most interesting criticism yet comes from queer rapper Mykki Blanco:

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To be honest, Blanco isn’t mistaken. Spears’ single features bumping house beats, chic references to the slang of New York’s ball culture (the title alone is a reference to RuPaul, one of the more recognizable members of the LGBTQ community. This has spawned rumors about a potential vocal feature from the diva herself), and chants to “work! work! work!” among other cultural signifiers. Spears’ sings about parties in France and the life of luxury that awaits you if you’d just “work, bitch!” In a way, it strikes a huge resemblance to the glam-cheesy music of drag culture, complete with a bassline and plenty of inspirational sass. At first glance, Spears’ single doesn’t seem very culture-vulture(ish) because such signifiers have phased into the mainstream with the help of networks like LogoTV and shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which draws in straight and queer viewers alike.  A track like “Work Bitch!” is just another recognition of the queer community (specifically, gay men as the originators of the slang and the culture) consumers within a market.

Yet, one of the main avenues to tap into this market is limited to things like the “gay marketing” Blanco describes above. In the midst of Spears’ track, vodka banners at Pride parades and “gay districts,” is the idea that the connection to the community must come from a celebration of one’s sexual identity. The “design to keep [gay men] rolling on ecstasy till 6am” is a problematic but lucrative venture hell-bent on sneaking its way into gay clubs, where LGBTQ socialization and unionization is considered to occur the most. Play a song in the club and maybe someone somewhere won’t think you (or your artist) is a homophobe or otherwise intolerant to the “gay lifestyle,” and you  might just make a profit. If it seems shallow, it’s because it is, and because certain ideas and tenements central to the queer community has changed.

Gay marketing is a thing because some recognize their own buying power. Take, for example, queer/sex columnist Dan Savage’s extremely popular boycott of Russian vodka in protest of Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies. Although the “movement” has been proven to have little to no effect on Russia’s economy or its LGBTQ community, it is perhaps one of the biggest displays of the buying power of gay, white men and a sharp divide from the older days of radical protests within the community as a whole.

Historically, politics’ intersections with class are not new, but buying power has an interesting background when it comes to extending the political reach of otherwise marginalized communities. Money has also been an effective way to relate a message to a particular mainstream group or oppressor, whether by boycotts or “buycotts.”  Thus, it’s no coincidence that the dollar votes of gay white males are having a huge effect on the representation outside and within the community and especially within the media. The recent strides in queer representation in media (Modern Family, Glee) and their subsequent popularity is a huge example of how a little “gay” goes a long way. The music industry is taking notice.

Spears’ single exists because of this shift in economic power, and because of the unbalanced buying power within the queer community that puts the direction of its issues, ideals, likes/wants/needs in the hands of gay, white (rich) men. It is possible that queers of color may enjoy Spears’ single, but Spears’ main target is, of course, those with the money to buy her single, spin her hits and show up to her concerts. They are the queers who have made enough money to shimmy up next to her in a party in France and scream the slang of young Black and Latino queers in the hood. For all intents and purposes, they are the queers who have “worked.”

The other important shift that makes Spears’ single possible is a racial one. The appropriation of the styles, language and even the music generated and popularized among young, poor queers of color has slowly infiltrated the consciousness of white queers—specifically white gay men—through either the media or just organically. Because gay, white males get to behave as a link between straight people (and the media they produce) and queer community, and simultaneously as the source of all pop culture related to the community, then it’ll be easy to understand how Britney Spears’ might find her way to the slang she throws out so easily on the track. As it stands, most of the queer community benefits from the ball culture and other subcultures created and inhabited by these queers of color who very rarely find themselves in the same spotlight or with the same credit as Spears’ does.

Spears is not the only pop diva guilty of this, of course, and Blanco’s claim can be made about many popular female artists whose fanbases include gay men or queers in general. “Work Bitch” is another notch in what can very much be termed as “gay marketing,” but the ideas and game plan that make it possible have been in effect for many years, and will likely be for many years after. What we need to consider is both the strength and the direction of the new buying power of the queer community, and what message such money is being funneled into.

Female Braggadocio and the Hip-Hop Highlander

[Note: This is my first guest post! Please welcome my good friend Michelle Ofiwe, who has an amazing blog called The Doorknocker, which you should add to your RSS feed right away!]

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One of the biggest songs of 2010 was Nicki Minaj’s “Did It On Em,” a three minute pop-rap taunt fest that coined phrases like “all these bitches is my sons,” and made generous references to “nappy headed hoes” and other “rap bitches.”

