On Music Videos: Some 'Bitches' Have It Harder Out Here Than Others




Lily Allen is right. It’s Hard Out Here for us ‘bitches’. The pop star-turned vintage shop owner- turned pop star (keep up!) has just released a single that openly mocks the markedly sexualised female figure currently dominating mainstream pop culture. The lyrics and the video are tongue-in-cheek and quite funny, showcasing myriad fun-poking frivolities: girls twerking and jiggling about haphazardly, girls in pubis-skimming leather pants and girls who are poked, prodded and encouraged to suck off phallic fruits. She has made a critical statement and that statement needed to be made the mainstream arena, and because of her established success in the industry, that statement will be seen by millions. Yet I can’t help but feel that Lily has addressed a broad issue that is nearly always addressed too broadly. 

I have always admired Lily Allen. When she burst into my eyes and ears back in 2006 with her Nike Airs-meets-prom queen getup and witty lyrical musings, she felt refreshingly real. She has always overtly expressed her opinions within what is a typically monotonous discourse. But when you take a look at the leading women in pop such Gaga, Cyrus, Rihanna, Minaj and Beyonce, it's not difficult to see an inherent racism in the industry which, tediously, Allen only exacerbates in her new video. As Ellie Mae O’Hagan points out in her recent article for the Guardian, “Allen attempts to mock the way black women are treated as nothing more than sexual objects in music videos – yet she also posits herself as separate from the black women that feature in hers”. On the one hand, she acknowledges a race problem but on the other, she is ultimately detached from the problem, behaving as the voyeur who slaps the black backing dancers’ wiggling bums, paws at their flesh (Miley VMA performance style) and leaves them to it at the end.

Perhaps she should have spelt out ‘Lily Allen has a [white] baggy pussy’ with the balloons.

Two weeks ago, many of us frittered away part of our Sunday evenings watching – eyes wide – ‘Queen of Monsters’ Lady Gaga throwing herself about the place in a rather bizarre and unclothed fashion. Never one to shy away bashfully, this particular performance showed Gaga wriggling, worm-like, around the stage wearing nothing but nude underwear (Miley’s perhaps?) and some pragmatically placed shells. The performance received over 100 complaints, with parents around Britain flapping in outrage about the terrible example she had set for their pop consuming cherubs. 

But what, ultimately, is the difference between Gaga’s almost nude performance and Rihanna’s similar display on the show in 2010? What’s really different about Gaga wailing that we can 'do what we want' with her body and Beyoncé once declaring that tonight she is all ours and she’ll be our 'naughty girl' (amongst a torrent of similarly indicative lyrics)? It's time we start looking at why some women get more grief than others in this problematic area. The race issue needs to weightily enter the debate. 

I currently yawn at the mere mention of Miley Cyrus. But for all of her controversial (read: increasingly predictable), hammer guzzling mishaps, the unimpeachable Disney star gone awry made a thought-provoking point in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine:

“I didn't really realise it, but people are still racist. It's kind of insane.”

Let me quickly refer you for a moment to Rihanna’s latest video for Pour it Up. Following a stream of flesh-feasting, hyper sexualised music videos, Rihanna’s latest visual endeavour features her, diamond clad, excessively gyrating all over a golden throne (a prop, though not a move, that was borrowed by David Cameron this week). A weighty Chanel trinket hangs resolutely over her nether regions like a cliché - an outrageous indicator of her sexual worth. She is the queen of popular culture, queen of the erogenous female musicians employing their arse cheeks to sell their ‘sound’. 

But Rihanna is allowed to do this. Rihanna is entitled, even expected to. Her exposed body parts sprawl Twitter and Instagram feeds all over the world, and whilst we may remark occasionally that her spliff-smoking, nipple-slipping selfies are “a bit much”, global superstars such as Annie Lennox and Sinead O’Connor are hardly falling over each other to lecture her about shoddy representation of female equality or to warn her about the violating industry taking advantage. Is this simply because she’s more experienced and therefore more aware of her choices than ickle Miley? Probably not, seeing as both Cyrus and Rihanna have been in the business of showing for the best part of a decade.

