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Hey Ladies! Get Your Music On.


Turn it up! Grrrl style!

Check out this great new resource for those of you wondering what it is like to be a musician who happens to be female. It starts today with the online features, and on air segments on NPR. NPR asked hundreds of working women from all genres what it is like, and includes the results and other notable pages. I’ve spent about an hour so far just exploring and I am really impressed. The responses are amazing, and telling of what it is like to be a woman in still quite (que James Brown….no wait, Xtina’s version) a man’s world.

 

Hey Ladies: Being A Woman Musician Today

I am so excited and I look forward to hearing the on air segments, as well as, further exploring all of the online features. You can contribute your thoughts as well here: heyladies@npr.org.

The only thing I don’t like about the series is the “woman musician” part in the title. You don’t put “man” in front of musician do you? Nope. I know we are focusing on women, which is the point, which is awesome. But we need to say musicians who are also women, not “woman musicians.” Why? The default meaning for musician should not be gendered. I know that it is, and we need to take active steps in breaking that idea (thus this commentary.)

Musicians can be anyone! When we put “woman musician” and never do the same for “male musician,” you default musician’s meaning as male, and you maintain androcentrism with the notion that woman are not normally musicians. Therefore, women remain the marked gender that is not standard issue.  So when they are musicians, they are seen as somehow abnormal, unusual, and the exception, not rule, because you are altering the word with a gendered signifier. And that’s not true, nor cool.

Women have always been musicians, they just haven’t always gotten credit or recognition for their craft.  And I hope for those of you who are unconvinced check out this series and understand the awe and inspiring power that women have in their musical voices, hands, minds, and hearts.

Alejandro: Lady Gaga’s Epic Video Toward Salvation & Social Justice


Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” premiered this 06-08-2010 and as I type my mind is buzzing with what it means. I have analyzed other Gaga videos before, “Telephone,” and why she is a feminist, part 1 and part 2, and about having to justify her feminism.  This music video is just as complex, provocative, and beautifully executed as the previous ones. Granted, the only person who can really tell us what a video “means” is Gaga herself, but it’s always essential to look at how a video is received and what messages it sends compared/contrasted to what is intended. So, here are some of my thoughts on the visual imagery of “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga.

A general note on German Expressionism/ Film Noir

One immediately notices the dark, sharp cinematography, contrast in light, hints of red, and grim industrial feel to the video. This style has been popular in Film Noir and German Expressionist films.Vice, taboo topics, powerful women, cold calculation, cynical reality, dark human emotions, and simple yet demanding visuals are all prominent. You may get a hint of Nazi Germany in the military attire as well. This style heightens the grave nature of religion, power, and sexuality in this video. The genre in general is about substance, the depth of the topics discussed, while also presenting them in a manner that reflects those topics. “Telephone” and it’s pop culture critique reflected the visuals and the visuals reflected the critique. This is also true with “Alejandro.” The nature of oppression isn’t  a very peppy or happy topic. With that in mind, let’s examine some of the main themes presented in this music video. I am sure there are more than I am covering and I encourage your comments at the bottom!

Gay Community as Warriors

I’ll begin with what Gaga has said about the video. She noted that it is a celebration of her love of the gay community. This can be seen in a number of ways, via the buff and numble dancers in the video. The men are visually represented as strong, sexy, confident, and gender-bending. As the video’s first choreography begins, we are met with miliary imagery, a “gay army” if you will, symbolically reflecting on the determination, strength, and perseverance of the gay community. Also, on another level, you could see this as a slight reference to repealing the DODT. We assume these men are gay due to Gaga’s above statement, and showing them unabashed in military outfits marching makes the gay men (and lesbian women) who serve in reality visible, rather than invisible, worth respect and attention. This is one of the first steps in fighting oppression. First name it, second, if you will, take it out of the closet.

 

Also, the military, as well as, police force has historically and currently denies rights to those who are not hetero, and responsable for horrendous abuses (Stonewall, gender dress code laws, DODT, rape to cure lesbians, ect.) In this video, the power structure is turned on its head, where those who are in power are now those who are oppressed. And what more powerful institution than the military….and later in the video religion to challenge oppression in? Gaga does this by representing her fellow community members in a manner that is not seen in popular culture with seriousness and style. 

