I don’t follow sports. There, I’ve said it. But the 2012 Superbowl was brought to my attention by the Atlantic, which posted an article about its female-dominated (and controversial) halftime show. Why is it that every time women grace the stage at this testosterone-full event, they make spectacles of themselves and spark media outrage?
“No stranger to controversy herself, the Like a Virgin superstar who kissed Britney Spears at the MTV video awards in 2003 will be the first female to headline the Super Bowl halftime show since Janet Jackson’s infamous bodice-ripping “wardrobe malfunction” incident of 2004, when Justin Timberlake tore off a chunk of her bra.”
The fact that Madonna made her career by sexualizing women in music aside, can we just be happy that females at least are getting the opportunity to perform twice in ten years (20% of the time) at one of the most highly viewed television events in the country? How did it go? Without a hitch, I’m sure.
“When M.I.A. flipped the bird to the 150 million or so people watching the game, she ignited a Twitter and media frenzy.”
OMG! It is truly true. For about a millisecond, you can see MIA flashing her middle finger while singing the lyrics “I don’t give a shit”. (If MIA really didn’t give a shit, perhaps she wouldn’t resort to such attention grabbing stunts to bolster her public presence).
In case you didn’t pick up on my sarcasm (see above), let me just say that I am not so concerned with writing about this controversial happening (there’s enough discussion out there to fill a book). I am more concerned with what this type of behavior (and the ensuing commentary) says about the state of female musicians at the top of the charts.
The Atlantic article I referred to in the opening of this post is entitled 2012: The Year of the Dissolving Diva, and discusses (laments?) the fact that strong female personalities in music seem to be watering down their musical approaches in their new releases.
“A slew of music publications called 2011 the Year of the Woman: a year in which major female artists with equally major personalities reigned in sales and critical discussion. This wasn’t really the case (any year offers more than enough triumphs and flops by female artists to claim a trend), but let’s briefly pretend it was. If so, then 2012 is shaping up to be the opposite: the year those personalities and their acclaim recede”
What does this have to do with the Superbowl, you might ask? The three artists who performed at halftime are narrowed in on for discussion of their “receding” personalities, both through musical and cultural critique. Since I am wary of just reposting the entire article, I will limit my focus to the criticism of Madonna’s new album, MDNA.
“It takes nerve to sing “every record sounds the same” on a record that reigning hitmaker Dr. Luke could have produced with a dubstep bridge so predictable you could guess its timestamp before hearing the track….Anyone could make these tracks. In interviews, Madonna acknowledged this as “ironic”; a better term is “sad.” ” (theatlantic.com)
Indeed, Madonna and her cohorts seem to be regressing back to the tried and true techniques of older pop music. MIA is criticized for producing not-groundbreaking “pop-rap” and Gaga(gag) for her rehashing of 80s electronica. After their eye catching stunts to achieve “spectacle”, these successful artists musically resort to playing it very, very safe. Not only are they criticized for this artistic decision, some musicians are criticized for NOT making enough spectacle of themselves.
“no one’s talking about Nicki Minaj, who performed with M.I.A. and Madonna on the latter’s new single, “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” And it’s not because Minaj is averse to attracting attention via controversy. From her always wacky outfits to her rapping style (half aggressive, half cupcake sweet), Minaj is as much of a provocateur as M.I.A. She’s just not as good at it.”
No one will pay heed to your music if you don’t a) flip off millions of people, b) flash your ta-ta “accidentally on purpose” or c) kiss a girl and like it. This Huffington article actually encourages Nicki Minaj to take a hint from MIA and get with the controversy program. But at the same time as these provocative acts are being a-flurried all over the internet, the musical offerings diminish in quality.
My brilliant (and perhaps devil’s advocate) sister reminds me that “spectacle” is not limited to the female pop-music world. From Jim Morrison to Charlie Looker, male musicians and artists are just as guilty of relying on personality and controversy to garner attention. But the proliferation of this kind of action is to a lesser extent.
“pop music reflects the national climate—in this case, a presidential race that revolves mostly around highly politicalized women’s issues. Or perhaps it’s[…]a reflection of what sells in pop: beats over personalities, where a voice is just a more supple kind of instrument[….]the artists whom one imagines would make music as vibrant as their personalities, as if noticing the trend, seem to be hunkering back to anonymous tracks, to safe chart bets.” (theatlantic.com)
It is very confusing. Beats sell over personalities, and yet the personality must be there to garnish the beats. But I would argue that the spectacle and the sexualization are much more prevalent for female artists. Even Joanna Newsom, who is lauded for her musical achievements, poses for the album art of Have One on Me in a very provocative way.
“Spectacles are those phenomena of media, culture, and society that embody the society’s basic values, and serve to enculturate individuals into a way of life,” writes Douglas Kellner. Mediated spectacles “dramatize[s] our conflicts, celebrate[s] our values, and project[s] our deepest hopes and fears.”
I am not saying spectacle and showmanship are completely out of place in the music world. I was lucky enough to see Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz tour and was blown away by the wonderful integration of visual stage technique and dance with the music itself. His loony twitching moves plus the accompanying auditory images seemed a perfect compliment to his artistic statement and were enmeshed with the philosophical intent of the album as a whole. However, the fascinating capability of spectacle used to enhance auditory experience is rarely utilized in such a successful way, especially by women.
“The denigration and sexualization of women during the Super Bowl is indicative of the ways in which spectacles operate within our cultural landscape. From the first quarter right until the end of the game, the place of women is made clear: as sexualized objects whose presence figures in eliciting pleasure from the male gaze.”
Women have been used to “hock products” for decades upon decades. They are as much of a commodity as the things they are selling. This fact, in turn, makes women in music and media feel a necessity to hock their own sexual image as a selling point. Sex, controversy, and spectacle are all “extra-musical”, i.e. they lie outside of the auditory experience (as much of the music industry does).
How many times have I been told to “sex it up” on stage, that I’m “pretty” and should “milk it”, that I need to provide video and photographs to go along with my artistic work, I cannot count. It seems that I cannot opt out of this behavior and still gain a following, or at least some discussion of my music. But until women do take a stand and provide truly groundbreaking artistic content (I’m not arrogantly saying I have achieved this, mind you), how can we be taken as seriously as our “genius” male counterparts? Until we stop objectifying and spectacle-izing ourselves, we won’t get anywhere.
“Lady Gaga and her shotgun companions should not be seen as barreling down the road of bad faith. But neither are they living in a world in which their acts of self-expression or self-empowerment are distinguishable, even in theory, from acts of self-objectification.”
If I must provide a public personality to go along with my work, I’d rather my brain and viewpoints be up for discussion. I’d rather sell nothing than sell to thousands of people using my body and public spectacle.