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 Friendship and Pool Parties

This is such a great video:

I really love that Lightning Dust’s “Diamonds” is essentially a love song (“Whisper to me that you’ve had enough / Apologize that you’re not in love”), but the video tells a story of a different kind of relationship. One by one, three women get into the swimming pool with a lack of self-consciousness (I have a fear of pools and bathing suits so I’m probably projecting), and then begin to execute a synchronized swimming routine. For me that was pretty unexpected, as female friendship isn’t exactly something that’s as celebrated as, say, male friendship or heterosexual relationships. It’s also really awesome that the women in the video have different body types than I’m used to seeing in music videos, and that seems like a conscious decision on the part of the director, Helen Reed.

Women can be friends! And they’re not even sharing makeup tips! (Though let’s be real, that’s fun as hell.) I think part of what’s so remarkable is that this isn’t exactly a popular narrative, partially because feminine competition is highly encouraged, and also if women aren’t really seen as fully-developed people, they aren’t capable of maintaining meaningful relationships outside of those that they have with men. So it’s really cool to see a video like this that’s so nonchalant about it.

I had similar hopes for “Friend Crush” a while back, but the video is really ambiguous about who the song is for. It could be for another woman platonically, but the video seems pretty sexualized so in my head it’s a sexual relationship between two female friends. It could also be about a dude but I’m gonna pretend that it’s not.

John Grant’s Solitude

From what I know about him, John Grant generally keeps to himself. His albums (specifically his latest effort Pale Green Ghosts) are the kind of exposure that he’s more comfortable with. He addresses love, loss, and anger along with his HIV-positive diagnosis, which, since it was divulged at a Hercules and Love Affair show, has become one of his identifying attributes, whether he’s comfortable with it or not.

It’s probably one of the loneliest albums I’ve ever heard, and the video for “Pale Green Ghosts” is the perfect visual for that. Grant is by himself the entire time, but his presence is so captivating that he doesn’t really need another person in any of the shots. It’s kind of weird to describe someone as having a definitive presence, but Grant reminds me of Orson Welles in a lot of not-so-subtle ways (and it’s not just the beard).

The video for “Pale Green Ghosts” is hard to interpret, but the shots of Grant opening a trunk and walking with a shovel seem to imply that he is burying demons. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous, but in a way that fills you with dread instead of longing. Images of Grant’s face flash by time after time with the same sorrowful-but-determined expression that almost overshadows the scenery of the video, and Grant on his own is sad, but still communicates self-exile, which is a lifestyle that Grant appears to lead on his own.

Your Webcam Loves You

My weak spot for webcam music videos can be directly traced to the “frequently sings in the mirror” category (No hairbrush needed! I would have a headset). There’s something really intimate and voyeuristic about it, because you’re watching something available to you, but at the same time it’s not for you. The webcam functions like a two-way mirror in videos like this, because the performance is controlled but also able to be viewed by others.

TEETH’s “Care Bear” is a really great example of this. The low budget video really works because it chronicles different stages of webcam performance. The first shots of the video are of people getting ready to film themselves- they’re putting on lipstick and fixing their hair, which is a familiar routine to anyone who has every taken so much as a self-portrait of themselves. From there, the video moves into exhibitionism. The different people in the video, who have already been revealed as carefully stylized, dance and lip sync to the song. The stylization and the process of that is also pretty important when you look at the gender-bending in the video. Gender as performance is easily noted here, as (people who appear to be) men adorn themselves with lipstick and wigs before they begin to lip sync.

[I also really hope that one dude has on a mud mask and is not doing some sort of gross blackface.]

Banned Love

I’m calling this post “banned love” because this video was insta-banned from YouTube (to be fair, unsurprisingly), but itis thoroughly NSFW NSFW NSFW NSFW so if you are in a public space I suggest you bookmark the video and watch it when you’re away from eyeballs that don’t belong to you.

“Mindfuck” is the first single released from Brooklyn R&B artist Ian Isiah’s upcoming LP, and the video is certainly a mindfuck if gender normativity is something that’s really important to you (Not a Neophyte is firmly in the “roll your own” category when it comes to gender, for what it’s worth). The video is overtly sexual, watching two lovers engage in extremely intimate moments – so much so that it almost feels invasive on the part of the viewer.

Ian Isiah is bejeweled and wearing false eyelashes on a bed with a sheer canopy, getting close with boychild, a gender non-conforming performance artist. boychild’s gender identity is purposely and famously ambiguous, but Isiah appropriates feminine signifiers (like the jewelery and makeup) to muddy his own as well. The result is what could be your typical love scene in a romance movie, with the exception that the roles of man and woman (or man and man/ woman and woman) are indefinable.

Identity and Agency of Gay Rappers

Shoutout to Le1f’s Twitter account for bringing my attention to a somewhat troubling occurrence. The rapper took issue with the way his music is covered, particularly the focus on his sexual identity when that might not always be relevant.

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It reminded me of a tweet he posted a while back (which appears to have been deleted) about how not every dance he does is voguing, despite how it’s framed. For music writers to label that incorrectly reads as though they have little desire to understand the culture that they’re covering, especially since voguing has such a well-documented history. Misrepresentation of what that entails in order to cram as many gay references into an article about a gay artist is a means of erasure of experiences.

As far as identity goes, there’s an uncomfortably thin line between acknowledging an artist’s contributions to breaking down barriers, and using that identity as a novelty. Le1f is clearly not down with his sexuality being at the forefront of every conversation, and that’s a very valid way to feel, especially considering how fond music writers are of pinpointing trends (Le1f, Zebra Katz, Mykki Blanco, and Cakes da Killa are often grouped together by virtue of being gay rappers who live in New York). For publicly identifying as gay, Le1f does not have the benefit of divorcing himself from his sexual identity, and that informs how even innocuous verses (like those about playing Pokemon on the 1train) are perceived.

This is not to discount the importance of representation of gay artists in music (although there is something to be said about the particular kind of hand-wringing that comes with covering a gay rapper), but to point out the lack of agency in the the way gay artists, and gay rappers in particular, are framed.