Miley recreated an iconic and somewhat risqué Lil’ Kim costume from the 1999 VMAs (complete with nipple sequins) this Halloween and it was instantly hailed by OK magazine as “shocking” and “controversial”. Nicki Minaj’s Halloween attire basically consisted of nipple tape and some decorative leather straps, and was playfully awarded the ‘Most-Naked’ costume by the Huffington Post. It seems that these young, female stars are forever trying desperately to out-outrageous each other. I’d like to think it’s a social experiment in which they are all working together to expose the biased media… I’m hazarding a guess that it isn’t. 

Minaj was also said to be ‘out-Mileying’ Miley’ by the Mirror online earlier this week, by twerking alongside a troupe of ‘junk’ shimmying pals in a video posted on Instagram. Confidently dominating the hip hop genre that was long said to be governed by men, yet with an Instagram bio of ‘Its Barbie BITCH!!!’ it’s unsurprising that (in terms of feminism) she divides public opinion. Often hailed as a feminist icon and sometimes as a misogynistic lyric-spouting menace, she certainly doesn’t appear to ‘give a F-U-C-K’. But the media’s reaction to her recent video snippet demonstrates that she is far more entitled to twerk than the likes of Miley Cyrus. As MTV.co.uk points out, Miley will now immediately spring to mind if you think of twerking, but here, Minaj is merely showing Miley’ how it’s done’. 

MOBO Awards’ founder Kanya King said recently in an interview with the Telegraph’s Laura Peacock that twerking is simply “harmless fun”. This may have once been true, but the booty shaking movement has recently garnered superfluous media attention, worldwide controversy and, most importantly, a legitimate stake in pop culture since Miley claimed it for herself. Before the VMAs it was not the same kind of phenomenon. For decades it has been one of many distinctive facets within one of many forms of urban music, gradually becoming more and more popular outside of its own paradigm.

It seems to me that the furore surrounding Miley Cyrus’s twerking bonanza stems just as much from her “whiteness” as her gender. One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of lewd sexuality in lyrics or performances from key figures in urban pop culture. In 2002, Missy Elliot requested that an unknown counterpart ‘go downtown and eat it like a vulture’, Lil’ Kim told us all repeatedly to ‘suck [her] dick’ a couple of years earlier and Nicki Minaj is a more recent ‘pro with them balls’ (apparently). These black female artists are portrayed as strong, sexy powerhouses with an independent, ‘give a fuck’ demeanour. Yet Miley is publicly counselled and reprimanded for her actions. 

Discussion about pop music’s shining stars clearly needs to be re-focused. Addressing the young, female artist solely from an angle of sexual exploitation discounts and eliminates a wider assembly of issues surrounding the industry. We must start questioning and collectively tackling all of the issues such as race, age, size (etc. etc.) rather than blindly accepting many of the binaries that have been rigidly erected for us in popular culture. 

All of these women have unmasked something important. It took Miley foam-fingering herself on stage and shaking her tiny, flesh-coloured underpants to successfully expose popular culture to be racially divisive and the public to be extremely selective partisans. As far as we may have come in society, the notions of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ and their strands within popular culture still stand separate and ‘other’ from one another. “Now that white people are doing it, it seems kind of lame” says Miley of twerking during her Saturday Night Live monologue earlier this month, tactlessly flaunting the division. As Ava Vidal emphasised in her Telegraph piece a couple of days ago: “race matters”, and that includes the way it is portrayed in music videos. It’s time we started investigating its role within gender stereotyping, and, whether you like the Lily Allen video or not, I'm glad that the discussion surrounding it is starting to take steps towards doing that. When an artist is bold enough to blur lines within pop culture, the world sits up and remarks, loudly. I suppose we should be thankful that at least this time, those lines have nothing to do with Robin sodding Thicke.'

- LM