I have started working on the preparation of the Cultural Studies course that I am teaching next semester, and I am thinking these days about women in pop and rock (again, after a long time). About ten days ago the Eurovision song contest took place in Rotterdam, and like half the planet I was fascinated by the Italian winners, rock band Måneskin. However, my fascination was caused not only by their obvious talent and the appeal of frontman Damiano David, but also by the contrast between bass player Victoria de Angelis and the other women in the contest. That contrast is today my focus, together with the thoughts prompted by my reading of Kristin J. Lieb’s Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars (2018, second edition).
I must thank my wonderful student Andrea Delgado López for having rekindled my interest in music, which I lost to a combination of things, one of them being my sudden inability to work with the music on when I hit 40 or thereabouts. Andrea has just finished an excellent BA dissertation on Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America”, and has allowed me to embark her on the project of producing an e-book entirely of her authorship with an analysis of 25 outstanding music videos (available in July). Her list for that project was the reason why I spent a happy day watching 50 music videos as I chronicled here a while ago. Andrea’s perceptive analyses of the videos made me see I need to get back on track and, as they say, there is nothing better than teaching a course to learn, so that’s what I intend to do with the help of my students. The idea is to consider in particular the current position of women in Anglophone pop, and produce an e-book though at this point I’m not sure whether I want it to be critical of what is wrong with women’s presence in that music genre or to seek positive examples. Perhaps both, depending, too, on what students prefer.
So, back to Eurovision. My husband and I are confirmed, though not fanatical Eurofans (we have seen The Story of Fire Saga twice, if that’s an indication of our commitment), and we watched the two semi-finals from beginning to end, feeling as usual disappointed with the elimination of particular favourites (Australia, really?). As we watched, we noticed what we’re calling the legacy of the ‘Eleni school’, after Eleni Foureira, the Cyprus representative in 2018 who did not win but became an instant hit with her song “Fuego”. Eleni’s act consisted of passing as a song of supposed female empowerment –with the memorable lines ‘Oh your love is like wild-wildfire/You got me pelican fly-fly-flyin’”– a song (written by men) about a woman’s sexual availability, a point underscored by her sexy dance routine and revealing outfit. This year many Elenis made it to the final: Elene Tsagrinou, also from Cyprus; Anxhela Peristeri from Albania; Hurricane from Serbia; Stefania from Greece, Natalia Gordienko from Moldova and Efendi from Azerbaijan; perhaps I should add Eden Alene from Israel. That’s seven entries in total and nine sexy ladies (Hurricane are three women) out of twenty-six countries, with no sexy men in sight except for Damiano. The other women who could be seen on stage also followed the sexy script (celebrating curviness, like Senhit from San Marino or Destiny from Malta, or chic, like Barbara Pravi from France), or ignored it (though I loved the backless dark blue dress of the Hoverphonic singer from Belgium). My point, though, is that only Victoria de Angelis was there playing an instrument and not just, basically, exhibiting herself. Apart, now that I recall from Daði og Gagnamagnið keyboard player Árný (though she was not really playing, I think).
So while everyone has gone bananas dissecting Damiano’s presence, his possible consumption of drugs during the show (sternly denied!), and how his upper-middle-class origins make him an ‘inauthentic’ rock idol, I was wondering about Victoria. I don’t use social networks so I have no idea how she presents herself there, and seeing how pretty this very young girl is, I assume there must be tons of comments about her looks, maybe photos she has posted herself. What interested me is that, as I read in an Italian Elle interview, her own idol is Sonic Youth’s bassist, guitarist and vocalist Kim Gordon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Gordon). I’ve never been a Sonic Youth fan but I appreciate Gordon’s enormous contribution, and I’m certainly looking forward to reading her memoir, Girl in a Band (2015). The De Angelis-Gordon connection is simply thrilling and I do hope that more women follow it to bring back the figure of the female rock musician, which seems to me to be a bit lost in these times of Elenis and of WAP rappers. Perhaps rock in general is a bit lost, and Måneskin won the contest out of a certain nostalgia, which could also explain Finland’s nice sixth position with Blind Channel’s Linkin-Park style song “Dark Side”.