It got incredible airplay and club promotion, so we could all sing along and lament about “[crusty] bitches,” whoever they may be in our lives. The lyrics read somewhat like a declaration: Minaj raps in a choppy-style about haters and other female rappers who seem less like peers and more like staunch competition. Still, the beat is nice and we know (or assume) that Minaj is not posing her golden shower fantasies and rage at us, but other anonymous “hoes” who have been unfortunate to cross her path. In that regard, the song seems pretty standard.

To say that “Did It On Em” floats in a league of its own would be highly improper. Plus, I am fearful of creating scapegoats. Minaj was not the first to participate in what I have called the “Hip-Hop Highlander,” or the never-ending, blood-thirsty competition between female rappers that aches for a unitary ruler. In “On Femcees and the Hip-Hop Highlander,” I coined the phrase to explain the ideas and methods we as fans use to engage with female rappers. Now I feel that the term has to be broadened. It’s not just us, or just them. It’s all of us. We all participate in the Hip-Hop Highlander, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that participation in that system is likely to garner success for the individual femcees themselves. “Did It On Em” sold millions not just in the spirit of competitive vanity, but also in the fervor of watching women fight.

On first glance, the Highlander seems to be a mixture of female braggadocio and confidence. For example, when Sasha Go Hard claims that “ratchet hoes [mean] mug because they can’t handle her,” in “Bad Bitch on Deck,” her dismissal of haters shines through her heightened sense of self.

Braggadocio is not a lost concept in hip-hop or rap — male rappers constantly use this to effect in their own music by comparing themselves and their style to other rappers. Yet, female braggadocio as part of a real expression of self-love and confidence is lost to the Highlander. A quick aside about a “weak bitch” or a “rap hoe” and the expressions change to include other women negatively, but still not at the (female) artists’ expense. Such tenements of hip-hop and rap change in similar was when applied to the realm of female rappers: looking for the “realest” (claims of authenticity) or “baddest” or “strongest” or overall “best” female rapper diverges from mainstream male rappers because all of these things have different meanings when applied to women.

So how do femcees let us know that they are these things, that they live up to their own hype? They come for other women. No “other bitch is fucking with” the “Realest Bitch in the Game,” who isn’t checking for “swagless hoes.” In a whirlpool of adamant individuality, the Highlander comes out loud and apparent in femcee rapdom, where every look is polished and every second of media is an opportunity to separate oneself from every other woman. One personal note I’ve taken is that this form of female braggadocio is aggressive. It can be slipped into every verse, every line, and every word. There is an underlying need to prove ones self as not only the best and most skilled rapper, but the best and most skilled woman.

In “On Femcees,” I question comparing “the Highlander” to typical (male-fronted) beef found in hip-hop culture, and that comparison is still pretty sketchy today. The Highlander is built on a lot of social ideals, namely the ones that encourage constant competitiveness between women in professional, social, and personal situations. The Highlander is as structured as female peers competing for the top spot at the local law firm, but as flighty as the “Who Wore It Best?” columns. In a society that (c)overtly compares women perpetually, it is not surprising that we find that same sense of “sisterhood” with femcees?

Competition between women can be a very personal thing, but when you engage in such in a very popular, very public avenue, your intentions may no longer be your own. I have seen plenty a song get lost in the mix to overzealous fans looking for a bloodshed, and it seems that even if a femcee tries to avoid the Highlander, she may still be sucked right into it. Sometimes, if she requests that the beef itself be dropped by her fans, it may not be fulfilled. In contrast, male rappers are able to disengage quite easily from beefs. For example, Meek Mill’s beef with fellow Phildelphian rapper Cassidy is deadened with a quick refusal from Mill. Standom — or the loyal & attached fanbases of (usually) female artists/rappers — may not sometimes grant an easy exit for female rappers. The culture itself is everywhere — in her fanbase, in her music, in her peer group, maybe even her label, and is just a small part of the eternal catfight that the media and society are perpetually seeking. Catfight tropes are not limited to just rap/hip-hop, though. They masquerade themselves as movie plots, titillating scenes in TV shows, and even pornography.

In that sense, female braggadocio– or the overt and unapologetic expression of self — can’t ever be just braggadocio. It becomes some unfortunate extension of societal expectations of women. Can female confidence sell without the rejection of another woman? Are we always asking femcees to perform in the arena? Are we letting them express confidence, (even misguided) anger, pain or other emotions and escape the Highlander?