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Madonna on Ageism


“Not only does society suffer from racism and sexism but it also suffers from ageism. Once you reach a certain age you’re not allowed to be adventurous, you’re not allowed to be sexual. I mean, is there a rule? Are you supposed to just die?”

via About, photo via Madonna.

Female Musicians and News (Un)Coverage


So when do female artists get news coverage?

That is a question I have been pondering over the past month. I use a news feed reader to syndicate various current  music magazines and websites such a Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork, Exclaim, NPR Music, BBC Music, Blender, Vibe, Venus, as well as, a few smaller ones, and a local Seattle, WA source or two (75 total feeds, 37 different sources.) I then filter out the women in music news for Jukebox Heroines. But, as I have noticed when I scan the headlines, female artists seem to get press for things that have nothing to do with their musicianship. Shocker! Wanting to actually see how poorly music outlets cover female musicians, I decided to do an informal survey.

So, from December 1, 2010 (midnight) to January 7, 2011 (midnight), I cataloged the women in music headlines from my feed reader. “Women in music” articles where articles that mentioned a female artist, an all-female band, musical group with at least one female member, or something specific relating to women in music, such as gender imbalances, women on the top charts, ect, in the article headline. But what I wanted more specifically to find out is when they are covered, are they talked about as musicians in terms of their musicianship, or other things not related to their profession?

Musicianship here will be defined as: Information about touring, music creation, chart success, new music/albums,  music videos, concert footage, personal interviews, collaborations, and/or events. These are the things you expect to read about a musician in a music magazine.

I noted how many article headlines mentioned female artists or bands. Once I had this data, I looked for patterns in news coverage. The patterns fellow into the following categories:

Musicianship, Appearance/Sexuality, Babies!, Relationships, Emotions, and Miscellaneous Non-Music Related Activities

Here are the numbers:

  • Total news feeds – 75 (37 different sources)
  • Total music articles in my feed – 5,318
  • Total “women in music” articles –358
  • Total articles on musicianship –224
  • Total articles not on musicianship –134
  • Total days of the study – 38
  • Average “women in music” news article per day – 9.4
  • Average “women in music” article relating to musicianship – 5.9
  • Average “women in music” article per source per day – .25
  • Average musicianship article per source per day – .16

News about female artists accounted for 6.7% of all music articles in the feeds. News that was actually about female artists’ musicianship was 4.2%.

I then broke down the articles that did not have to do with musicianship into the following categories. The number of articles per category are listed below.

  • Appearance/Sexuality – 19
  • Babies! – 6*
  • Relationships – 28
  • Emotions – 5
  • Health/Death – 21**
  • Misc. Non-Music Related Activities – 55

So, to sum. Women were 6.7% of all total music articles from Dec. 1-Jan.7. and 4.2% of all articles actually about their musicianship.

Out of those articles that mentioned women, 62.6% actually discussed news that was about the artist as a musician and not other endeavors personal or professional. The other 37.4% did not mention the artists’ musicianship.

Female artists who were not covered as artists were talked about in relation to their relationship/marital status 20.9% of the time, pregnancy/children 4.5%, their looks 14.2%, their feelings/emotional outbursts 3.7%, Health or Death 15.7%, and general non-music related activities such as social or political actions, legal issues, finances, gossip  41.0% of the time.

* Six articles in this category were about Mariah Carey’s twins.
** Two news topics (Aretha Franklin’s cancer and the death of Teena Marie) accounted for all of the Health category.

Music sources reported on women in music an average of less than 1 article per day over research period.

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Gender & the “voice” of a Song – Part 1


I had a strange realization a few days ago. Ok, maybe it wasn’t a strange “ah ha!” moment, but it was one that made more sense now that I am now older, wiser, hipper, (ha!) and have plenty of knowledge (and experience) regarding gender and music.

In case you don’t know, I had my own all-female rock and roll band in high school. We were just like the Runaways, the Y2K version anyway, and tore it up as best we could mingling our teenage angst with the mold in my mom’s basement. Plus, I am sure the fumes from our artfully spray-painted cinder block walls helped to fuel our hormonal  creativity.

This band was my dream band, and  since it’s end, I have never been able to quite match the fun and friendship we had. Even though it didn’t end the best note, (musical pun) I have plenty of fond memories, and isn’t that really all you can ask for?

Anyways, back to my realization. Even though were were an all-female band, we mostly covered songs by male artists/bands. We belted out the best of Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Tom Petty, and Bryan Adams. However we did rock out to a few tunes such as “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar, “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways, “Manic Monday” by the Bangles, and “Papa Don’t Preach” (Kelly Osbourne style) by Madonna.

My “ohh” moment came a few days ago. I was listening to  some of our old tracks, and I realized that when we covered certain man-band songs, we changed the gendered pronouns.  Now, that doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface right? Since we were an all-girl band, it made sense to change the pronouns that all-male bands used.

But now I realize, it was more than that.

We weren’t just switching them because we were a “chic band,” but we were changing them to maintain a heterosexual song script.  The “voice” of the song in this case was the gendered narrative, not necessarily the physical voice of the singer(s). We didn’t do this for every song of course, only the ones about relationships and/or sexual scenarios.  If we didn’t change the “shes” and “hers” in the song, (sometimes “baby” and “darlin'” too) the song’s meaning changed. What is the result of this switch?  The underlying heteronormativity of the song remained intact. What’s that you say? It’s a term that means that the “default” or “assumed” sexual orientation is heterosexual, and it is made to appear normal, natural, and desired. Leaving the pronouns the way they were would have signaled a different sexual story (to some of these highly sexual songs) and that disrupts the status quo, if you will.

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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?
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