The following speech was delivered at BBC 6 Music’s annual John Peel Lecture by Charlotte Church, who entered the music industry as a young teenager. Roughly 15 years later, her perspectives on the business have changed dramatically.
“Thank you for coming to my lecture this evening.
I’d like you to imagine a world in which male musicians are routinely expected to act as submissive sex objects. Picture Beyonce’s husband Jay-Z stripped down to a T-back bikini thong, sex kittin’ his way through a boulevard of suited-and-booted women for their pleasure. Or Britney Spears’ ex, Justin Timberlake, in buttocks-clenching hot pants writhing on top of a pink Chevy, explaining to an audience how he’d like to be their ‘Teenage Dream’.
Before we all get a little too hot beneath the gusset, of course these scenarios are not likely to become reality, unless for comedy’s sake. The reason for this is that these are roles the music industry has carved out specifically for women.
It is a male-dominated industry, with a juvenile perspective on gender and sexuality.
From what I can see, there are three main roles that women are allowed to fill in modern pop music. Each of them restrictive for both artists and audience. They are mainly portrayed through the medium of the music video, you’ll find them very familiar. I call them One of the Girls’ Girls, the Victim/Torch Singer, and the Unattainable Sexbot.
The One of the Girls’ Girls role is a painfully thin reduction of feminism that generally seems to point to a world where, ‘so long as you can hang out with your girls it’s possible to sort of wave away the evils that men do.’ This denigrates women and men equally, and yet is commonly lauded for being empowering.
The Victim/Torch Singer can be divided into the sexy victim (ie, Natalie Imbruglia in the ‘Torn’ video) and the not-so-sexy victim. One female artist who does not use her sexuality to sell records is Adele. However, lyrically, her songs are almost without exception written from the perspective of the wronged woman, an archetype as old as time. Someone who has been let down by the men around her, and is subsequently in a perpetual state of despair.
But to me, the Unattainable Sexbot is most commonly employed and most damaging, a role that is also claimed to be an empowering one. The irony behind this is that the women filling these roles are often very young, often previous child stars or Disney tweens, who are simply trying to get along in an industry glamorized to be the most desirable career for young women. They are encouraged to present themselves as hyper-sexualized, unrealistic, cartoonish, as objects, reducing female sexuality to a prize you can win.
When I was 19 or 20, I found myself in this position, being pressured into wearing more and more revealing outfits. And the lines I had spit at me again and again, generally by middle-aged men, were “you look great, you’ve got a great body, why not show it off?”
Or, “don’t worry, it’ll look classy, it’ll look artistic” [audience laughter]
I felt deeply uncomfortable about the whole thing, but I was often reminded by record label executives just whose money was being spent.
Whilst I can’t defer all blame away from myself, I was barely out of my teenage years, and the consequence of this portrayal of me is that now I am frequently abused on social media, being called slut, whore, and a catalog of other indignities that I am sure you’re are also sadly very familiar with.
Now, I find it difficult to promote my music where I feel it would be best suited, because of my history. The culture of demeaning women in pop music is so ingrained as to become routine, from the way we are dealt with by management and labels, to the way we are presented the public.
You could trace this back to Madonna, although it probably does go back further in time.
[Madonna] was a template-setter, by changing her image regularly, putting her sexuality in the heart of her image, videos, and live performance, the statement she was making was, “I’m in control of me and my sexuality.”
This idea has had its corners rounded off over the years, and has become, “take your clothes off, show you’re an adult.” Rihanna’s recent video for “Pour It Up” may have over 40 million hits on YouTube, but you only have to look at the online response to see that it is only a matter of time before the public turns on an artist for pushing it too far.
But the single, like all of Rihanna’s other provocative hits, will make her male writers and producers and record label guys a ton of money.
It is a multi-billion dollar business that relies upon short-burst messaging to sell product. And there’s no easier way to sell something than to get some chick to get her tits out, right?
Well, when the male perspective is the dominant one, the end point is women being coerced into sexually demonstrative behavior in order to hold onto their careers. This idea, repeated over generations, can’t but have a negative effect on women, whether they are in the industry or not.
I needn’t point out that these roles are interchangeable for artists, and they are not prescriptive to all female musicians. For every chart-topping star that fits neatly into one or other of these archetypes, there are twenty other artists that may not have the same earning potential, but carved out their own roles as human beings, not objects. One is only to look at Julia Holter, HAIM or Poliça to see strong women, unrestricted in their art by their gender or sexuality.
Throughout the industry, wherever you find woman they are doing brilliant things. Trina Shoemaker is a three-time Grammy Award-winning engineer. Mandy Parnell is a mastering engineer who has worked on some of the best-received albums of the last twenty years. And Marin Alsop this summer became the first-ever female conductor at the Last Night at the Proms. She recently said,
There is no logical reason to stop women from conducting. The baton isn’t heavy, it weighs about an ounce. No superhuman strength is required; good musicianship is all that counts.
As a society, we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate, authority roles. Out of 295 acts and artists in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, 259 are entirely male, meaning that Tina Weymouth’s part in Talking Heads makes them one of the 36 female acts. The Association of Independent Music’s 2012 membership survey revealed that only 15 percent of label members are majority-owned by women. PRS claims that only 13 percent of writers registered are female.
The Music Producers Guild less than 4 percent.
Last year, I worked with an exceptionally talented female sound engineer. And last week, I launched a publishing company that unintentionally has an all-female staff – honest, unintentional [laughs]. But I am constantly disappointed to find out how few women there are working in certain areas of the music industry.
