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Female Narratives in the Music Industry by Avery Johnson

Thursday, December 05, 2013

What is it that women must do to get their fifteen minutes of fame in the music industry? Although some are able to find loopholes, many of them find that they are successful when they follow the advice of the men who are in power over them. Based on what has gained media attention in the past, women must present themselves in a way that exploits their sexuality and appeals to men. In music, a singer is told that these types of performances will help her break away from outdated values and gain a wider adult audience, but that is not what happens. When the musicians are exploited in this way, they are not gaining the respect of audiences for being free with their bodies or taking risks, but exposing themselves to objectification and playing into destructive narratives.

Many female artists have been led to believe that their behavior is freeing them, all while they have been caught in the trap of the men who are telling them this. Their liberation looks more like bondage. It is not that women should live in fear of exposing their ankles or go back to Victorian ideals, but the behaviors that they have been conditioned to perform go against what they have named as a purpose. As a result, the behavior that is the new norm has created a binding narrative that forces women to play into the distorted ideals in place. They do not gain respect, but become pawns that play into false expectations.

The most current example of this playing out is Miley Cyrus and her recent performance at the VMAs. She has gained media attention for her behavior, but at what expense? Not only has she alienated younger audiences, but she has become a part of the narratives that she grew up exposed to. She was shown that exploiting herself in this way is what she needs to do in order to be successful in popular music. Because she was raised in a family that was immersed in the music industry, she has been conditioned to act this way. She is not the first, but only the most recent in a long history. We only have to look back at Britney Spears and Katy Perry to find the legacy that Miley has been indoctrinated into.

One singer who has gained popularity in a different way is Taylor Swift. She became popular at the same time as Miley Cyrus, but chose to present herself as the good girl. She does not behave in a way that is similar to Miley, but maintains a young audience by attaching herself to a narrative that is unlike the other, but still limiting and demeaning. Taylor has a little more control of her image because she writes her own songs, but she has a role to play. The script that Miley has picked up is only part of the dichotomy that women in music are forced to chose between. Each lies on different extremes, but they are both roles that prove to be restricting because they have to stay within the boundaries that have been put in place. Like Miley, Taylor has made choices about how she wants to present herself, though they are different.

Though both of these women chose different paths, they were trained in similar ways. They became popular about the same time in an institution known for the code that it creates for those involved. They choose people young to be a part of the music industry, but because they are young when they begin, they are more easily conditioned to fit certain roles. Once Disney is finished with them, the regular press takes over. They watch and wait expectantly for the young artists to come of age and then begin to interpret their behaviors as rebellion. Some, like Taylor Swift, choose to stick to what they were originally taught and do not break away from their image, but others have expected the reactions of the press for so long that they play along for the exposure. Miley had seen what had happened to other former Disney-made musicians, so she knew what could happen when she emerged from that world. There was a script ready and waiting for her when she turned eighteen. The press encourages these behaviors in young musicians for the sake of a spectacle that they love to hate.

One question that arises in this conversation about the roles of women in music is how Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” comes into recent events. Although Miley has received criticism for her performance at the VMAs, Robin Thicke has come away from it relatively unscathed. What we forget is that he was on stage with her and that he was a participant; we only focus on the part that Miley played in the performance. The fact that he wrote the song and that he was performing the song with her is often overlooked. If we pay attention, we can see that she is copying some of the tactics that he used in his music video. The foam finger that she used on stage was also a prop in the music video, and she acted like the nude, voiceless women from the music video who danced next to the fully clothed male singer, but she changed it by taking part of Robin’s role. Rather than remaining voiceless, she sang some of his lines to him. The same words that he said earlier somehow became worse when she said them. All of this is without even bringing the implications of song itself into consideration.

The lyrics come across blatantly as a situation of rape in many instances. Has anybody asked which lines are being blurred? And how about T.I.’s rap in the song that assumes she wants her ### smacked and hair pulled? In one of the lines, he says, “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ### in two.” This, as well as calling her an animal, is demeaning. It is not clear why Robin thinks that being with a “square” who treats her with respect is a bad thing either. What this presents us with is a double standard within the industry and culture of music. The press has completely overlooked his participation while blaming Miley for what happened. They chose to focus on Miley, who was acting out the lyrics, rather than Robin who wrote them and acted them out with her. While Robin Thicke gets away with making women disposable sexual objects, Miley Cyrus gets criticized for playing along.

These are only a few examples of the double standards and female objectification that feminists have been trying to eradicate for so long that still lingers within our culture. These women have been exposed to an industry that tells them to act in a certain way, and it is up to them to decide how to respond. They can either do what the men in power tell them to in order to get attention from audiences, or they can try to go against the grain, running the risk of moving into obscurity. Unfortunately, the roles that are placed on these women will not change until men like Robin Thicke and those in power change.

Meanwhile, we criticize those who have been conditioned to perform these behaviors and continue to pay more attention to those who act in certain ways. This reinforces what they have been told and perpetuates the cycle that connects success in music to performance techniques. What we are forced to acknowledge in these situations is that despite feminist movements, we still do not know how to present female musicians.

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