Gender Bending & Subverting the Male Gaze

So, we have the sexy gay militia, who also gender bends in the video. I have written about how previous videos have queered the narrative/images, and this video continues that motif.

 

The men not only wear fish net stockings, but also high heels, two things that are strongly associated with femininity, especially heterosexual femininity. This gender-bending does a few things. It challenges gender conformity, and hence sexual orientation conformity to hetero-partrarchal terms.

Further blurring the lines of acceptable sexual pleasure and sexual scripts is the mimicking of sexual intercourse with Gaga via the bed scenes. These are gay men, yet, Gaga has noted her own bisexuality, so what kind of sexual relations are going on? Much like her kiss with the prison inmate in “Telephone,” the assumed subtext to any visual narrative in our culture is heterosexual. Therefore if a woman, Gaga, kissed someone, it is assumed it will be a heterosexual man. Much like the subtext of any romance novel, condom ads, and Valentine’s Day cards are heterosexual (we fancy academics call this idea heteronormativity) Gaga challenges this by visually showing us gender bending gay men, entangled sexually with herself and the other men in bed. Basically this plays with ideas of power, and who’s “on top” so to speak. Normally, its heterosexual men. Here, it is unclear, and that uncertainty drives the status quo crazy. Power controls by having ridged “in and out” rules. The visuals presented break this dichotomy.

 

The light bondage here, also makes reference to a misunderstood and taboo sexual practice, but also to the symbolic “bondage” we are all faced with when it comes to what society tells us is acceptable desire, sexuality and gender performance. Along with the bondage, if we just look at simply the body placement and positions of the men, it is not normally positions that are considered powerful in a male hetero sense. Powerful positions are standing, “erect” if you will, alert and ready, while the men are writhing on bed, legs spread, and well, butts made noticeable. This is something we expect women to do doing on a bed for male pleasure. So here again, “correct” male behavior and positioning is challenged via the queering positioning and actions. Gaga’s own the role in the action balances between a top and bottom, perhaps the balancing act we all play in trying to make sexual relations equitable?

Also, the queering of the video also attempts to subvert the “male gaze” or “patriarchal gaze” of which most popular culture is seen and created through. This is where women are objectified body parts and merely advance the male protagonist’s aspirations and desires. The women have none of her own, and only serve to either prove male heterosexuality, or as an obstacle for which men must overcome to become “real men.” Feminists have pointed this gaze out in a variety of formats, and it can be something very hard to combat. You often must evoke the images of them to challenge them, and Gaga does this in ways that do not further degrade the women, and in this case, gay men in the video.

Gay men and feminized men have often served as “substitute women” when it comes to oppression being enacted upon them. In a culture where straight men are on top, gay men have stereotyped as effeminate, therefore not real men, therefore symbolic women.  In the male gaze, women are not only degraded, but anyone not conforming to prescribed sexual and gender codes.

So, Gaga reverses and subverts this gaze by giving us visuals of powerful sexuality, powerful gay men, and a lone female body that looks back at those watching. She is not being looked at. She is in control. Hence the goggles.

 

Her body is not objectified, but becomes a pallet where objectification is pointed out. The red tape covering her genitals and breasts for example. It serves more as a marker of where the attention is “supposed to be” on women, rather than actually making those areas sexier for the male gaze. It almost obscures it, and makes it not “sexy.” Exactly the point. A side note to that, the shape of the tape on her genitals is rather phallic, hence the challenging of that penis rumor. Or, in some ways, a sign of solidary with the gay male community.

 While there is queering of the narrative, there is also bits of androgyny being employed. Obviously some cross-dressed via the men in heels, and black faux-corsets, and Gaga in a black sleeveless suit, and priest-like robe. Short hair on women has been associated with a lack of femininity, even lesbianism. And Gaga’s flesh-toned bra and undies actually blends her feminines features rather than accentuates them. She becomes genderless/sexless. (The mop-tops on the men are effeminate as well, and also kind monkish.)

