Ode to Aretha, or Reconnecting Women and Singing
When I think of music’s–or specifically singing’s–potential for liberation, one voice immediately springs to mind: the earth-shattering, shiver-inducing, bone-chilling instrument possessed by Aretha Franklin. Aretha’s amazing talent is intimately linked for me with freedom, not only because of her own, very real struggle to express herself as a black woman artist, but also because of her tremendous capacity for instilling a sense of transcendence in her audience. As a listener, one is taken on a journey through a spectrum of emotions, and regardless of whether a song is mournful, pensive or joyful, Aretha manages to enthrall and elevate beyond the specific context, transporting one to this unshackled realm of, well, freedom.
Aretha’s gospel background undoubtedly plays a role here, as musical ecstasy is frequently reached by ever-intensifying call-and-response sections and coloratura passages, which allow her to really flex her vocal chords, showing off her vast range. A musical style so heavily steeped in the legacy of slavery inevitably conveys suffering and bears the marks of oppression; however, it also offers a way out of trauma and subjugation. Indeed this is the liberatory power Aretha literally gives voice to. Her music is therefore hard to resist, and I find myself continuously drawn to classics like “Respect,” “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady.”
After years as a self-professed Aretha fan and admirer, her records still excite me, and as a singer I still learn from her. I can’t say the same of more recent recording artists, and I am hard-pressed to find anybody in Aretha’s league, and with the same capacity to inspire. Certainly, the world has produced some fine singers, and women artists are struggling to launch successful careers despite the seemingly increasing odds presented by a patriarchal industry which confuses objectification with adoration and debasement with entertainment. But perhaps this is precisely where my difficulty in identifying women singing greats of the present era lies. Rather than linking a vocal artist with freedom, passion and emotion, we’re now made to connect most popular women singers with a re-enactment of that well-worn drama of scanty clothing and feigned lust/desire. In other words, we’re asked to look at them through what feminist theorists call the male gaze. All of this means that an artist’s talent, her craft and her music become secondary, a salable side-product for the actual commodity of her body.
This kind of objectification is nothing new–women have always been reduced to their physicality–but the 21st century version is creating a “pornographication” of our daily lives, which has increasingly been directed at the very young. In a bid to increase profits from new consumers, girls are now targeted as a matter of course, much to the dismay of some concerned parents and teachers. Sadly, women artists play a role in this dangerous game, whether they are the victims of self-objectification, believe themselves to be outside the bounds of patriarchal control or think of themselves as using the game to their advantage. Whatever the case may be, the result remains the same: aggressive and insidious objectification, which for music means subservience to the male gaze.
Perhaps, though, singing has changed; perhaps expecting women to “merely” be singers is passé and old-fashioned. Art has moved on, and a woman’s body is now as much part of her performance as her vocal display. Hence, she becomes the performance. But I find it hard to reconcile the stereotypical, sexist posturing found in many a music video with appeals to self-determination and artistic freedom. Claims by women artists that they’re subverting the male gaze through playful use of irony, for instance, seem shallow. And if no one gets the irony, then what’s taking place is a continued reinforcement of the stereotype rather than an undermining of it. Since pornographication is now so vociferous, we need outspoken, direct and clear artistic critique in order to turn the gaze into hearing and to re-stitch those connections between women artists and the sense of freedom, passion and emotion they potentially hold for us.
We can start by supporting those who are currently struggling against the odds of patriarchal industry, who are already critically engaged in liberating not only women but music itself (see for instance, the radical work of poet and singer Jill Scott). For, although Aretha surely was not immune to distinctly gendered and racialized expectations placed upon her by virtue of being a black female singer, she is living testimony to our capacity for overcoming such expectations. In light of the music industry’s current penchant for extreme objectification, nothing less than following in Aretha Franklin’s footsteps should be aimed for, as nothing less will truly liberate us as women, as singers, and as lovers of music.
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.
