Buzzfeed recently published a listsicle entitled “what straight boys “Favorite Books” say about them.” The list was pretty funny (John Updike = #LiteraryRobinThicke. Into the Wild = looooves nature, but nature = weed”) but what was more interesting than the one-liners was the comments thread. Apparently men who read Buzzfeed are utterly humorless.
“It’s shitheads like the authors of this article that demean men for no reason AND harm the feminist movement. Almost makes me ashamed to call myself a feminist, because somebody, somewhere is going to (understandably) associate me with people like the authors,” read one.
Here’s another: “Id read books by women if any were in the same caliber as Asimov, Tolkien or George Orwell, Harry potter was fun, but if i am looking for something intellectual i seem lost, may be my own ignorance, care to enlighten me and please don’t say Atlas Shrugged.” (sic)
“This article makes me want to give up reading. Not only will I not be judged by whatever book I have at the time, but I wont have to read like this garbage anymore.”
As these comments prove, toying with the self image of people who feel strongly about their favorite artists can be a dangerous game. This is a fact that Liz Phair found out when she did it in 1993 with her record Exile In Guvyille. Unsurprisingly, messing with the minds of boys who liked the Rolling Stones, however wittily, did not earn Ms. Phair their love and affection: instead they called her names and made fun of her record.
With the advent of the internet, there are now more avenues for women to express themselves and be heard. Yet women in music are still struggling to find ways of explaining to people just how hard it is out there for a woman to succeed in the industry in the same ways that men do – that is, without losing their dignity. Phair’s was one of the first, but this year has seen a number of great new attempts to combine wit, charm and chops with pointedly feminist messages about lack of opportunity in the music world. Role reversal, cross dressing, altering one’s voice electronically, and just plain shouting out swear words are all tactics put to good use in the following four videos, but I doubt they’ll get much positive feedback except from the already converted.
“Just One of the Guys” is a song that points out the seldom-discussed fact that a woman who wants to make rock music her life has a much shorter time in which to make it big before age begins to matter. Men can rock out unsuccessfully for decades; when they finally give up and become a construction worker or go back to college, all is not lost. For women, life on the road may mean giving up a lot more than that: it may mean giving up kids. It’s not just that biologically women have to do that sooner, it’s that having a kid implies a whole set of other things – money, health insurance, stability – that a working rock musician probably doesn’t have.
The video for the song features 4 prominent actresses and musicians – Kristin Stewart, Anne Hathaway, Tennessee Thomas and Brie Larson – all pretending to be mustachioed men. Their pretentious rock mugging along to the song is pretty funny – a not so sly poke at the boundless male ego – but their use herein may have deeper layers. The video has been criticized on feministing.com and elsewhere for being reductive, but I think that the buried subtext, which viewers need to debate, is essentially sound. Is Jenny Lewis commenting, via the celebrity presence, on beauty? On childlessness? On the scarcity of good women’s roles in film? On the idiocy of binary gender roles? On the pomposity of men in indie rock bands?
Clearly she is commenting on all of the things and more, which puts her directly in Exile territory.
Maddie & Tae: “Girl In A Country Song.”
One of my favorite pieces of writing for my critical race studies courses is Geoff Mann’s article “Why Does Country Music Sounds White?”
In it, he identifies country music’s use of nostalgia, acoustic instruments, southern accented voices, and a constant harping on how the past was better to produce a white subject. The new country duo Maddie & Tae paint firmly between Mann’s lines on their new single, twanging away on their acoustic guitars and invoking the superior work of “Conway and George Strait” to ensure that their message – a none too subtle assessment of the male gaze in country rock – gets heard. Their message is that women in country are being objectified: as they sing, women in country “used to get a little respect/now we’re lucky if we get to climb up in your truck/keep our mouth shut and ride along.”
Of course what Maddie and Tae are really commenting on is not so much a change in country music as a whole, but on the advent of videos in the music world, and the role of women in those videos. So their video begins with a shot of some gorgeous, tan models wearing American Flag bikini tops, teensy-weensy booty shorts and cowboy boots. Then the screen flashes “role reversal,” and the video changes to images of some none too attractive men who are forced to wear the kind of clothes the typical “girl in a country song does,” i.e. cutoffs, bared midriffs and overalls with no top underneath, and do stupid things like swing on a swing and eat cherries, while Maddie and Tae – tossing back their blonde locks and licking their lipglossy chops – bang away on their guitars and sing, “cause I got a name and it ain’t pretty little thing, honey or baby.” Like Liz Phair, Maddie and Tae want it both ways: that is, to be able to critique their peers while playing in the same style and using the same tropes that everybody else in their world does. Because turnabout is never exactly fair play, it’s a sort of weird video, but since it may well be country music’s first foray into feminism, its lack of subtlety can’t be faulted.
Spice: “Like a Man”
Jamaican dancehall queen Grace Hamilton, AKA Spice (or Splice, as she calls herself when in drag) recently dropped this incredible song in which she critiques the problems with women’s roll in reggae world while singing as a man, surrounded by sexy twerking ladies. The lyrics address the problems she faces head on, albeit in patois, so they’re hard to quote.
The twerky ladies are clearly meant ironically, but in case that point is missed here, Spice goes one step further. She doesn’t just dress like a man, she alters her voice so that it sounds male. I see on her website that she’s offering to go on tour as a male, in the hopes that will, you know, get her equal pay and attention. Hope it works for her, it’s a grand project that should be funded by the Guggenheim or someone, in the spirit of Marina Abramovitz.
Lily Allen, “Hard Out Here.”
Liz Phair had a number of shock tactics she used to raise hackles, only one of which was swearing and talking explicitly about sex. That’s the one that Lily Allen deploys in her song “Hard Out Here” (and not, of course, for the first time.) Back in 1993, Liz just used some naughty words and implied that women like getting head, but twenty years later, life’s a bit rougher, so Lily goes whole hog and dances about in front of a stage that screams “Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy.”
As with Spice’s video, the video has a preamble. This one shows doctors working over Lily’s body, clearly giving her liposuction and tsk tsking how she could have “let herself go” so badly. (“But doctor, I had two children,” she says meekly, and the doctors grimace. “Ugh.”) Presently she arises from her bed of pain and proceeds to give the men exactly what they want: booty shot after booty shot, although the booties here jiggle with cellulite.
Meanwhile, Lily sings:
If I told you ‘bout my sex life, you’d call me a slut
When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss
There’s a glass ceiling to break, uh huh, there’s money to make
And now its’ time to speed it up ‘cause I can’t move at this pace…
Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits/It’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard out here for a bitch.
This video precedes the fuss over Nicki Minaj’s recent offering “Anaconda,” and sadly, like that work, the buttons it pushed were not exactly the ones she was aiming for: rather than making men think about their hypocrisy, Allen only managed to alienate women of color (who are featured as the majority of booties in this video). But that’s always the way with satire and irony: the target usually misses the point, while those who are on the outside anyway are left laughing, lightly, over truths they take for granted.