Friday, August 22, 2014

Booty Love in Pop Music and Our Sexist Reactions

by Grant Andrews

It is an unspoken rule in pop music, as in many other aspects of life, that men are the desirers of women and women are merely meant to be desired by men. This mostly plays itself out in very subtle ways such as in the love songs of John Legend like his hit “You and I” where he tells his partner: “You stop the room when we walk in/ Spotlight’s on, everybody staring/ Tell all of the boys, they wasting their time/ Stop standing in line, ‘cause you’re all mine”. He takes claim of his partner here and of the desirability that she possesses. She is a physically attractive object of desire, and she is his and his alone.

But it has also taken more extreme iterations, such as Robin Thicke’s date rape anthem “Blurred Lines”, where women are merely objects in fulfilling men’s sexual desire. In these cases, it seems to be acceptable for women to lose their sexual agency and to simply fulfil the fantasies of men, as “Blurred Lines” was the second most popular song of 2013. The sexual dominance of men is widely accepted, defended and celebrated.

Women’s pop songs traditionally dealt with being desired by men, such as Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World”, Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade”, Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” and “Maneater” (much less empowering than the title suggests), or Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body”, among countless other examples, where fulfilling the fantasies of men is the only drive. What is interesting is that none of these songs caused too much of a stir or highly negative reactions (and there was not too much slut-shaming involved), and the reason is that the women here were not sexually empowered in their songs. They were serving the men, and not presenting themselves as being in control of their bodies. Carey’s song even tries to maintain a demure public image by demanding that the sexually satisfied partner not film their encounter or tell anyone about it. Women, as long as they are still “ladylike” and not sexually empowered, are allowed to embrace their own desirability.

Luckily, resistance to these ideas is becoming more prominent. Robin Thicke is being widely ridiculed for the way he speaks about and treats women. Additionally, women are claiming their sexual agency in songs more often, and it is hard this year to find an example of a woman singing about being wanted by a man, Iggy Azalea being the notable exception. When women sing about sex and relationships these days, they claim their own desire for sex as well. They demonstrate the desire for men and are able to claim and celebrate their own bodies. Even the heteronormativity of pop music is being challenged by the prominence of gay artists like Sam Smith who sing about their experiences. Pop music has definitely changed, but our double standards about the roles of men and women still exist and still find expression frequently.

For instance, there are very few examples of men in the pop world singing about wanting to purely fulfill the role of sexual object for women in the same way as women sing about in all the examples above. Women are not afforded this level of sexual power. Additionally, men and women are still treated very differently when they sing about sex. Women are hated and reviled when they sing about their sexuality, such as the endless slut shaming of Beyonc√© for her sexually explicit songs “Drunk in Love” and “Partition”. On the other hand, men are celebrated for loving, wanting and controlling the bodies of women. Women have to be sexual, but they also can’t claim their sexuality. They have to exist somewhere in a limbo of making men want them but not talking about wanting men back or enjoying their own bodies. It is the expression of the damaging archetype of a lady in the streets but a freak in the bed.

This is painfully apparent in the recent pop songs dealing with the derri√®re: Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle” and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”. Both songs are about loving large behinds, and the lyrics and videos for both songs are explicit with their references and visual depictions of women twerking and exposing their butts. But Derulo’s song has a 93.7% approval rating on Youtube, with only about 59000 dislikes, while Minaj’s new single, only released two days ago, sits at only 59.5% approval and 155000 dislikes. The approval rating is sinking rapidly as well, and will likely fall much further once more non-fans discover the video, while little change can be expected for Derulo’s video. These songs basically cover the same idea, and in fact they cover the very traditional script of pop music where men love the bodies of women and want to have sex with them. But the reactions to them are very different.

While this can easily be explained away by the fact that “Wiggle” is a much less abrasive pop song and much more infectious, it does not explain the vitriol in the comments section of Minaj’s video. Some of the top comments include: “One word, SLUT” and “Thank you for turning a classic into PORN!!! Damn disgrace”. The "classic" which is being referred to in the last comment is the song which “Anaconda” samples, namely Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”. The commenter does not seem aware of the double standard that is being exposed since the two songs are basically saying the same thing.

In contrast, Derulo’s video has a mix of comments, mostly involving either praise or dislike for the song itself, but not many people describe it as porn or show any scorn towards the men and their sexually explicit lyrics.

There is an extreme revulsion with the sexuality of women, especially when these women claim their own sexuality instead of subjugating it only to the desires of men. It is ludicrous to excuse the same content in one setting but to demonise it in another. While neither song is without problems, it is important to recognise when sexism impacts how we consume and interpret these media, and we need to make sure that we evaluate them fairly instead of damaging and devaluing the power and position of women.