Posted in Pick Guards - Music Analysis
Tags: Alejandro, Alejandro Music Video Meaning, Analysis, Androgyny, Army, Authority, Bondage, Catholicism, Christian, Contrast, Control, Dark, Dictator, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Equality, Feminism, Feminist, Feminist Analysis, Film Noir, Gay, Gay Community, Gender, Gender Norms, Genderless, Goddess, Gods, Gothic, Industrial, Justice, Lady Gaga, Lesbian, Male Gaze, Meaning, Men, Military, Monsters, Music Video, Nazi, Nuns, Oppression, Pain, Patriarchal Gaze, Patriarchy, Pop Culture, Post WWI, Power, Queen Elizabeth, Queer, Religion, Rulers, S&M, Sacred Heart, Sex, Sex Roles, Sexuality, Social Justice, Subversion, The Fame Monster, Women
*** Fair Warning….this is a long post!***
Since my last post, Lady Gaga has come out as a “little bit of a feminist.” Whether she is or isn’t, her visuals, music, persona, and command of culture is feminist. She knows exactly what barriers women in the music industry face, and challenges these head on without apologizing.
Lady Gaga has released her new music video for “Telephone” featuring Beyoncé, and as can be expected there is a storm of comments once again on whether or not she is or isn’t a positive role model, what the hell the video means, let alone is or isn’t a feminist. Blah, blah, blah. I am sure Lady Gaga really isn’t losing sleep over those squabbles. But, I do think she and her music is feminist. Here is what I have to say about all of that in my part 3 of why Lady Gaga is a feminist. 10 Reasons why Telephone is a feminist social critique!
1.) Identity is fluid- This has to do with the postmodern idea that our identities, whatever they are, feminine, masculine, old, young, black, white, ect., are never a constant, fixed thing. Our identities are always in flux, in motion, we are never either/or, as much as everyone else wants to put us in those boxes. They change over time and space and context. With “Telephone,” as well as, most of Lady Gaga’s videos, she is seen in a multitude of outfits, scenes, and behaviors. This is the crux of Lady Gaga’s usage of imagery, that no matter how hard you try, you cannot pin her down. In other words, she will not abide by artificial barriers and boundaries of where we want to place her and expect of her. She will not be either/or. She lives in that grey area that makes most of us uncomfortable. And this is exactly the point.
2.) Queering the Narrative – Out of all the comments I have seen on other blog posts and message boards about “Telephone,” the one that keeps coming up was during the Exercise Yard scene outside of the prison where Lady Gaga and another inmate kissed. What drove people crazy was the fact that they could not pin-point the gender identity (and hence assumed sexual identity) of the other inmate. This points to identity as fluid, but also queering the assumed sexual narrative of visual texts. We assume two people kissing in a heterosexual context, almost always. Yet, this is an all-women’s prison? But the other inmate looks kind of masculine, or at least androgynous. So, is Gaga kissing a woman, or man? Or trans? This drives people nuts is because they need to know the biological, sexual and gender identities of others to therefore know how to judge and treat them. Lady Gaga in this case is throwing that all in your face. Once again, you do not get to box her in, or the visuals she is representing.
3.) Reversing the “Male Gaze” – Called the “male gaze,” “pornographic,” or “patriarchal gaze,” this is a way of understanding and seeing media and stories from a heterosexual, male’s perspective (usually white and middle-class as well.) In this narrative, (which is standard issue in our culture,) sees women as objects, peripheral to the male story line, male progression and ultimate growth. Women in texts are only there as eye candy, to prove male heterosexuality, or as obstacles for men to defeat and dominate by domestication or death.
In this entire video, as well as, “Bad Romance” and “Paparazzi,” Gaga reverses this gaze in a variety of ways. She refuses the male heterosexual narrative as the only way to see the world, and presents her views in a decidedly “feminine gaze” or at least a gaze that does not abide by male standards. Women’s bodies are not present in “Telephone” for male pleasure, they do not progress a male storyline, nor are women defeated for male purposes of sex or domestication. Women are not “othered.” In some ways, the bodies seen here are for female pleasure, sexual perhaps, or at least aiding in seeing women in positions of power, both as prisoners and prison guards. Women are in control, even in prison and outside of it. Gaga and Beyoncé’s emotions, ideas, and selves drive the story of the music video, not men’s. Women are central, not peripheral, they are the main autonomous actors in control of their destinies. Even as we see women in traditionally powerless situations, in prison, as diner wage workers, or as objectified bodies for male consumption, these positions are problemitized, and their meanings changed. When we see women in these places, we do not get the impression that they are mere tools of the patriarchy. They have agency, they have will, and they are not the “other.” We get a unique and visually appealing story from women’s perspectives, ideals, and world view that is so lacking in today’s media.
