Iggy Azalea and the American South

Iggy-Azalea-Work-Video

Iggy Azalea’s song “Work” is her version the oft-required struggle narrative for rappers. Moving up from nothing (or starting from the bottom. Sorry, couldn’t help it!) and paying homage to that is a standard trope in hip-hop, though there are varying degrees of sincerity in the execution of that.

Iggy does have a very captivating origin story, earning money through labor jobs to move from Australia to the United States when she was a teenager. Her desire to be a part of the hip-hop community was what solidified her decision to live in the U.S., and she spent time in cities that have a prominent hip-hop scene like Houston, Atlanta, and Miami, before eventually moving to L.A. Her inspiration and connections in the hip-hop industry are decidedly southern rap, noted by association with T.I. and Grand Hustle Records. She eventually decided to move on from Grand Hustle, (it’s not 100% clear why, besides differing views on how her debut album should sound), but for a rapper of Australian origin, she takes a lot from southern sound and imagery.

Her video for “Work” is a Coyote Ugly-esque rags to slightly better rags story that’s prominent in southern mythology. Iggy says the video is a reflection of her life and story, but the video for “Work” clearly depicts a desolate, American southland, and not her hometown of Mullumbimby. The mobile homes, honky tonks, and semi trucks are all symbols of the south, and it’s interesting that Iggy co-opts them to show her own struggle. When people think of the south they don’t think of the gentrification of Austin or the upper class in Dallas, but the poverty and rural despair of unnamed southern towns. Strangely, Iggy depicts the south as a place to escape from, even though it was her first destination after she crossed the ocean.

A lot of it has to do with class. Rising from the rural south to move to Hollywood (as she does in the end of the video), has implications beyond the literal. Iggy “works her way up” to a place of higher living and finery, wearing iconic red-backed Louboutins while she’s at it. While there maybe be some truth in there (Iggy did have to work her way to Hollywood), it’s largely obscured by the common trope of the desolate, dirty south, which, as a prominent symbol of the struggle, is useful for Iggy’s image.

This isn’t the only video where Iggy references the American South. In “Murda Bizness” she and T.I. are parenting a very southern beauty pageant competition.

Iggy adopts a faux-genteel southern accent while pumping a kid full of sugar in order to do well in the competition. The reference is to Honey Boo Boo, the southern girl on Toddlers and Tiaras who later got her own show, having gained recognition from being an unapologetically uncouth oddball.

There’s a reason why Iggy regularly references the south, but it’s not particularly pleasant. The way she uses “lower class” and “southern” as interchangable is a continuation of many southern stereotypes, particularly those that paint southern lifestyles as uncivilized. In the video for “Work” she uses it to her advantage to gain credibility, but in “Murda Bizness” it’s used more for comedic relief. Either way, it doesn’t ring true, particularly when coming from an Australian rapper.

Boys Will Be Boys

I just recently downloaded Cassie’s new mixtape, so in quasi-celebration of that (I’m a fan), I thought I would crank out a few long-sitting opinions about the video she and Nicki Minaj made for “The Boys.” The song is a typical narrative but from a different perspective — some nameless dude uses his money and power to bag a bunch of women as his prizes, but because it’s told from the perspective of women onlookers, the male braggadocio is something to be scorned, instead of praised. (“Your lipstick stain smells like a cheap hotel/
Diamond watches and a gold chain can’t make my frown turn around.”)

The video is also cartoonishly feminine, which is a common trope for Minaj, who frequently refers to herself as “Barbie.” Nicki commands a group of men dressed in bright pink, then enters a salon, which we see from the beginning will turn into a crime scene. There are surface-level comparisons to the video for Beyonce and Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” which also prominently features a crime scene perpetrated by the singers, but “The Boys” is less an avenue for random chaos and more a story of control. Cassie is dressed in bright, feminine colors, but still postures herself in a masculine way, sitting with her legs spread and tossing money in mocking imitation of the men she sings about (“You get high/ fuck a bunch of girls / and then cry / on top of your world”). The murder of the men is a gendered revenge, a more gruesome role reversal, as it’s often women who suffer violence at the hands of men.

Walking the Tightrope

I was originally going to write a post about androgyny in music videos, but when I was trying to use Janelle Monáe’s video for “Tightrope” as an example, I felt that it would be unfair for me to only spend a marginal amount of time on it.

There’s a distinct intersection between race, mental illness, femininity, and discomfort that all come to play in the span of a three minute video. It starts by declaring that it’s set in “The Palace of the Dogs” an asylum where “dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.”

The dancers inside the asylum are all wearing tuxedos– a head-nod to the lack of identity in such institutions, as well as a subversion of the subordinant dynamic. Instead of a drab uniform, the tuxedos are an indicator of rebellion – a hold of dignity that the mentally ill are often stripped of. The fact that everyone in the video is wearing a tuxedo is the tribute to sameness; there’s still lack of individuality (which could also be read as “we are all in this together” ), but the identifier takes on a higher class level of dress (though the suit is still a signifier of servitude, instead of wealth).

