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Friday, December 30, 2016

December 30, 2016: 2016 in Review: Jarad Nelson on Feminism in Pop Music



[As usual, I’ve ended the year—even this most frustrating of years—by AmericanStudying a handful of major stories. This time featuring this special Friday Guest Post, excerpted with permission from one of the wonderful student papers in my Senior Seminar on 21st Century America!]
[Jarad Nelson is a Fitchburg State University English Studies major, focusing on Professional Writing; he’s one of our most talented writers and voices, and I’m very excited to see where his career and work take him next. This piece is excerpted from his Seminar Paper, “Feminism in Pop Music”—Jarad followed this up by analyzing two 2016 songs and videos, Daya’s “Sit Still, Look Pretty” and Alessia Cara’s “Scars to Your Beautiful.”]

I think feminism has always been on the boundaries of pop culture, at least in the twenty first century, but was either ignored or given a wrong interpretation of what it actually was. Too many celebrities have been asked about being a feminist but quickly shut down the idea. “No, I wouldn’t say feminist – that’s too strong. I think when people hear feminist it’s like ‘get out of my way, I don’t need anyone.’ I love that I have a man that’s a leader. I’m not a feminist in that sense” (Duca). This quote perfectly shows the misunderstanding people have of feminism in pop culture. It has a negative connotation that woman who are feminists are brash, and that they aren’t allowed to be involved with men in any sort of way. There’s also a sense of not seeing the problem, as you can see in this quote by Taylor Swift, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life” (Duca). You just have to work harder. What’s interesting about this is the similarities it holds to people’s view on the poor, the majority of who are minorities. The view that they just don’t work hard enough, it’s their own fault for not having everything that the white man has. While this might be true for a small number of people, it’s definitely not true for all. After all there’s a reason affirmative action is a thing.

These are just a few examples of how feminism was misunderstood by pop culture artists, but they are important because they show how feminism is misunderstood, and explain why the misunderstanding is perpetual. When no one is correcting them on their mistakes, nothing changes. However, things have changed. Looking at pop culture around 2013 and 2014 there were many “phenomenons” that can be attributed to pop culture’s warmer embrace of feminism that wasn’t seen earlier in the twenty first century.

During this time, there are a number of events that happened that seemed to change the scope of how feminism was perceived and portrayed to mass audiences. I believe one of these events was the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. There has never been a song, in my lifetime, that had sparked such a controversy as “Blurred Lines” did. Many interpreted the song to be about rape, and its video, with topless models being gawked at by Thicke, Pharell Williams, and T.I., did not help its case.

“Ok, now he was close/ Tried to domesticate you/ But you’re an animal/ Baby, it’s in your nature/ Just let me liberate you/ You don’t need no papers/ That man is not your maker…” (Robin Thicke). You don’t have to go far into Thicke’s lyrics before you find where people see the misogynistic qualities they blame the song for having. In this verse, he relates the subject of the song, a woman he’s seen out somewhere, to animal who need domestication. This is a problem because it suggests that men have power over women, and it’s their job to reign them in when they start to get crazy. From that, a line can be drawn to the belief that women have to settle down with a man and bear children. However, Thicke goes on to say “Just let me liberate you…” (Robin Thicke). Thicke doesn’t want “domesticate” her he wants her to be free from those constraints. This could be positive, but he wants to liberate her for sex. This is where the allusions to rape start to come in.

“I know you want it/ You’re a good girl/ Can’t let it get past me/ You’re far from plastic/ Talk about getting blasted/ I hate these blurred lines/ I know you want it…/ But you’re a good girl/ The way you grab me/ Must wanna get nasty…” (Robin Thicke). In the song, we are only given Thicke’s point of view, where he repeatedly tells listeners that he knows she wants it (sex). The problem with this, is that the women doesn’t get a voice in the matter and we are given very little context about what is going on in the situation. This could easily be the woman grabbing his arm as she passes by him in a club, or even a grocery store. He assumes that she is coming onto him, and that means she wants to have sex with him. Consent does not even occur to him, instead he reads her body language, which is incredibly subjective. He even seems to admit that body language is not precise, when he says “I hate these blurred lines” (Robin Thicke).