 

Finally, the gun-bra. Like the tape and fleshy lingerie, the gun bra has a few meanings. One, it draws attention to an area often objectified area of the female body, and exaggerates it in a way that is not traditionally sexy, if sexy at all. Boom. Subversion of the male gaze. But also, a bit of a tongue in cheek move that hints that breasts are somehow “weapons” and “dangerous.” Breasts are hyerpsexualized in our culture, and often seen as innocent/asexual in religious imagery.  The breast of Mary nourished Jesus for example. Breasts give life.  But also in the male gaze narrative, they can cause men’s downfall. The contrast and contradiction of women’s bodies parts, religion, and power are all wrapped up into a few seconds of dancing. It gives new meaning to the phrase Lethal Weapons!

 Gaga as Symbolic Military/Religious/Oppressor/Liberator

Gaga in the video plays a dual role. She is at once the oppressive authority figure, watching over the gay military, but also a religious figure dressed in a PVC nun habit (nuns are to be pure and chaste) and gothic Queen Elizabeth regalia (Queen Elizabeth I, also known as the Virgin Queen.) Power and authority, religion and morality. It is all there, and not by accident. The link and mixing of  military and religion is nothing new. Rulers who have been appointed by “god” and vise versa have quite a history. Gaga is making clear that intermixing at various points in the music video.

 

So, why the religion/ruler imagery? In the context of the homage to the gay community, it becomes clear. Gaga in her live shows and music videos allows herself to become the object of the evils she sees in society. She becomes a “monster” whither it fame, pop culture, or sexual oppression. In both religion and the military, there is sexual oppression. As the goddess-queen, she demands the loyalty if her militia, her flock, in return for love.  Yet as an authority figure, she is also oppressive. In the same ways that religion can be a liberating force in people’s lives, it can also be degrading. The christian visuals  represented are a critique on Catholicism, and all religions that contradict between loving your followers, and controlling them. That contrast is the tension in the music video.

 

How is this tension resolved? At one point Gaga swallows a rosary, perhaps Catholicism swallowing their pride over persecution of gays/lesbians? Choking on hypocrisy? Eating their faith? Gaga seems to resolve these tensions by sacrificing herself to the gay military in a sequence hat leaves her naked, symbolically implying that those in religious authority give up themselves to their people. The projector in the music video displays various scenes of destruction to which Gaga (the authority) is accountable for. Atonement is needed. Justice is due. In the end, de-robed, and dethroned, Gaga no longer hides behind the cloth.

 

  

Sacred Hearts, Death & Enlightenment

The funeral procession in the beginning doesn’t have much explanation until the ending. Likewise the Sacred Heart imagery is significant. Symbolic of love and devotion to Jesus, the heart in the video is frozen, mutilated, and bearing an “A.” “A” I am guessing for “Alejandro” but perhaps a little bit of “A” for adultery as in the Scarlet Letter. Either way, the meaning of this sequence at the beginning feels like a reference to the deaths of all of those in the gay community from hate crimes, abuse, AIDS,  and general death of identity due to having to conform to heterosexuality in order to survive. The Sacred Heart is something positive in Catholicism, yet seen here as frozen represents the fear, intolerance, and hatred that has come from that religion against those who are different. Where is the love and compassion in that heart for the gay/lesbian community. Alejandro is a symbolic martyr. His death mourned in the black and falling snow (or ash from the furnaces of those who were murdered for being different?)

 

The eulogy begins the film, and it seems a proclamation ends it. Behind Gaga, a cross, and radio gear as she asks her name not be spoken. But perhaps, since she (as authority figure) has been sacrificed to her followers, she is now enlightened and spreading the message to others. But if you look closely, Gaga is talking into a microphone in the same room where the Alejandro character is seen. Look closely for the similar table and chairs. The visuals come full circle.  It appears that Alejandro has died, but could it be NunGaga? If you look closely, the man on the bed with her has a golden gun. Does he kill himself or Gaga? It looks like blood is splattered right at the end, just before Gaga’s face morphs into light. So, has Gaga transformed into liberator, or is this her transformation into dictator? Is it a symbolic of the path of the military/religion/status quo? To what end are we traveling?