4.) Transgression, Prison for Bitches, & Lesbians – If you missed it, on screen as Gaga is being taken to prison is the date and name of the place where she is being held called “Prison for Bitches.” This small, but extremely significant part of the video cannot be underestimated. The video itself is a continuation of “Paparazzi” where Gaga murders her abusive boyfriend, and in the end is having her mug shots taken. As “Telephone” opens, we see her in her pinstripe glory being taken into the “Prison for Bitches” by two rather buff, femme-fatale prison guards.
Prison is an interesting concept. We assume prison is where we take someone who has done something wrong. People in prison must have done something to deserve their punishment. Yet, in the feminine narrative of the story, we sympathize with Gaga because we understand why she did what she did, and if one could, do the same to those who abuse us. Yet, she is still taken to the “Prison for Bitches.” So, what is a Bitch? We use this term against women who do not know their place. Women who are too loud, too proud, refuse to be controlled and put down are called “Bitches.” When they do not give into men’s sexual entitlement to their bodies and creativity, we call them “Bitches.” We use this term to police women into place. Women who transgress the gender norms of traditional femininity (being passive, emotional, weak, fuckable, dainty, heterosexual, and baby incubators) are hence “bitches” and must be punished for breaking these rules. Gaga is then imprisoned with other women who we assume have also transgressed gender norms. These women are being punished for “not being real women” in some way or another. Which leads me to the next part of the video narrative, Lesbianism.
As Gaga passes by the other cells in the prison, us the viewers hear other inmates sneering and calling out to Gaga. We get the sense that they sexually want Gaga, or at least as sexually attracted to women, because why wouldn’t a whole bunch of women, alone together in prison be lesbians right? Patriarchal society fears the idea of women being together, congregating, because they might start talking, and realize how crappy life is for them and revolt. The fear of female rebellion runs deep in our culture. These women in prison, with its lesbian undertones, harken to second wave womyn’s movements of separatism and female solidarity by literally and physically secluding themselves from men. In this prison, women are forcefully segregated over their shared transgressions against femininity. Lesbians fall into this category, because they are not attracted to men, hence break the heteronormativity mandate of our culture. Gaga also breaks femininity mandates by murdering her boyfriend, as well as, rumors of her being intersex. To which, she makes note of via exposing her genitals, albeit blurred, and the prison guards lamenting doesn’t have a “dick.” This small statement is a slap in the face at the pop culture rumor machine, but also at the idea that what makes a woman a woman is her “lack of a dick.” This is what women are in our culture, a sum of “what they lack” in accordance to men, who are considered the norm. Women are women because they are NOT men.
Thus, this prison is where women who defy rules of their genders in our culture are taken to be punished. We see in this prison other women who have transgressed in different ways, and even though this prison is a bunch of women, there is a hint of danger about it. Whether it is because a whole bunch of women are together in one place, or the lesbians being powerful, or the role ambiguity, this prison is a place to keep these women from ruining the “lawful” rest of society.
5.) Poison & Violent Women – As I mentioned above, women murdering their men, and in essence transgressing femininity norms of passivity and weakness to taking control is something that is feared in our culture. Men do this all the time. We see this as a common theme in movies, where the male protagonist is wronged somehow, someone kills their family, steals their money, insults their manhood, and therefore, they take the “law” into their own hands to get justice. We applaud this rebellion as essential to men transcending their “oppression” to gaining back their humanity. Yet, when women do it, we don’t accept that as possible, and even desired. It not only breaks feminine roles, but overturns their roles in the traditional narrative of masculine development. Women who become violent and rebel are unsettling, they are supposed to “follow the law” and “follow the rules.” Yet, when the laws are not made to give justice to women, the only way to get it is to rebel. Gaga does this in “Paparazzi” and in “Telephone.” Beyoncé breaks her out of the prison, and they plan their next attack on “society.” What more iconic of society than the American Diner? In that scene Beyoncé meets, what I am assuming is either her boyfriend, or maybe pimp? Either way, the label isn’t important as what the role symbolized. A figured who is dominating and controlling. You know this by his demeanor toward Beyoncé and others in the diner. He is a complete jerk, to be frank.
So, Beyoncé and Gaga plan to punish this dominator and purge it from themselves via poison. Gaga used this in “Paparazzi” as well. Poison symbolically in narrative was one of the few ways women could gain control. Traditionally they were not allowed to wield military, political power, or relationship power. But, the knowledge of herbs, medicine, and beauty tools have been something that has been female knowledge. Therefore, poison represents power and a way to have control when all other avenues you are barred from using. So, by Gaga and Beyoncé using poison, they are once again subverting what “good girls” should be doing, in favor of taking back their agency. Which then, leads to the next point, consuming = death.
