Is Pop Music The New Feminism?
15 Aug 2016
There’s no doubt that female pop stars are dominating the music industry at present – from the success of Beyoncé’s Lemonade selling 900,000k+ copies in 3 months to Taylor Swift reportedly earning $73.5 million in 2015.
As a part of Bug London’s series 37 Things You Need to Know About Modern Britain, and inspired by the huge success of female pop stars, the latest event asked “Is Pop Music the New Feminism?” – an intriguing question for today’s society at a time where success, underrepresentation and gender imbalance are being widely discussed both within the music industry and in the media more generally.
The Bug London series has been developed in part by Miranda Sawyer who hosted and moderated the conversation on the night. Miranda was joined by singer-songwriter Roisin Murphy, Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo and DJ Lulu LeVay: three women from different areas of the industry with different experiences to draw on. Following-on from my own writing on the role of women in music industry today and those of my contemporaries Lara Baker and Lucy Blair who have also written on the subject, I was hugely interested in how it would be explored in the context of pop music.
The main content of the conversation revolved around the image that female pop stars present of themselves and the pressures that they face to successfully fulfill the ‘requirements’ of their role within the genre, with each speaker giving their personal take on what they felt are the main issues. Due to their differing backgrounds and experiences, the evening presented excellent food for thought.
Setting off the conversation, Lulu LeVay discussed how she feels that female pop stars put their bodies first to sell themselves as artists. Relating this back to Rene Descartes 17th Century theory on gender: that the physical body is a feminine ‘tool’ at a woman’s disposal, this is definitely something that is perpetuated today by the media and how we think about female artists and even at times, how we identify with them.
Images such as these by male-owned media outlets reinforce hierarchal power and until this issue is tackled it is unlikely that this representation and perception will ever change.
Whose responsibility is it to protect young girls from overt sexuality that is entangled in pop music?
Lulu highlighted that sex and the sexualization of young women has been normalized and so we as a society have become immune to what we see on a daily basis.
Clara considered a woman’s use of her own body, arguing that artists such as Miley Cyrus have used their sexuality and body to break the shackles that they found themselves in, in the public eye; that Miley’s retaliation and switch from innocent Hannah Montana to sex icon can be seen as a huge step for feminism as she took control of her image and presented herself as she wanted, almost seeming to “reclaim herself”.
Is a female pop star’s ability to use her body as she sees fit an indicator of feminism?
Considering the basic notion that feminism is about equality, surely a female pop star should indeed be able to present herself as she likes? But the role and power of the image is something that dominates our media-saturated world, with this being hugely wrapped-up in the ideology of popular music, which is a capitalist construct.
Delving into Roisin’s career, Miranda looked to get an understanding of her experience as a pop star and any pressures that she may have faced. Falling into her career and not having chased pop star status, Roisin described herself as more of a visual artist. Her main concern when seeing scantily clad female pop stars is whether or not they are comfortable and also who is in control of the image that they are presenting to the outside world: is it the woman herself or is the team behind her telling her what she has to do in order to fit the mold?
The answer to this question clearly has two very different outcomes when we consider feminism. Roisin spoke of the “promised land” for pop stars – but what is this in reality? Aspiring to reach something that is only ever going to be a short-term achievement is a hugely damaging pressure for young girls to be under.
Within the general discussion it was agreed that there does need to be some responsibility for images that are being portrayed, whilst adding that it is not a pop star’s responsibility to bring up youngsters, but a responsibility for parents and teachers to the wider media (the latter seemingly contradictory, given some of the panelists positioning on pop star’s responsibilities…) with education a crucial aspect in conversations about equality.
Speaking about Radio 1, Clara felt that the station does have a responsibility when considering which artists to play (particularly as the station has a visual presence now), highlighting that the context of artists and their music is important when it comes to them getting support at the station.
The aesthetic of pop music is that it’s easier to have a mainstream image – to be consistent with what has gone before and proven to be successful. It could be said that how female pop stars present themselves, without fear, is a way of giving young women confidence; to show them that there are no boundaries and they can achieve what they want.
Clara drew reference to Christine and the Queens, saying that by ‘buttoning up’ and playing with gender roles, she seems to be in control of how she is presented. The same could be said of Florence and the Machine. Although these two women do not fit into the same mainstream pop bracket as Miley and Beyoncé et al, their images are similarly focused-on when they are discussed.
And this is not unique to women – we must remember that women are not alone when we consider the pressures of the pop industry. Men too are also sexualized and commoditized to sell pop music. Take That’s Do What You Like video essentially sums this it up in 3 minutes… Roisin pointed out that she feels that there’s also a huge crisis of confidence amongst young men today, and this relates to image pressures: “…young males in pop bands look bulimic, with the pressure of having to fit into skinny jeans!”
When considering the notion of feminism, we all need to speak up to encourage discourse about equality. There needs to be an open forum so we can discuss the issues and find the answer to building an equal society. I was very proud to have been involved with a panel at this year’s Liverpool Sound City entitled Come Together – United We Stand. Hosted by PRS Foundation and moderated by Vanessa Reed, the panel looked at how the issue of equality is currently being tackled by the industry – you can read Vanessa’s full report on the Huffington Post.
All in all, the pressures and inequality endemic in the music industry will not change until discussions happen and support comes from men and women alike.
We need to break the patriarchal structure and find equilibrium within the pressures of capitalism.
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