So, I promised a bonus post, because of gaining 50 likes on Facebook over the last week, and what did I deliver? No updates at all. Rather than humble pie, I am chowing down on second helpings of the Christmas pudding of guilt, drowned in the custard of shame. Christmas approaches, all routine goes out the window…you know how it is. I will endeavour to be more prompt, you delicious people you. I will also catch up.
So, anyone reading this who knows me a little bit personally might be aware that when it comes to musical knowledge and passion, I’m basically useless after about 1943 (the year Sergei Rachmaninoff popped his clogs. Just in case you wanted to know.) When I explain (as I regularly have to) that I have no idea about really any output from any modern genre, I am fairly used to this reaction.
This lady has either just had a conversation with me about music, or has been caught off guard by her arms growing out of her stomach.
Therefore, there’s a whole host of stuff that I know next to nothing about that is otherwise common knowledge, or at least commonly vaguely known about, whilst I doggy paddle around in my swimming pool of ignorance. I thought it might be quite interesting to challenge myself by looking into what this cornucopia of mysterious musicianship might have to offer in terms of gender analysis joy. Two ladies and their songs will be the subject of today’s scrutiny:
Ms. Alexandra Burke and Ms. Kelly Rowland, respectively. Taste in big hoopy earrings believed to be coincidental.
Firstly, Alexandra Burke’s song, ‘Broken Heels’, released in 2010. If you haven’t heard the song or seen the music video, it might be helpful to first go here to get an idea of what I’m going on about.
The basic message of the song I think was captured well by the BBC reviewer Fraser McAlpine when he said:
It’s basically another one of those “girls are better than boys, right girls?” diva-brag jobs, and effectively puts forward the idea that even if a woman is hobbled by uneven footwear, she can still kick man-ass when it comes to gold medal standard Olympic partying.
I find it a little bit depressing that this incredibly shameless marketing of ‘battle-of-the-sexes’ gumpf clearly sells so well. The focus on hegemonic (there’s that word again!) gender categories isn’t actually my beef with this one, but the way in which in this song Burke is marked and marketed as a Strong Woman. In the music video (linked to above), Burke and her girl-chums are preparing for an American Football match, most manly and violent (because those things are linked, right?) of pursuits. Grawr. They are definitely better than the grumpy-and-confused-looking men, because the ladies have sass. They’re smily, and synchronised, and most importantly, sexy.
Roughly the first third of the video takes place in the girls’ changing rooms, where we get to observe the ruffling of hair, a little upper-thigh-flashing leg stretching, and the donning of the vital (and probably painful) high, high heels. Apparently the way to show that you’re better than the boys is to be as absolutely hyperfeminine as you can possibly manage. The lot of them couldn’t be more traditionally girly if kittens wearing tutus erupted out of the entirely ineffective shoulder padding. This, combined with the clone-like, glittery, glamazon outfits makes me think that some of what Burke had to say about the song in an interview is just a smidge ironic.
I wanted to make sure this video was different and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a load of girls who are, in the press’s eyes, perfect. I have some plus-sized girls in there. They are hot too. We are all working it. It is going to show people that no matter what your shape, colour, size, whatever you are, you are still beautiful.
A nice thought perhaps, but if you watched that video for the first time and thought ‘gosh, some of those girls look a bit ‘plus-sized’; how risque’, then you might want to consider looking at some more real women. A great place you can do this would be at the xoJane Real Girl Belly Project. But I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that the presentation of the women in this video makes anyone come away thinking trite messages about how inner beauty is what’s most important. It would’ve been nice to maybe see some real sportswomen, perhaps actually playing some sport. Women getting dirty, possessing muscle mass, doing something real rather than playing up painfully to the unforgiving social pressure on women in particular to present as pretty and polished.
…There wasn’t even actually any broken heels.
We can see how “different” this video really was when comparing it to Kelly Rowland’s ‘Commander’, also from 2010. The title likewise suggests female strength and power, and was promoted with images such as this:
“You misspelled commando”
The implied idea that ‘it’s okay to be strong and powerful, as long as you’re traditionally beautiful whilst doing it’ is only furthered by the skintight black and red leather (or plastic? I have no idea) paraded – as can be seen in the video, here. The aggressive, sexualised movement – and the fact that her boobies have enough bling to emasculate a peacock – suggest that really, being attractive (to guys, of course) is the most important thing. The male backing dancers used are made truly subservient by not even having visible faces. They are truly dance-slaves to her buttock-clenching levels of sex appeal. The lyrics don’t exactly help matters. Other than really making sure we do *know* she is a Commander, a couple of lines mention how “I feel the DJ is my bodyguard, you see the way he keeps me safe with the treble and the bass”, and “This dress won’t go to waste…you see the way that people stare, watching how I fling my hair”. This song is a product that shows quite how small and tight the box one has to fit into is, in order to sell this sort of pop.
Of course, this isn’t what the songs are all about. On the one hand, they’re to dance around to in clubs, mainly, and on the other, they’re to be commercial successes. Looking at the reception and reviews, these are things both songs have achieved. And don’t let me make you think that these two songs are particular offenders when it comes to the insidious realm of gender stereotypes. They’re basically everywhere, if you look out for them. I feel these make interesting examples because of how they bring attention to gender by making ‘female strength’ their central messages. As far as I see it, any positive ‘message’ that might be drawn from these songs is entirely compromised by the watery way ‘being sexy for the boys’ is then utterly played up to. Without being too cynical, it might be naive to expect anything less. But I’d love to see a feminist design a Diva pop music video.