So, is it simply all down to sexism? Myths about women perpetuated by men? Nicki Minaj seems to think so. In what has now become known as her ‘Pickle Juice Rant,’ she talks about she is derided for demanding a certain level of professionalism with the people she works with. She says,
“When I’m assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss.”
Minaj is one of the many top-flight female artists who use alter-egos in their work. Her other personalities are often men, who rap violently about women.
So, to what extent are these myths about women, perpetuated by women themselves? In a very recent, very public spat between the legendary Sinead O’Connor and the infamous Miley Cyrus, mother O’Connor wrote a concerned, open letter directed at Ms. Cyrus, who herself responded by ridiculing O’Connor’s bipolar disorder on Twitter. If women are to become free agents of their gender’s destiny in music, in a music world which is reliant upon shouting loudest over the clamor, it stands to reason that online pissing contests only serve to detract from the strong messages being put forward by such artists like Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu. Their recent collaboration on “Q.U.E.E.N.” is an eloquent and impassioned rallying cry for what Monae identifies as “everyone who’s felt ostracized and marginalized.” And yet it is women that she addresses most specifically in the track, ending with the line,
“Electric ladies, will you sleep, or will you preach?”
The recent flapping about Miley Cyrus’ blah, blah, blah has clearly struck a chord with the likes of O’Connor, and opened up a worldwide debate on the use of female sexuality to sell product.
Annie Lenox cut to the jugular when she talked about the age-propriety of what she calls ‘dark’ and ‘pornographic music videos’. She has called for videos to be rated by a film czar, with X-ratings to be applied to the most sexually explicit. It is interesting to note, that anyone of any age has been able to watch Christina Aguilera’s simulated masturbation in her ‘Dirty’ video on YouTube since the website began. And yet you must sign in to the site to prove your age if you wanted to watch Bjork’s stunning video for ‘Pagan Poetry’.
Whilst I would argue that neither videos are acceptable viewing for young eyes, I know which one I would rather have to explain to my child. Whilst channels like YouTube and Vimeo have a responsibility in dealing with these issues, radio stations should not think that they are beyond criticism. As Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director General, announces the new iPlayer channel for Radio 1, the question must be asked:
Should programmers take into consideration the image of an artist when deciding whether to play and promote their music?
There are countless examples from the last few years of songs that have been in high rotation that have little-to-no artistic worth but are just plain rude. I’ve been asked to give some examples, but I don’t want to give the Daily Mail an excuse to ignore the rest of this lecture.
[audience laughter; audience member yells, ‘heyyy’]
BBC Radio is notorious for misreading sexual metaphor and innuendo as innocent, most famously with Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ But more recently, there doesn’t seem to be a decency barrier at all, unless you’re dealing with works like “fuck” or “shit” or “hippopotamus cock.”
[audience laughter and snickering]
If there are no sanctions put upon music that is written so zealously about genitalia, or uses soft porn in its promotion online, what is to stop artists from feeling that they have to make their videos and their live performances more sexy [to] drive up their online views, and subsequently encourage more radio play?
And so to “Blurred Lines,” which many in this room have no doubt added to their playlists. The “Blurred Lines” video, which had the biggest part in jettisoning a song by a mediocre artist into the biggest track of the year, was on YouTube for just under a week before it was taken down, and remains on Vimeo without any age restrictions. The indefensible Robin Thicke, stated in an interview with GQ, that his intention was to do everything that is completely derogatory towards women because he respects them so much.
He continued saying,
People say, ‘hey, do you think this is degrading to women? I’m like, ‘of course, what a pleasure it is to degrade a woman!’
It is highly disappointing to know that the director of this video is a woman, Diane Martell, who also captured Miley Cyrus’ twerking for the first time in the video for “We Can’t Stop,” and is responsible for an objectionable little number by Leah LaBelle called of all things “Lolita.”
What is possibly more disappointing than this is the presence of the exceptionally talented Pharrell Williams at 2013’s Roundtable of Chauvinism. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Cyrus quoted a message to her from Williams, who said of her VMAs blah blah blah,
The VMAs was nothing more than God or the universe showing you how powerful anything you do is. It’s like uranium, it has the power to take over lives or power entire countries. Now that you have seen your power, master it. You are not a train wreck, you are the train pulling everyone else along.
With this kind of encouragement, it is no surprise whatsoever that young women feel it necessary to be more and more shocking in their bid to the most… forward looking? Canadian electronic artist Grimes, whose third record Visions was met with universal acclaim, says
I don’t want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized. To my mind, what this industry seems to want from of its women increasingly are sex objects that appear childlike. Look at the teddy bears everywhere, the Britney Spears Rolling Stone cover with Telletubbies from 1999.
I state again: Lolita?
The terrifying thing is that the target demographic for this type of music is getting younger and younger. Jennifer Lopez seemingly trying to engulf the camera with her vagina on Britain’s Got Talent earlier this year…
…is a mild example of how frequently carnal images creep into the realm of what is deemed okay for kids.
But ultimately, it does not need to be like this. Sex can be art: look at Bjork’s “Vespertine,” a highly-sexual and sensual record by a woman entirely in control of her career and of sex. The same can be said for almost every Prince record, and should be. Both are artists, adults, and human beings intelligently addressing a human subject, not exclusively a male one.
I support Annie Lennox’s plea for ratings on videos. If Rihanna had not grown up watching the videos of the 90s, then it might not be quite so essential for her to portray her sexuality so luridly, so constantly, and so influentially upon the next generation. If the power was taken away from sex in pop by making it harder for younger viewers to access it, then maybe the focus would shift to making works of artistic beauty and conscience.
And fundamentally, that would actually be putting the power back in sex, for a future world where humans are able to portray their sexuality as it is for them.
[Long audience applause]