In Sounding Like a No-no: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, Francesca T. Royster looks at the racial implications of the asylum scene:

“In “Tightrope,” Monáe reminds us of the many ways the prison industrial complex infiltrates our lives by means of surveillance and the heightened fear of black bodies in motion.”

The fact that the dancers in the video are all black is not a coincidence – as Royster says, it’s a reaction to the fear of black bodies, specifically those that don’t “behave” (in this sense, behavior is tied in with the correct behavior or an asylum patient: the rebellion is the dance and celebration in an otherwise solemn venue). The joy that the dancers exhibit is contradictory to the purpose of the institution, as it has “[a] tendency to lead to magical practices,” which could also be read as racialized fear of the unknown, as the white majority exhibits a general distrust and unease about practices it’s not familiar with.

janellemonae

Monáe’s choice to wear a suit is, in her own words, an examination of (and tribute to) class:

“When I started my musical career I was a maid, I used to clean houses. My parents—my mother was a proud janitor, my step-father who raised me like his very own worked at the post office and my father was a trash man. They all wore uniforms. And that’s why I stand here today in my black and white and I wear my uniform to honor them.”

As a successful musician she has moved beyond the suit (or uniform), but continues to wear it as an acknowledgment of where she came from. There’s a parallel between the invisibility of the mentally ill and the invisibility of the working class — the uniform worn by the working class is both meant to make them distinct (to those who require their services), but also very easy to ignore (by those who don’t). The same could be said of patients who are actually in asylums (or as they’re presently called, Behavioral Health Centers), as they’re typically noted for stripping patients of identity, individuality, and agency.

Monáe’s video simultaneously acknowledges this lack of agency and playfully subverts it. The dancing-as-rebellion can’t be done without agency, so even though she and the other dancers are similarly clad in work clothing, they’re participating in behaviors that aren’t allowed. It’s the type of rebellion that goes on in secret — when the faceless guards walk by, Monáe and her crew act as though they aren’t breaking any rules.

Chelsea Hotel No. 2 Part 2

I think it’s impossible to be a fan of music and not have an opinion on Lana Del Rey, not so much because of her music (which I honestly believe is good, if unremarkable), but because of how meaningful her presentation is. The main critique she faces (besides maybe not being so great on SNL) is that she is “fake.” Her lips are fake, her name is fake, and she was carefully crafted to reach pop stardom through appealing to our penchant for nostalgia. It’s notable that she referred to herself as a “self-stylized gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” because that in and of itself is an acknowledgement of the illusion. When appearance is so crucial (even so crucial as to warrant a change of one) what does it mean when you acknowledge how carefully crafted your persona is?

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on Lana Del Rey and authenticity (half because it would have been more relevant two years ago, and half because it has been so well covered), but I do think it’s important background for her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.”

The imagery is pretty much what I would expect of Del Rey: lots of mournful shots of cigarette smoking and nostalgic filters (the close-up of the Marlboro box is particularly scoff-worthy). It’s sad and beautiful (but very, very carefully stylized) in a way that is reminiscent of truth, but not quite there.

What’s interesting is that she picked “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” to cover for her tryst into the imagery and sound of the 1970s. The song is famously about a sexual encounter that songwriter Leonard Cohen had with Janice Joplin, released in 1974, four years after Joplin died. The song itself is sad but irksome, acknowledging the fact that Joplin is successful and capable (“giving me head on the unmade bed / while the limousines wait in the street”) while still being condescending and critical about Joplin’s sexuality and lifestyle ( “I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best / I can’t keep track of each fallen robin”). It’s a song about remembering someone you didn’t love, and Cohen singing this to Joplin has a very different meaning than Del Rey singing to an unknown person.

Del Rey doesn’t change (heterosexual) gender identifiers in the song, singing to someone who still “prefers handsome men,” but it’s still interesting to see how the power play in the song changes when she, as a woman, sings it. The subject becomes less of a damaged object and morphs into the one who got away. The line of “I didn’t love you the best” reads without condescension, instead taking on a mournful tone.

Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that Del Rey is singing to an unknown instead of (the very famous, very successful) Janis Joplin, but I would argue that it has more to do with the level of fame in conjunction with the gender of both parties. It’s easy for Cohen to patronize Joplin when she has been dead for four years and has had a laundry list of troubles, but Del Rey singing the same song takes away that context and destroys that uncomfortable gender dynamic present in the song. Joplin as the “fallen robin” is akin to a soiled dove, a woman destroyed by her appetites, both sexual and recreational. The unidentified person Del Rey is singing to is much more ambiguous, and could just as easily be interpreted as a failed lover than as sexual encounter with someone to be pitied.

