Pop Music and the Public Woman

When I was five years old, my older sister introduced me to Madonna. At first, I was a reluctant acolyte, having been conscripted into performing a choreographed dance to “Like a Prayer” with her and her best friend for my parents at Christmas. We spent hours rehearsing a number that began with my older sister blooming from a crouch position into a standing one that culminated with her arms being thrust in the air, while her best friend and I waved our mother’s scarves around her.

Somewhere along the way I discovered an almost instinctive enjoyment of the energy and rhythm of the music. I had learned to love pop.

This love was later cemented by the Spice Girls, who captivated my nine-year old imagination with their impossibly cool British accents and their cries of “Girl power!” and broke my eleven-year old heart when they broke up a few days after my birthday. I would not find another pop idol until the music video for “...Baby One More Time” had me rushing home from school to catch a glimpse of Britney Spears on Total Request Live.

By the time her second album had came out, my friends were all listening to emo music, and my love for pop started to feel like a vapid, clandestine indulgence. I went underground, tucking my pop albums behind serious and sad peer-approved music in one of those cumbersome CD booklets you kept in your car before MP3s.

I still love pop music, but I sometimes wonder how idolizing female pop singers affected my developing notions of what it means to be a woman, and indeed, what it does to women in general. Due to their visibility, and the visual nature of their craft, female pop singers often come to represent and even caricaturize the worst gendered expectations of their sex.

Much of it occurs in the assemblage around them, in the media eager to deliver them to the masses, and in the marketing machine that attempts to brand and package them. The narratives that thrive in that space have a familiar feel because they are steeped in the language of female competition and read like a stereotype of the female equivalent of ‘locker room talk’.

We are asked to consider who looks better in a particular dress, whether Taylor Swift and Katy Perry are still feuding, who Nicki Minaj has or has not slept with, and whether someone has put on weight. Gossip magazines seem to serve as a near constant reminder that, for women, fame is a competition.

It’s difficult to imagine that this narrative does not feed off of and into the way women still experience a sense of competition with each other. The way stories about famous women are often framed tells us that things like beauty, talent, and success are hierarchical, and that another woman’s fall is naturally and inherently our gain. And if we buy that, then the inverse is true as well: someone else’s beauty, talent, and success diminishes the value of our own. Perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls of fame is that while most of us get to negotiate the rat race in private, famous women must do it in front of the world.

Yet many female entertainers are figuring out that fame is itself a type of art, and they are allowing both their fans and the media to see them negotiate what it means to be a woman in the public eye, creating a new narrative that is healthier for both the artist and the fan. After Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl performance, her old Twitter trolls dusted off their keyboards to body shame her. Gaga responded on Instagram, where she posted a photo of the performance and a statement to her fans:

“I heard my body is a topic of conversation so I wanted to say, I'm proud of my body and you should be proud of yours too. No matter who you are or what you do. I could give you a million reasons why you don't need to cater to anyone or anything to succeed. Be you, and be relentlessly you. That's the stuff of champions.”

Addressing the comments about her body allowed Gaga to redirect the narrative from body shaming to body positivity. Her willingness to call out the unrealistic expectations imposed on her renegotiates those expectations for her fans as well. She’s not just rebuking the individuals who body shamed her, she’s calling into question the notion that anyone is the sum of their size or shape. Granted, she’s doing while inhabiting a body that largely meets the standards her industry imposes on women, but perhaps that makes her message all the more effective, because it implies that you can’t win the rat race even when you meet the standard.

The Grammy Awards aired a week after the Super Bowl. Awards shows seem particularly fertile for the imposition of gendered expectations. The sea of monochromatic suits, whose wearers rarely face criticism for their two or three pieces, serves to offset the menagerie of colorful gowns, which are often the subject of more scrutiny than the art their wearers are there to be recognized for. We are obsessed with how female entertainers look at award shows. We dissect the designer they chose, their hair, their makeup, their shoes, their brows, and even their finger nails. And while this year’s Grammy Awards were no different in that respect, the performances and speeches of female entertainers like Beyoncé and Adele, like Gaga’s response to her body shamers, challenge the prevailing narratives of women in the public eye.

Beyoncé delivered a breathtaking performance that celebrated motherhood and the healing power of love. After singing two songs from an album that itself changed the narrative around her marriage, race, and southern culture, she received the Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album and gave an acceptance speech that seemed to address not just her personal wounds, but the wounds of the entire nation:

“We all experience pain and loss and often we become inaudible. My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that would give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history. To confront issues that make us uncomfortable. It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty, so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror—first to their own families as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House and the Grammys—and see themselves. And have no doubt that they are beautiful, intelligent and capable. This is something I want for every child of every race. And I feel it’s vital that we learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes.”

If anyone could be said to have won the rat race of fame, it might be Beyoncé. If she had delivered another self titled album with catchy if somewhat more impersonal pop hits, her fans (including this one) would have bowed down and said “Yes queen.” But rather than wearing the armor of her enormous success to hide from rumors of trouble in her marriage and the difficult issue of race, Beyoncé revealed herself through a deeply personal album and laid bare her ambitions for it, recognizing the vulnerability and pain that produces great art. And because her enormous success gives her an enormous platform, millions of young women might start to think that being bold enough to deal with pain is better than striving for the perfection that the world seems to demand of them.

When Adele’s 25 won Record of the Year later in the evening, an award many felt certain would go to Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, Adele gave a moving homage to Beyoncé:

“I can’t possibly accept this award. And I’m very humbled and I’m very grateful and gracious. But my artist of my life is Beyoncé. And this album to me, the “Lemonade” album, is just so monumental. Beyoncé, it’s so monumental. And so well thought out, and so beautiful and soul-baring and we all got to see another side to you that you don’t always let us see. And we appreciate that. And all us artists here adore you. You are our light. And the way that you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering. And you make them stand up for themselves. And I love you. I always have and I always will.”

And while the fact that Beyoncé was shut out from the award is a troubling indication of the way in which certain biases affect decisions about what kind of art and what kinds of artists get recognized, the real regard between Adele and Beyoncé could hardly be in doubt as they looked at each other during Adele’s speech. That mutual respect and Adele’s recognition that Beyoncé’s loss would confound her fans (Adele being one of them) undercut any potential narrative of a rivalry, all too easy to impose on two famous and successful women.

Of course, pop is still problematic in many ways. Female pop stars are all too often sexualized in ways that are overtly infantile and seriously disturbing. It still sends messages to women that are harmful both for their relationships with themselves and with each other. It still tells us that only certain types of bodies are beautiful and that women must compete with each other. But thanks to artists like Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Adele, it can also tell us we don’t have to believe that.

Public Filter

This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at publicfiltermilk@gmail.com.

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