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.

The Unique Loneliness of Feminine Depression

[Trigger Warning for talk of suicide and mental illness]

You might remember that a month ago, Vice published a fashion spread of models reenacting the suicides of famous female writers. In it, Sylvia Plath stares pensively at her oven, Virgina Woolf serenely wades into a river, and Sanmao delicately adjusts the stocking that’s wrapped around her neck. As horrifying as it is to process what is being shown — the beautification of feminine suicide — after looking at the perceptions of these deaths for so long, it sadly doesn’t feel like so much of a jump. However messy, uncomfortable, and volatile their lives were, that simple image of Plath viewing her oven is the take-away. Quiet and beautiful, even in death.

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Part of the reason why, when I broke down about three years ago, I didn’t take comfort in Yellow Wallpaper-esque stories or Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy (which was a favorite of mine as a teenager), is that I couldn’t relate. The truth, painstakingly documented in personal works, would not have the same effect on public consciousness as the idealized woman that Vice tried to portray in their ill-advised photoshoot. Publicly, we are only comfortable with one kind of feminine depression. The kind that is somber, gorgeous, and above all else, silent.

So if you are a woman who suffers from mental illness, the amount of spaces in which you feel comfortable expressing that are quite small. I remember my extreme discomfort at the public shaming of Britney Spears when she shaved her head, as that sort of overblown, compulsive behavior was something that I identified with. While Spears was clearly demonstrating that she was not OK, the punchline, as it always is for feminine behavior that pushes the envelope of respectability, was that she had “gone crazy.” The great irony is that the stress from keeping quiet as expected can lead to this sort of massive breakdown.

The danger of being labeled “crazy” as a woman is far more extreme than it is for men. Typically, “crazy” is used to diminish real expressions of anger and grief, the emotions that collectively society doesn’t understand how to deal with in women. When normally expressed emotions are written off as crazy behavior (largely why you should always run from anyone who says “my crazy ex girlfriend”), where does that leave women who actually do suffer from mental illness?

Part of my frustration about this is caused by the reaction to Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos, who has recently become a sort of figurehead for mental illness in the music industry. It’s admirable that Angelakos continues to work to de-stigmatize mental illness in public consciousness, but the reality is that the consequences of him outing himself are far less severe than they would be had he been a woman. The Pitchfork cover story that initially revealed that he is bi-polar is fraught with romanticizing, right from the subhead of “Inside the brilliant and troubled mind of Passion Pit leader Michael Angelakos.” From the story, Angelakos’ mental illness is sort of a creative boon, giving him inspiration and insight for his music. I don’t know if Angelakos would agree with this characterization, but the story does little to humanize him, instead making him the most recent version of “mad genius” that the music industry loves to celebrate.

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The most troubling part of the story is when Angelakos talks about his girlfriend, whom he is now married to.

“If she had left me, there is no question that I would have killed myself. I don’t remember anything I did– which is terrifying, because now I have to live with this guilt.”

I was a little startled with how abusive this statement seems, how he lays the responsibility of his life and well-being on his girlfriend. Even more than that, his remorse is not caused by the actions that he doesn’t remember, but the guilt that he feels as a result. Men are allowed to act up, be irrational, and do cruel things (especially if they are artists or musicians), but the most accepted role for women is what Angelakos’ partner seems to occupy, which is the caretaker.

I think this is why Poly Styrene and Lauryn Hill have never been characterized as mad geniuses. For Styrene, her mental illness was little more than a footnote in her obituary, either because it wasn’t a big talking point for her, or because we still aren’t comfortable with mental illness in women. Lauryn Hill (who has not been diagnosed as far as I can tell, but is largely derided for being “crazy”), who, as a black woman, would not be able to fit into the Sylvia Plath depression narrative anyways (sad, pretty white women), is mostly a subject of ridicule for her tax problems and court ordered counseling. Meanwhile, Michael Angelakos receives an award for erasing the stigma of mental illness.

The key to ending the more prevalent stigma of female mental illness is to be free to talk about it. And for this one, Angelakos is not allowed to be our spokesperson.