6.) Consuming = Death – The poison in “Telephone” also represents something else vile to women’s agency and autonomy, consumerism. You can see this in the product placement in the video. Whether intentional or not, the product placement is obvious, hence our susceptibility to being “sold” to isn’t separable from any other messages. It is obvious we are being marketed to. Products overtake everything in every part of our lives. It is like an addiction, one that the individual cannot win against. It is like some unconscious hunger. This is symbolized as the poison which is added to the “honey” or “maple syrup” in the diner. We are nothing but consumers, and the message here is that it will kill you. We see the diners, viciously consuming their “food,” their “products,” and then, poison (relying on products) takes effect (the telephone effect) and kills everyone. Here, the messages is the obsession with consuming will be our death. On another note, when Beyoncé talks about “taking all her honey” this could also reference men who take everything from women, their self-esteem, their power, their humanity in order to consume and control them. Yet, this is a futile way to exist, because as Gaga and Beyoncé enact is how deadly and dangerous this consumption of products, and women is. It will come back to destroy you. The dancing in American flag apparel after the death scene is symbolic of consumerism as an American pastime, even as “patriotic,” the ultimate goal of our society, yet, to the end of death.
7.) Body as a Crime Scene – This is perhaps my favorite part of the video, Lady Gaga wrapped in crime scene tape. The symbolic messages of that are truly amazing. For one, women’s bodies as crime scenes are frighteningly true in our culture. Women are raped, abused, and sexually assaulted, literally making their bodies “crime scenes.” Their bodies are battlegrounds and this is where power and control are literally enacted upon. Gaga’s body is also a “crime scene” when it comes to crimes of sexual transgression. Her power as a woman has called into question her sexuality and gender identity, making her body and personhood a literal “crime again heteronormativity.” It doesn’t matter if she is bisexual, lesbian, pansexual, or asexual, she refuses to be obviously heterosexual, therefore is committing the aforementioned “crime.” Her body is also a “crime” against norms of dress and appearance because she uses her body to express some of the most horrible and vile ways out culture understands femininity. She refuses to blend in, to disappear in a crowd. She will be seen and heard. Her body is not invisible, but it is visible in the ways Gaga chooses, not the ways the “male gaze” or consumerism chooses. Therefore, once again, she is in control, and that is a “crime” for women.
8.) Pussy Wagon – If you have seen “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” you know about the “Pussy Wagon.” In the film, Uma Thurman’s character is raped (while she is in a coma) by a hospital employee. She swiftly kills that man, and takes his car keys to escape. She finds the vehicle, a large yellow truck emblazoned with the bright pink letters “Pussy Wagon.” The vehicle in many ways symbolized the misogyny of that hospital employee, basically reducing women down to their sexual uses and abuses for male pleasure. Such derogatory things like this, symbols, words, and actions have been reclaimed by feminist movements/civil rights movements as a way to take the power away from oppressors to define who they are through language and other symbols. For example, the word “Bitch” and “Queer” have been reclaimed by their respective groups to mean something positive, rather than negative, giving those groups the right and power to define who they are, not those who mean to oppress them. Now, that doesn’t mean every time it is used it is used in this positive light, but attempts have been made to challenge it’s derogatory usage as a means of control.
So, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s use of the “Pussy Wagon” (a decided masculine and misogynist symbol in the “Kill Bill” movie,) as a means of a getaway car is a revisionist of its sexist meanings. It becomes their means of escape, their vehicle for freedom. Their use of it challenges its meaning and makes it something ironic, funny, and liberating for Gaga and Beyonce rather than oppressive. It becomes obvious how silly the “Pussy Wagon” is via their usage of it.
9.) Thelma & Louise – Finally, if you didn’t catch it, the movie has many references to the film “Thelma and Louise.” This film was considered the first “female action” flick about two women who run from the law that has wronged them, as well as, a man who attempted to rape Thelma. Louise shoots him to stop him in one scene, and the women then take to the road, on the run, because Louise is convinced they will not get justice for what happened. This is true, even today, where rape victims rarely receive justice. They are demonized as asking to be raped via their past sexual history, their appearance, or their alcohol level. No one ever asks to be sexually assaulted and abused. EVER. Nothing excuses a criminal’s actions against the victim/survivor. But, our culture continues to blame women when crimes are committed against them. It’s the “you made me hit you” argument. This silences women from actually coming forward when they are raped or abused, and even when going to trial, continues to dehumanize and demoralize them.