 

In the end, it is not her name, but the power in the name of authority that determines the worth of individuals. Individuals always have worth of course, but the power structures in our society only give it to certain groups. Gaga is challenging this authority and power in religion, the military, and in general for the gay community. Watch it again now, and decide for yourself. Alejandro: Gaga’s epic tale toward salvation and social justice.

 

Anything I missed? Let me know what you think.

My previous posts on Why Lady Gaga is a feminist.

  • Lady Gaga is a feminist! Why can’t people just accept it?
  • On Being a “Female, Chic, Woman, Girl, Grrrl and Lady” Musician


    So, as many of you may have noticed, I use some labels a lot on my blog relating to gender. Relating to the female gender that is. This is a women in music blog. I use terms like “Female Guitarist, Chic Singer, Grrrl Band, Woman Artists” but not in the ways you may think. I am VERY aware that these labels are used to point out the anomaly that is women in music, the fact that “musician, guitarist, singer, band” all are normally coded as male, man, and masculine. It is the same with other professions. Doctors, lawyers, and soldiers are coded as male, where as nurses, secretaries and dental assistants are coded as female. That is why many must say “Lady Doctor, or Male Nurse.” It is because we assume one gender over another, and therefore must point out the difference, hence in some ways policing those who do not fit the “norm.” It is one of those horrible results of androcentrism. We gender everything, including jobs, including instruments, including music. However, usually what ends up happening is “female” means “deficient,”  “lacking,” “less than.” Well, I am here to change that.

    So, why do I continue to put female, woman, chic, girl, grrrl, lady, ect, in my blog when I am talking about certain bands or artists. Well, for a few reasons…

    1) When oppressed and minority status groups do not actively proclaim their status, they become invisible, because the norm does not recognize them, and will continue to do so unless challenged. So, to become visible, to have a voice, and be recognized on your own terms, you must proclaim your identity. That is the essence of the “We’re Here! We’re Queer!” mantra. This often gets understood as “shoving your lifestyle, ideals, ect, down someone’s throat, but only the people who are in the privileged statuses in society think this, because their gender, class, race, ect isn’t in the front of the discussion 24/7. I say grow up, you don’t get all the damn cookies. So, I use these terms in honor of the female gender, to proclaim that status in the face of being defaulted to male. I use a feed reader to find info about women in music. I feed all major music sources, and even then, most of the “news” is about male artists. Out of 100 feeds, 80% of them are about men in music, and half the time if it is about women, it focuses on their latest BF or outfit. Ugh.

    2) It is very hard to find women who happen to be musicians otherwise. It is sad, that female musicians are labeled as such to point out their difference from the “norm” yet, that is the only way I can find them. You have to google search “girl bands” because if you just search “bands” you’ll see nothing but men. This goes true for “greatest guitarists,” “rock bands,” “jazz drummers” and so on. There are no all-female musician magazines, (ROCKRGRL ended in 2005) and a handful of websites that function mostly as databases and resources about women in music. They unfortunately are not comparable to the same content as big magazines like Rolling Stone who offer reviews, insights, and news (ideally).  So, the only way I can find other women in music is by deliberately looking for them and labeling them as such. I may not always like it, but otherwise I can’t find what I am looking for.

    3) Finally, there isn’t anything inherently destructive or oppressive in labels. We can find common ground and community in them. How can we know anything about anything unless we name it? The power of naming is huge! They are only detrimental when they are unwanted, rigid and not allowing for change/fluidity, and used to silence and discourage others rather than empower and inspire. When someone else gets to define you, they are in control, not you. So, if you want to use “grrrl band” go for it, if you do not, that is cool as well!  You have the right to define yourself as such, even if you do not always have the choice, because others think they know better.

    This is what I hope to do with this blog. I want this blog to be the place people go to find out about women in music, because there isn’t much else out there.  I want to fill the void in regards to respect, exposure and diversity with women in music. But I can’t do it alone! It is a lot of work! So, if you are a female musician or band, let me know! If you have some links, let me know. If you just want to say “Hey awesome blog!” or “Thank you!” let me know as well. Rock on!

    Photos by don’t expect art, luku, Emma Daly, and erichhh via flickr.

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