Body and gender in pop music

Male pop myths: Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become the world´s greatest blues guitarist. Keith Richards is immortal because he was conserved by all the drugs he took and if Stairway to Heaven is played backwards satanic messages can be heard.

Female pop myths: J.Lo’s got the greatest ass of all, Beyoncé’s got the greatest ass of all and Niki Minaj´s got the greatest ass of all. Oh, and Azealia Banks has the greatest tits.

Notice something?

Some dude has the time of his life with a Nicki Minaj figure in Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Image via Twitter

Exploitation of the physical

Pop culture is a history of myths. They start in the performative, bodily, with the creation of an artist’s image and – in the consumption of the recipient – would transform into a specific narrative. An example: When lumberjack shirts became fashionable in the early 90s due to the popularity of Grunge bands, others like Guns ‘n’ Roses or Metallica have been still very influential. With all their glam and black leather jackets and wide stance performances, many misfit kids would feel alienated by this plain, artificial chauvinism and overcompensated display of masculinity. So in boycotting not only the typical style of rock music but just any kind of style, Grunge fans would see wearing their lumberjack shirts and their old pair of jeans as a direct opposition to what rock music had become at that time: classic and reactionary. So with their non-style becoming a fashion statement, they created a typical punk narrative. That means that now the lumberjack shirt is not connected to one’s physical appearance anymore (for which you’d get bullied in school) but directly linked to your personality.

In every area of socio-cultural interaction, men find their way a lot easier in this world, so why should pop music be an exception when it comes to sexism? While men have no problem at all to leave the sphere of mere physicalness for their narrative (like transcending into mystical spheres like Robert Johnson or Led Zep or even freeing the body from earthly finiteness at all like Keith Richards), women, in their reception, mostly don’t leave this level. While the male body can have a function as a symbol for a greater idea, women, in the eyes of the spectator, often stay mere fetishes.

Fetishism, Exotism, Racism, Colonialism… all the -isms in the world

And this didn’t just start with Josephine Baker’s Banana Dance in the 20s, that even combined fetishism with a racist exotism for a white, western audience in times of late colonialism, when they would see a black woman on the biggest stages of the US and Europe, dressed in a skirt made of bananas, shaking it out. Ever since there have been countless examples of how the female body in society is objectified and reduced to its sexual attraction. Therefore there’s something quite logical in the fact that the most powerful women in nowaday’s pop business – Beyoncé, Rihanna or Azealia Banks – define their version of feminism via physicalness: using their self-expression in order to reclaim interpretational sovereignty and power of control over their own bodies and images.

This reading would make the staged promiscuity of Azealia Banks an act of empowerment: She would do it because she wants it, but don’t you ever think you could have her if she doesn’t allow it. In a way, this is an expression of power. And if not Banks, surely nobody ever tells Beyoncé what to do except she would ask you for advice. So, shaking her body in front of you actually is not to fulfil your deepest desires but to make you understand, that you cannot have her unless she wants you to. She is calling the shots in every way.

Female body, black body

Maybe it’s no coincidence that all of the pop queens mentioned above are black women from the United States, since US history, if not to speak of the whole American Dream bullshit, is mostly built on the destruction and exploitation of the black body until today: slavery, racial segregation and the epidemical killings of PoC by the US Police, like in Ferguson in 2014 (german pop culture magazine SPEX published a very readable analysis about exactly that in their No 366 issue in January this year).

Pop culture was always an inherent materialist matter. It influences the bodies of its consumers as well as the bodies of its producers, interpreters and artists. Because pop works through myths, every protagonist acts necessarily performative and therefore through the body. While the male body was always an autarchic acting one, the history of the female body since the development of pop was often that of a treated one. So maybe, the fact that especially femaleness in pop culture is necessarily physical, is because the empowerment of women in the business works through the reconquest of the body.




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