So, by Gaga and Beyonce referencing this film, they are paying homage to the women in the film, but in some ways, to all women who have refused to be victims of a society that despises them. They are standing up, refusing to be used, and will at any cost, remain free from a controlling world.
10.) Blue Telephone headgear. Ok, it might not be feminist, but it’s cool.
There is so much in this music video, I could probably write another post on more of the symbolism. We’ll see, so stay tuned! Feminism Lady Gaga Style!
Or, I guess this is just some silly pop music video huh? You decide.
This is what Gaga has to say about “Telephone” here.
Posted in Pick Guards - Music Analysis
Tags: American Flag, Americana, Beyonce, Blue Telephone, Consumerism, Contradiction, Crime Scene Tape, Criticism, Dance, Dangerous Women, Death, Empowerment, Female Empowerment, Feminine, Femininity, Feminism, Feminist, Feminist Analysis, Fluid, Flux, Gender, Identity, Intersex, Kill Bill, Lady Gaga, Lesbianism, Male Gaze, Misogyny, Narrative, Oppression, Patriarchy, Poison, Pop, Pop Culture, Pornographic Gaze, Post-Modernism, Prison, Products, Pussy Wagon, Queer, Rape, Rebel, Rebellion, Sexism, Sexual Assault, Sexuality, Social Critique, Soda Can Hair, Stereotypes, Vamp, Women, Women In Music
As some of you may know, I am finishing my master’s thesis on women in music. Specifically, I am looking at women in the music store culture. I’ve been doing a ton of researching, reading, citing, stressing, and have come across many a topic, none of which surprise me about the sexism, misogyny, and general slammin’ of women in the music biz.
I have also thought of some topic ideas for future research and thought the following idea would be interesting: a research project about “Power Ballads.” You know, “Monster Ballads,” those lighter-waving, big, emotional, heartbreak songs of the hair band era. I’m listening to them right now on my favorite hair band internet radio station. Apparently, heaven isn’t too far away…
Ballads are not new by any means, but that rocking, big guitar solo, falling-to-the-floor-in-agony, power ballad is its own special creature. Which makes one wonder what purpose it serves, from a cultural/rhetorical/gender script standpoint.
Perhaps they were just a revision of the traveling troubadour singing songs about his lady-love. Perhaps they were a clever marketing ploy to get more women into hair/glam/metal music. Or, maybe from what I know about gender, power, and music, “power ballads” represent an attempt to woo and keep female listeners in the symbolically abusive relationship that is the masculine fantasy of “cock rock.”
Think about it. Every hair band worth their spandex had at least one power ballad on their albums, if not more. And these hair bands were aqua-net deep in performing white-heterosexual-macho-masculinity to the max. The thrusting on stage, the stroking of the microphone, and the masturbating guitar solos (just look at the faces of the lead guitar solo players and you’ll know what I’m talking about.) And the lyrics….oh the lyrics! Nothing but sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but mostly about sex. Women in these lyrics are typically objectified, simplified, and talked about as “nothing but a good time.” The band goes from girl to girl, just like from town to town, notching their conquests on their black studded belts. Some songs that display this hypersexual masculinity include:
Seventeen – Winger
Cherry Pie – Warrant
Lick It Up – KISS
Sticky Sweet – Motley Crue
Let Me Put My Love Into You – AC/DC
Hot For Teacher – Van Halen
Slide It In – Whitesnake
Talk Dirty to Me – Poison
Rag Doll – Aerosmith
- Cat Scratch Fever – Ted Nugent
- Rock You Like A Hurricane- Scorpions
- Lay Your Hands On Me – Bon Jovi
- Pour Some Sugar on Me – Def Leppard
- Once Bitten, Twice Shy – Great White
- Smooth Up In Ya – Bullet Boys
- and I could keep going…
Ha, I’ve seen over half of these bands live. Now, nothing wrong with sexuality. Part of what makes rock & roll fun is sexuality, that connection and that force is musical poetry. But the sexuality depicted here is all about the man getting his jollys off at the expense of the disposable vagina (or mouth in some cases.) It is about only one person’s sexuality (the man’s.) If not directly, or explicitly, the songs follow a standard narrative: man needs sex, women = fix. The woman wants it bad, the guys want it bad, and the dudes are all willing and able. Even if women are talked about as “wanting it” look at how it is referenced. It ends up not satisfying their needs, but the man’s ego that he’s a sex god. Typical male fantasy, all women want you all the time and can never get enough.