As a woman in a rock band and a bass player, then, De Angelis is, so to speak, necessary because we have been engulfed by an absurd pop-music model that is too fixated on the sexy singer. I do not discard that De Angelis will also exploit herself or be herself exploited in that way, but my point is that she is not in Måneskin for her looks but, basically, because this is the band she put together (there are rumours she is the real leader). The proliferation of the Elenis is, on the other hand, an export to other geographical areas of a pernicious American model that is not only exploitative but also cruel with the women who do not fit the mould. Malta’s Destiny or Israel’s Netta Barzilai (the 2018 winner) cannot be said to have really broken away from that model, nor has American Lizzo, because they still insist on associating sexiness with the female pop singer (or rapper), a quality male performers needn’t worry about. If Damiano David wants to look sexy, that’s his choice, not an obligation.
Kristin J. Lieb used to be a journalist and a marketing and business development executive and she has an insiders’ view of how the pop industry works. Denying all forms of feminist empowerment through the self-sexualization of women, she is very clear in her book that the artist who remains fully clothed in music videos has the power, and the one who is seen half naked does not. As she notes, male pop stars belong in the former category, women in the latter. She also mentions how in promotional material the face is emphasized in the men’s case and the whole body in the women’s. And, the rawest thing for me, that the career of female acts is planned taking into account their ageing process –that is to say, if you’re wondering why suddenly a certain female artist is all over the place, this might be because her recording company thinks she will not age well and they want to recap their investment as quickly as possible. Before she is no longer fuckable, excuse my French. As for those who lack the looks (according, of course, to a very narrow view of what the ‘looks’ are) but have real musical talent, the industry still offers them a place –as composers of hit songs for the main acts. The idea that female pop artists are brands is not really new but what I had totally missed is that in the end the music is just a small part of a multifaceted brand promotion which touches on many other products. If you want to know about a first-rank brand and the rest, Leib explains, think of who you’d see promoting a line of clothing or a perfume.
Lieb is, I think, very much reductive for even though there is much in common in the presentation of the artists she considers (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry, Fergie) each has a tale to tell. Beyoncé, it is obvious, controls the game in ways which totally escape poor Spears (legally her father’s ward). She is also quite ambiguous about the role played by Madonna, for Lieb praises her for building a model of self-empowerment –being very harsh on Camille Paglia’s critique of the self-sexualization embedded in it– while at the same time reading almost with sarcasm Fergie’s sexy music videos, which are Madonna’s legacy as well. Lieb also tends to dismiss stars that still have much appeal among their followers and that are much loved outside the USA (like Kylie Minogue) and is not too respectful of the ones that fight hard to come back on her own terms (Fiona Apple). And she positively hates Katy Perry for being a serial cultural appropriator (Lieb loves Miley Cyrus). An added problem is that cultural studies age very quickly. Lieb’s book was issued in a second edition in 2018, but Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa are nowhere to be seen in it.
I do agree with Lieb that self-sexualization is not self-empowerment since you are still pandering to the male gaze but, after coming across De Angelis, my doubt is whether by exposing how the industry works we teach our students to resist the appeal of the current pop stars. Billie Eilish’s new bombshell look and lingerie photoshoot for British Vogue have a far more direct impact on young girls than any crusty discussion by feminist academics of whether she is right to exhibit herself like that (thinking of her fans). I did want to begin my course with the Eilish cover and ask my students how they feel about her sudden abandonment of her signature baggy clothes, but perhaps that will be too prim and counterproductive. Perhaps I should begin instead with a photo of Victoria de Angelis in all her bass-playing glory as an example of other careers women can have in music. And talk about Kim Gordon, still very much active though older, at 66, than Madonna (62), and not botoxed like her. It’s funny how Lieb speaks of the pop star’s obligation to be sexy and young but does not comment on how Madonna’s and J. Lo’s artificial youth conditions older women’s view of themselves even when they do not even care for these singers. The sight of ‘la Lopez’, 51, pole-dancing during the 2020 Superbowl gave me the creeps. Imagine Luis Miguel, also 51, doing that…
Leib blames all this madness on the rise of MTV, when, as the Buggles sang ‘video killed the radio star’. She also highlights digital piracy, the rise of the social media and of the streaming platforms, which require stars to be ubiquitous brands in order to make the money lost when sales of CDs collapsed. The market, of course, is the same for men, but they still get to age naturally and keep their clothes on in all music genres, which shows that gender is shaping music branding indeed. I see, however, no way out of this since the girls who ultimately buy the music and the products endorsed by the female stars (not really the boys, right?) have also opted for an intensive self-sexualization as the young boys look less and less attractive. I hope my students give me some clues about how to break out of this vicious circle.
Enjoy Måneskin, thank you Victoria!
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