It’s Hard Out Here For Lily Allen

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In 2008 Katy Perry described herself as a “thinner version of Lily Allen,” a peculiar jab that turned out to be an amalgamation of what caused Allen’s rage at the music industry. In her earlier years with the release of Alright, Still, Allen’s weight and “unconventionality” were talking points (and in some cases, selling points) to an extent that when she lost weight around the time of her follow-up album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, she sarcastically swiped back on her hit “The Fear” with “Everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner.”

Allen has always been acutely aware of the shelf-life of women in the music industry, a beauty and youth based package that, inevitably, would leave her behind. In “22,” Allen relates this to non-singers, a catchy pop tune bemoaning the plight of an aging woman. (“It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over.”) It almost seemed like Lily Allen had taken this to heart and was going to retire from music for good, until the announcement earlier this year that she was working on her third album.

And lo, it’s “Hard Out Here” for a bitch.

In Lily Allen’s New Video Probably Went Over Your Head, Kathy Iandoli summarizes the difficulties of Allen’s life following her departure from music:

The years that followed for Lily Allen were pretty brutal. She miscarried more than once, met with tweets from “fans” who said things like “I’m glad your baby died” and other pleasantries. When she finally gave birth (twice), she was called fat a number of times and accused of “falling off.” She changed her name to her married name, Lily Rose Cooper, and was called a kept woman. So she brought it back to the née status and was accused of going through another divorce. It truly is hard out here for a bitch.

The “Hard Out Here” video, a satirical pop culture send-up of music industry misogyny, begins with her manager bemoaning her post-baby weight gain, until a newly-liposucked Allen makes a comeback of sorts in a cartoonishly over-the-top music video. Besides the obvious swipes at Robyn Thicke with lines like “who will tear your butt in two” and the glorious balloon display of “LILY ALLEN HAS A BAGGY PUSSY,” the majority of the video satirizes the self-objectification of young singers, notably Miley Cyrus.

I’ve said this about Miley before, but her sexually liberated front is really a carefully calculated appeal to the most basic straight male fantasies, and I couldn’t help but think of that when Allen’s manager tries to teach her how to twerk in the “Hard Out Here” video. The twerking, along with the white woman (Allen) objectifying her women of color dancers in order to assert her dominant sexuality, seems pretty familiar to anyone who has seen or read anything about Miley Cyrus in the past year. This is an interesting point on Allen’s part, but the execution is very flawed.

Allen’s got a bit of her own internalized misogyny that she’s dealing with, notably in the lines “I don’t need to shake my ass for you because I’ve got a brain,” which I’m sure the many brilliant ass-shakers of the world take issue with. The idea that overt sexuality and liberation are mutually exclusive is just flat-out wrong, and I would counter that with Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” video.

Allen’s use of women of color backup dancers as a Miley slam mostly ends up feeling awkwardly racist. The close-up shots of butts twerking and bottles popping aren’t something that Miley invented (duh), and in fact, it’s her appropriation of those signifiers that got people talking about Miley to begin with. There’s a lot to critique about how young women singers are marketed, and at points Allen is spot on (The part where she makes a dancer pose for Polaroids, a la Terry Richardson, is fucking brilliant), but at some point she ends up perpetuating sexist views of what, exactly, makes a woman empowered.

This is Not a Sexual Revolution

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When I was fourteen, a much older man sat next to me while I was waiting for my friend in front of a bookstore. She was buying one of those teen magazines that talked a little too much about LOVING YOURSELF on the same page with weight loss tips, and I hated standing in lines because I was a little awkward, so I sat on the bench outside. The man who seated himself next to me reached over, grabbed my hair, and started telling me how pretty it was. This classic story of harassment would be one that would be repeated over and over again throughout my life, with me feeling varying levels of fear and discomfort, but that will always be the time I point to when I realized that even though I was young and wasn’t ready, I was already being sexualized.

I think of this when I hear or read about the sexual coming of age of young pop stars, women who grew to fame in their teens and eventually get countless stories written about how they are “shedding their Disney image” by revealing a different sexuality at 20 than they did when they were 16. When Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez hit the magic number of 18 (The number that the men of the Internet have decided that it is acceptable to objectify) a local alt-weekly ran the story Now That They’re Both 18, Let’s Finally Discuss It: Who’s Hotter, Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez?