This is what various scholars in music have described as “cock rock.”
The music is just straight sex. The rhythm drives, insisting you go along, the verse-chorus make up is the foreplay arousing you to the solo (climax), then release and prompt after-sex cigarette. The vocals are demanding and haughty. The lyrics are arrogant, assertive, and aggressive. Virtuosity here is key, by commanding your “instrument” be it the guitar or vocals. This display shows your virility, that you’re in control, that you’re “master of your domain,” hence a real man. These things are all understood in our culture as masculine (Leonard, 2007; Bock, 2008; Tringali, 2005; Walser, 1993; Firth & McRobbie, 1990). This masculinity is at the expense of female participation in this scene as anything but groupies, fans, or wives (How convenient! Those who are sexually available.)
Being assertive, arrogant, sexually initiative, and sexually entitled to sexual gratification at any time, are all things that our culture associates with heterosexual masculinity. In a way, you could say that the women in these songs (symbolically, though I am sure in some cases literally) are in an abusive relationships with cock rockers. They don’t have their own needs and desires (outside of pleasing men 24/7 that is), let along, creativity, autonomy, and individuality to do what they want. So, my hypothesis, enter the “power ballad” the symbolic “box of chocolates and dozen roses” apology for being a rock & roll douchebag.
Think about it. You have all of these songs about womanizing, partying, and being a general player. At some point, a woman is going to get tired of that (even those imaginary ones.) So, insert power ballad, and boom! “I’m sorry baby for all the wrong I’ve done, I really love you not those other girls, please come back, I’m really not a bad guy…..” ect. Or “Baby, I’m hurting soo bad, I know things are tough, but I need you to fix it, you’re the only one who can save me…” ect. It’s the classic honeymoon phase of an abusive relationship cycle! As soon as the woman aqueissnes to your faux remorse, back to the strip joint!
As in real life abusive relationships, the abuse happens, they apologize, the honeymoon phase, then right back to abuse. It is this vicious cycle that many often do not realize they are in, because of those instances of the abusive partner being nice and “sorry.”
So, normally, cock rock’s status quo is: man has sex drive = woman fix it. In the power ballad: man done wrong/man hurt = woman fix it. Basically, in no matter what instance, women exist to fix man’s problems. A women’s place in this masculine rock culture remains a subordinate, second-class, and sexually degraded one.
That is why so many female rockers purposefully challenged this status quo. Women either turned the tables and made their sexual needs important, reversed the masculine gaze (ironic mimicry) on their bodies to show that they weren’t pieces of meat but in control, satirically sang about typical sex roles, and had a riot grrrl music movement demanding that they be taken seriously as musicians and not be seen as “nothing but a good time.”
But in Hair Band Land, the power ballad symbolically is a tool to control any female deviation from the norm. Thus, keeping women in their place to their soul’s demise.
Vixen was right…Love is a Killer.
Pat Benatar – Sex as a Weapon
Tina Turner – Typical Male
Madonna – Express Yourself
Girlschool – Don’t Call It Love
Lighter photo by lordferguson via flickr.
For more info on “cock rock” and masculine rock culture:
Bock, J. (2008). Riot Grrrl: A Feminist Re-Interpretation of the Punk Narrative. Saaebrucken: VDM Verlag Dr. Muller Aktiengesekkschaft & Co. KG.
Firth, S., & McRobbie, A. (1990). Rock and Sexuality. In S. Firth, & A. Goodwin, On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word (pp. 371-389). New York: Pantheon Books.
Leonard, M. (2007). Gender in the Music Industry: Rock, Discourse, and Girl Power. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Tringali, J. (2005). Love Guns, Tight Pants, and Big Sticks – Who Put The Cock in Rock? Retrieved February 24, 2010, from Bitch Magazine: http://bitchmagazine.org/article/love-guns.
Walser, R. (1993) Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.
Posted in Pick Guards - Music Analysis
Tags: 70s, 80s, Abuse, Ballads, Cock Rock, Don't Call It Love, Express Yourself, Feminism, Gender, Girlschool, Glam, Hair Bands, Hair Metal, Love, Love Is A Killer, Madonna, Male Gaze, Masculinity, Metal, Music, Music Industry, Pat Benatar, Power Ballads, Research, Rock, Sex, Sex as a Weapon, Sexuality, Tina Turner, Typical Male, Vixen, Women In Music