The video itself is pretty bland, as Del Rey prettily mopes (while singing “we are ugly but still have the music,” no less) and emulates an older aesthetic. The nostalgia (for a time that Del Rey was not born yet) could be seen as an homage to Cohen, but knowing Del Rey’s tendencies, it probably has more to do with the idealized beauty of the past. The best counterpoint to that idealized beauty is, funnily enough, the lyrics to Cohen’s own song.

Sex as “Sacrilege”

I woke up this morning to the gut-punch that was the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ new video for their song “Sacrilege.”

The non-linear storyline starts with a woman (British model Lily Cole) being burned with a lover while the town watches. The story rewinds and we see the capture of this man (a preacher) by the townspeople, moving back even further to show the woman having sexual relationships with the people in the town one by one, until it ends (or rather, begins) at a wedding in a church, officiated by the same preacher that she was burned with.

The hypocrisy of the townspeople for punishing the woman for something that they themselves were complicit in is a critique of small-town Christian values. She is punished in the same way that “witches” were in the past by being burned alive, a result of religious condemnation and vindictiveness. The final straw for the townspeople was the sexual relationship with the preacher, a Scarlet Letter relationship that ruins both of them.

What’s interesting is that this video isn’t about the relationship between the woman and the preacher, but the woman and the townspeople – shifting the narrative from religious purity in the context of the preacher being brought down by a woman – into something much more poignant. It isn’t about infidelity or star-crossed lovers, but the ownership and control that the townspeople felt that they had over the woman. She is a possession, passed between them until they feel it’s necessary to discard her– using the preacher as an excuse. Woman-as-commodity is heavily tied into more fundamental aspects of Christianity, and the relationship between a woman’s sexuality and who possesses that woman is central to the video. Purity in women is valued on the surface, but the relationships the townspeople develop with the woman show that they have a different standard when it has the potential to benefit them. Nobody lives up to the idealized standard because everyone is sinning, yet the woman (and the preacher by association) are the only ones to pay the price.

Sex-as-sin casts the woman as the temptress, responsible not only for her own purity but of the men (and other women) around her, and when she fails she is punished. The inevitability of that failure is not closely addressed in the video , but slut-shaming as a hypocritical and gendered concept is. I’m a fan about how this video combines guilt and the feelings of entitlement that the townspeople have about the woman. As a sign of their own sins she must be eradicated, but even more than that, the fact that she cannot be possessed troubles them. With her value being so closely tied to who owns her, she becomes damaged goods – therefore discardable.

The Knife and Female Dominance

A friend of mine recently showed me this video by The Knife for their song “A Tooth For an Eye,” and pointed out the interesting gender dynamics that the music video displays.

What’s cool about it is that the a small girl, dressed as a referee, conducts a group of older men in a gymnasium. The fact that the girl is leading the men subverts traditional gender roles of teacher and student, especially in a masculinized setting like a gymnasium. Part of why this is interesting is age and size, two factors that frequently hinder women in public settings and are physically interpreted as signs of submission. So when the control goes to the small girl (especially a small girl of color), it subverts that traditional dynamic that dictates that older white men are the leaders.

Another noteworthy aspect of the video is that the girl is leading the men in what appears to be a dance. She’s not dominating in the traditional sense of strength and power, but is leading them through a series of feminine movements.

Gender-Bending and the “Walk of Shame”

This might not be the most timely post since the Perfume Genius video for “Take Me Home” came out about five months ago, but it’s something I think about from time to time.

When you watch the video you’ll notice that Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas), is wearing an extremely femininized pair of high heels and walking alone in the streets of Seattle. Hadreas blurs gender in a very interesting way: the juxtaposition of the pink high heels and glitter-jewelry with with the football jersey is a startling contrast between hyper-masculinity and femininity. What stuck out to me the most, though, was the way in which Hadreas used the heels to channel a particularly female experience – the walk of shame.

“Walk of shame” is usually applied to a woman who is returning to her home the morning after going out and getting drunk/messed up/having sex. It’s a term that is heavily rooted in sexism- the idea that women doing these things are inherently more shameful than if a man does them. In the video, Hadreas clearly has spent some time that night doing something that messed him up. He starts off in the middle of the road sleeping, only waking up at the approach of a car. From there, he walks alone in the streets of Seattle in a pair of high heels – sans pants.

It’s eerily similar to a video that Diamond Rings made a few years ago:

Both musicians utilize feminine clothing in conjunction with partying (which is something that is mostly interpreted in Hadreas’ case) and being alone to convey an isolation and level of shame that comes with being a woman on her own after burning out. I see women portrayed like this so frequently that it almost doesn’t register anymore, but when male artists like Perfume Genius and Diamond Rings channel it, the double standard becomes more readily apparent.

It’s notable that both artists perform their interpretation of the walk of shame in order to convey loneliness and misdirection. The very specific way that those feelings and experiences are gendered in these scenarios are indicative of how closely they are tied.