The fascination with the maturation of young pop stars is the most honest way I’ve seen media outlets deal with the sexuality of young women. For minors, the leering is creepy and a faux pas, but is still largely present, but the explosion of Look Who’s All Grown Up media smirking (Which happens with other celebrities too. Christina Applegate and Alyssa Milano immediately come to mind.) suggests that the result is inevitable.

The most recent case is Miley Cyrus, whose video for “We Can’t Stop” gave a lot of writers pause. Gone is the sixteen year-old sweetheart, and in her place is a raunchy, culturally appropriating, overtly sexual human being. Miley, who seems to have recently discovered that black people exist (please read On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture, and Accessorizing With Black People for context), takes a page out of GQ’s definition of sexy by finding new ways to roll around on top of a bed. NPR’s When Pop Stars Flirt With Bad Taste proclaims that “self-objectification is part of today’s ritual of romance,” but the importance of appearing sexually available if you’re a young women with records to sell is not something new.

What’s irksome about Miley’s video is that it’s not a sexual coming-of-age, but a creeped-out male-gazey fantasy that tries to substitute itself for one. The path for young, white singers from accessibly cute (but still sexualized) to the narrow mold of sexy (with a depressing lack of agency) has been clearly drawn, so it shouldn’t be surprising when they follow it. Choices don’t exist in a vacuum.

Women of color don’t have this same option, which makes Miley’s appropriation in her video that much worse. Good Girl Gone Bad is typically the story of white women, who have the benefit of being viewed as starting off with innocence, which, in turn, can morph into creeped-out infantilization.

Part of why I like Die Antwoord’s video for “Cookie Thumper” (which, to be clear, I mostly don’t like), is that it takes the objectification of a young white girl and makes it uncomfortable. Yolandi Visser dressed as an orphaned school-girl is subjected to creep-shots of her underwear, but later when she becomes overtly sexualized in the most gross, destructive way, the video seems to taunt “Isn’t this what you really wanted to see?”

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If the video was going for subversion, which I sort of hope it was, it fails for a number of reasons. In the end it still reinforces the idea that it seemed to be hitting back against– that young girls and innocence are sexy– through the numerous underwear shots and school-girl spanking. If you leave with anything, it’s mostly confusion over the muddled message, the unclear line of what is actual agency and what is being set-up to meet expectations.

For Miley Cyrus and countless other ingenues-turned-dynamos, that confusion is also present, and largely reflected in the lives other non-famous women. It’s easy to grow up and discover your sexuality, but it is much harder to prevent that from being commodified.

Blurred Lines of Consent

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I’ve been reading what I can about Robin Thicke’s hit “Blurred Lines”, and part of why I feel the need to put my two cents in is because I actually really like the song. It’s fun and catchy and I always turn up the volume to yell “YOU DA HOTTEST BITCH IN THIS PLACE.” But my enjoyment of it doesn’t really negate the fact that it’s sketchy, to put it nicely.

The video isn’t really worth my time discussing because it seems like it’s mostly calculated view-bait. Videos that are banned from YouTube are typically part of the marketing strategy, a sort of salacious invitation that most (including myself) can’t resist. But when you actually watch it, it’s mostly topless models cavorting. Not too interesting, except at some parts their hair isn’t covering their breasts. (“Like a stupid fashion magazine, right?” -Bob’s Burgers)

The fact that the song is called “Blurred Lines” itself is just so ooomph. “I know you want it” itself isn’t too bad, because the song kind of implies that he’s talking to a girl who’s too shy or too much of a “good girl” to express her sexual desires. But if the lines are blurred, how do you know she wants it?

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I remember a few think pieces about consent in R&B and I think that that’s an important thing to talk about, as long as it doesn’t blame R&B for the rape culture that makes the problems in this song go relatively unnoticed. Problems in the genre are actually problems in music and the culture at large, which is why when Two Door Cinema Club uses one of the most misogynistic album covers that I’ve seen in a long time, it’s not an indictment on all babyfaced Irish dweebs. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think we shouldn’t be talking about “Blurred Lines”, Miguel’s hugely creepy “How Many Drinks?”, or the Weeknd’s lyrics that verge on date rape. But that’s a small part of a bigger picture, and R&B is actually packed with women right now who are singing not only about consensual sex, but female enjoyment and revelation in it.