Thicke also released a video with the song, and it only seemed to exemplify the point the general public was trying to make, that this song promotes rape culture. The video has Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. along with three other women. The only thing is then men are fully dressed, while the women run around in underwear, or completely naked, depending on the version you decide to watch. Diane Martel, the director of the video, has said that the video is meant to be “funny and subtly ridiculing” (Martel). While I do see this point, it doesn’t cover up the sense that the men are predators and that all six are not on a level playing field. The whole video is centered around the men chasing these women around and fawning over them. While the women spend the whole time looking at the camera, the men spend most of the time looking at the women. No amount of nakedness will take away from the men chasing women around and staring at them. The women in this video were also supposed to overpower the men, according to Martel, which is why they stare at the camera the whole time. This doesn’t work as well as Martel had hoped, and only feels like a way to hide that the men are in the position of power. Perhaps if the women were fully clothed like the men viewers would be able to see that these women are in control of the situation.

“Blurred Lines” was a song that garnered a lot of attention even before the video was released, and the shock value of the video helped make this song as popular as it was. While the song itself did nothing to promote feminism in pop music, the backlash it received from listeners is what really made a significant impact on feminism in pop music.

While Robin Thicke’s song got people talking about an important aspect of feminism, it wasn’t until a year later that feminism really came to the forefront of pop music in a positive way. Performed in front of an audience, as well as broadcasted to 8.3 million TV viewers, Beyoncé showed her audience what a feminist is and what a feminist can be. She was cool and attractive, but still has a man by her side and a child she loves. This goes directly against what we have grown up thinking a feminist is, and for probably the first time, a mass audience was educated on feminism. “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings            in the way that boys are. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.’ Feminist, a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” (Adichie). This is a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on feminism, and was placed in Beyoncé’s performance while the words FEMINISM glowed brightly behind her. Beyoncé shows us that she has gone against what girls have been taught to do and lives up to Adichie’s words. She  

seems to debunk every feminist stereotype you’ve ever heard. Beyoncé can’t be a man-hater – she’s got a man (right?). Her relationship – whatever you believe about the divorce rumors – has been elevated as a kind of model for egalitarian bliss: dual earners, adventurous sex life, supportive husband and an adorable child held up on stage by daddy while mommy worked. Beyoncé’s got the confidence of a superstar but the feminine touch of a mother. And, as a woman of color, she’s speaking to the masses – a powerful voice amid a movement that has a complicated history when it comes to inclusion” (Bennett).

Beyoncé was able to show the masses what a feminist can be, but this never would have happened without the platform she used to get her statement out there.

This performance was from the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, and was over fifteen minutes long, not a timeslot every single performer at an awards show gets. The reason she received this performance time was because of an award she was given; The Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, a lifetime achievement award for music artists. This couldn’t have worked out any more perfectly for the statement she wanted to make. She’s getting recognized for her work since the beginning of her career, her ambition and successes are being celebrated in front of a mass audience. The pieces could not have fallen into place any more neatly than they did.  While she could make the same statement at every single one of her concerts, it wouldn’t have reached the amount of people that it had, even as one of the most influential artists in pop music.

While how she got her message out there is one of the biggest factors for the success of her statement, it’s not the only one responsible for its success. As Jessica Bennett said in her article quoted above, Beyoncé is “a woman of color, she’s speaking to the masses – a powerful voice amid a movement that has a complicated history when it comes to inclusion.” The problems faced by women of color and white women are the same, generally speaking. However, if a white woman were to do what Beyoncé had done, would it have changed the pop music landscape the same way. There’s not really any way to know, but I feel that it is unlikely. Beyoncé is able to connect to an entire audience in a way that a white woman wouldn’t be able to; she is black. That’s not to say that just because she is black she automatically has the attention of every black viewer in the audience, but they can relate to her in a way that they couldn’t relate to a white woman. She is a person of color, and she is showing how hard work and ambition pays off, even when all the odds are stacked against you culturally.

“Her performance captured the moment an academic movement was embraced by the mainstream” (Vincent). This isn’t to say that a mainstream pop artist has never brought up the themes that Beyoncé did in her performance, but she was able to catapult these themes to the forefront of pop culture in a positive way that no other artist has done before. This ultimately paved the way for artists to identify with feminism without receiving backlash for it.
[December recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other 2016 stories you’d highlight?]

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