Thursday, January 14, 2016

Girl (Disem)Power?

How modern pop music discourages individualism and urges young women to stifle their own identities.

By: Jimbo X

Let me start off by saying I don’t know shit about modern day pop music. Sure, I hear the songs on the radio, but as far as I am concerned, it’s all an indistinguishable blob of overproduced junk. There’s no way I can tell the difference between a Ke$ha song and a Katy Perry song, nor do I detect the slightest aural difference between the “music” of Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez … and that’s not even getting into the blurry miasma of figuring out which one-to-two-hit wonder is which nowadays. Are we even 100 percent sure Rachel Platten, Meghan Trainor and Iggy Azalea aren’t sharing the same vocal cords?

Needless to say, there is quite a bit of interchangeability when it comes to radio-friendly, Top 40 music. Go ahead, just try and describe the subtle differences of any Justin Bieber, One Direction and Five Seconds of Summer single. The really interesting thing to me, however, is how this uniformity in sound seems to disproportionately affect female artists. For every singer with a smoky, heavy and idiosyncratic lilt like Adele, there are at least five or six whiny, pitch-less performers like Miley Cyrus, Ellie Goulding and Alessia Cara to go around. Yes, I know the recording industry is the domain of soulless hucksters and unprincipled marketers whose only scruples are to make money hand over fist, and that exploitation of starlets is nothing even remotely new for the business. But what gets me is how this absolute obliteration of female individuality is running concurrent with an overabundance of ditties half-heartedly celebrating female individuality.

First of all, many of these “individuals” have been factory-produced pop cultural commodities since childhood. Take Demi Lovato, for example. While she’s now crooning about the virtues of exploratory lesbianism (if not actively encouraging it), back in the day she was a bit player on Barney and Friends and was later farmed out as background dressing for a slate of Disney Channel programs as a high schooler. She’s been a media creation – a human being built for maximum marketing efficiency – literally her whole life; ultimately, she’s no more an individual artist than a chunk of processed cheese … assuming processed cheese can suffer from bipolar disorder and smuggle cocaine, of course.

Speaking of Lovato, her fifth album was ironically titled Confident, when the entire pop music machinery she represents constantly bombards young listeners with the central message that they’re simply not good enough. Don’t let red herrings like Colbie Calliat’s phony, allegedly anti-media hit “Try” throw you for a loop; even though the songstress in question is championing the liberation of a life sans holding oneself up to the “unobtainable” standard of beauty established by the media, she herself embodies the media ideal of what a young woman should look like. She may have ditched the concealer and foundation for one video, but when she performs live, her face is drenched in enough cosmetics to stock an Ulta store. Ironically, while she eschewed the eyeliner as some sort of attempt at a social statement, she nonetheless kept the expensive clothing and ritzy jewelry; apparently, unrealistic media archetypes are only negative when they apply to physical standards, while wholly unobtainable materialist and consumption ideals are somehow A-OK.  Ironically, the emerging subgenre of body image affirmation pop seems to reinforce the importance of consumerism as some sort of over-compensatory penance for not being thin. So a modern pop starlet can be overweight, but she has to make up for it with lavish – and wholly unsustainable - fashion tastes, which are far beyond the means of any real young woman’s financial capabilities.

While sensations like Nicki Minaj and Jessie J extol the fairly misogynistic message that desirability to males should be a paramount objective, there seems to be another incipient theme in female-driven pop music becoming much more commonplace. Let’s call it the “Lena Dunham Effect” – music that embraces XY aimlessness and celebrates female self-loathing like a hometown Super Bowl victory parade. At the head of this nihilistic vanguard are children of wealth and luxury Lana Del Rey and Tove Lo, whose synthetic synth-pop vaunts indolence like public service announcements for defeatism. I’m not quite sure what kind of message young women are culling from lyrics about vomiting up Twinkies in bathtubs, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t one that’s going to inspire them to do too many great things with their free time.

When you realize that junior high girls are absolutely barraged by such torrents of superficiality and negativism day-in, day-out and that these performers and their works are establishing their own conceptualizations about female identity, it’s hard to not be a little perturbed. How confused they must be, indoctrinated with the singular importance of being yourself from media creations who gained their fame and fortune by changing everything about themselves and submitting to the slightest whims of their recording label Svengalis. Even compared to the plastic fruit of yesteryear like Christina Aguilera and Kelly Clarkson, these new pop heroines are shamelessly insincere and unremarkable, fumbling through their marketing-by-the-numbers lyrics with all the passion of a William Shatner cover tune. The coy introspection of Carole King and even the square-terrifying bombast of Madonna is a thing of the past; as demonstrated by the popularity of Sara Gilbert lookalike Lordehumdrum is the new hotness.  

This would be much less unnerving a trend if it these “artists” weren’t so ubiquitous as cultural figures. Whereas boys embrace semi-sociopathic sports heroes and macho rock and rollers and rappers as their heroes (which is just as disturbing), you’re not exactly seeing Adam “Pacman” Jones on the cover of every magazine at the grocery store, and you’ll never hear a 2 Chainz or 36 Crazyfists blaring at Starbucks. Meanwhile, the pop star goddess figure is more or less depicted as the zenith of the female form to middle school Americans of both genders. Even as supposed proponents and advocates of girl power, they remain subservient and endlessly celebrated for their appearance, with many just as guilty of capitalizing on the shameless appeal of hyper-sexuality and other forms of aggressive behavior as their boisterous male counterparts.  Even as feminine ideals, they are expected to be dependent upon males (or, at the very least, in perpetual pursuit of impressing them), and lyrically predictable, with easily malleable personalities, and to promote trifling excesses and utter vapidity over anything of substance, merit or even good taste. Even their political and social activism rings of hollowness and artificiality – their campaigns against homophobia and sexism little more than transparent coats of cheap paint slathered on their woefully bland personalities, designed to give the illusion of any kind of perceivable depth or thoughtfulness.

These types of artists don’t have the longest shelf-lives. The Spice Girls went from ruling entertainment to painfully passé in one year’s time, and even aughties titans like Brittany Spears are viewed as hardly anything more than nostalgic throwaways today. Alas, their legion is many, and while the names, faces and sounds may change, the core identity-suppressing motif lingers on throughout the decades.

Perhaps it is giving these pop tarts and bubblegum divas too much credit to insist they impact the psyches of young women so much. Nonetheless, their sociocultural impact is impossible to ignore, and so is the amount of weight they share as “role models” for the women of tomorrowIf we only celebrated these pop cultural figures as insignificant, low-culture entertainment, there wouldn’t be any problems. Unfortunately, we’ve collectively promoted these manufactured icons as the loftiest women can aspire to – and the end results, I fear, are anything but empowering.  


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