Right now you can’t turn on a hip-hop station without hearing Kelly Rowland’s “Kisses Down Low” or Ciara’s “Body Party”. “Kisses Down Low” is one of the few songs in recent memory that is instructive about cunnilingus (meaning the lady is describing how she wants it MUCH LIKE A MAN WOULD DO), and “Body Party” is so enthusiastically consensual (“You can’t keep your hands off me” followed by “I can’t keep my hands of you”) that Ciara cast her current partner, Future, in the video.

A few years back Latoya Peterson was interviewed by Spin about the supposed maturation of hip-hop with the moral decline of R&B, and she had some pretty interesting things to say about how music isn’t catered to women.

“Generally speaking, pop culture is not interested in the desires of women. Every industry has this problem. There’s no Bechdel Test for records, but generally what women are doing isn’t considered noteworthy unless it’s tailored for male consumption. Trey Songz may get to be eye candy and Kanye gets to have a few reflective moments, but that doesn’t mean society suddenly has started caring more about what women want.”

He might “know you want it” but Robin Thicke’s type of leering, gauche fantasy of a woman who is too shy to voice her desire (or even worse, doesn’t desire it at all), is very far from this world where women write and control their own narratives.

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.

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.

Lipstick for Everyone

Remember Lemuria’s “Lipstick”?

Sheena sings “When you wear lipstick I always want to kiss you/ but you use your lipstick as an excuse not to kiss me.” It’s not entirely clear if she’s singing to another woman or not, but regardless there is a subversion of the traditional heterosexual love narrative. What’s incredibly interesting is the lyrical simplicity — there’s something to be said about having an uncomplicated song that has complicated undertones about homosexuality. Sheena’s lover’s main trait, besides cosmetics, is the inability to engage in physical affection, and the gender of her lover is left purposefully ambiguous to focus on the troubled relationship. The cosmetics are a feminine indicator, so either her lover is a woman or a person who is engaged in feminine activities. Either way, the role of the lipstick in the song is downplayed as a signifier of the lack of desire on the part of the lover, instead of being a focal point of gender significance.

Pretty cool, right? I’m hard-pressed to find a lot of other songs at the moment that are both heavily gendered and, at the same time, ambiguous like “Lipstick,” but there are a good amount of gender-neutral love songs that could be interpreted beyond heterosexual bounds.

When it’s important and when it’s not important

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I have mixed feelings about this quote from Miguel in Vibe Magazine that I discovered today:

“I don’t know if the word is eclipsed. [Long pause] That’s a really tough question to answer, man. In all reality, Frank Ocean took a big chance the way that artists are supposed to. I mean, even his album doesn’t sound like mine or anyone else’s. So sonically and how he writes and what he’s writing about and how he chooses to express himself vocally, all his choices are very unique, and I appreciate that about him. Not only did his announcement overshadow my music, but it overshadowed his as well. The general public was in awe and championing him for being brave enough to make that announcement publicly. I congratulate him for his successes. I would love to hear more of his music. He’s one of those artists that’s being himself and pushing boundaries. I gotta celebrate that.”

I think this was a poor choice of words on Miguel’s part more than anything else. That’s what I hope, anyways. Nonetheless, saying “his announcement overshadow[ed] my music” reads as a thinly veiled accusation of a publicity stunt. There’s a narrative about how Frank chose to “come out” (come out as… not straight? because he certainly does not identify as either gay or bisexual), right before his album dropped to gain publicity. But revealing that you are not heterosexual is not really an act that is rewarded enough to be a publicity stunt — in fact, a lot of people pay a heavy price for that. The shift towards acceptance of gay artists was not firmly established in Franks genre (and to be honest, I don’t think it’s firmly established in any mainstream genre), r&b, which is one that heavily (and graphically) celebrates and depicts heterosexual relationships. His album didn’t perform so well because he revealed that he’s loved a man in the past, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge (as Miguel did, although it was ill-advised), that Frank’s sexuality is an uncomfortable point of conversation.

It’s important because he serves as an example of the what the rest of us could be– comfortable with who we are and feeling confident without labels. At the same time, the stress on sexuality can detract from the person and the content, as I’ve talked about in my post about Le1f. There’s a line somewhere between example and novelty, and when Frank becomes the beacon of our acceptance of non-heterosexual relationships, what, exactly, does that mean for other artists of the same caliber? What does that mean for Frank?

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.

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.