Monday, May 21, 2012

A Cranky Culture Moment...

I was watching VH1's 100 Best Songs of the 90s on Friday... it was the last day we were going to have cable in our house, so I was trying to live it up. Plus, and this comes as zero shock to those who have been charting my television taste, I have a huge soft spot for all VH1 music lists and/or decade round ups. So after a long day of application status hunting, I was happy to unplug with some 90s nostalgia.

As I watched, I could not help but notice a striking thematic difference in one group of songs, in contrast to songs from contemporary artists - songs from women were sooo different back in the 90s! Not only the themes, but also the presentation and "attitude" of the video makers towards them. The songs were often love songs ("Linger" and "Vision of Love"), but just as often, they were kiss-offs ("Never Said" and "You Oughtta Know"), about self discovery ("Bitch") or self-assertion in a relationship ("Wannabe" and "Say My Name"), having fun ("All I Wanna Do" and "Vogue"), message songs ("Waterfalls" and "Who Will Save Your Soul?")  or about something else altogether ("One of Us" and "The Rain"). The women were presented as attractive, true, but it wasn't a uniformly sexualized beauty. Often, the women are shot as pieces of art, dramatic clothes and lots of close ups on their faces. Some women were pudgy or had crooked teeth or weird noses- they didn't look like airbrushed confections. I saw cellulite - I swear. It was there. I don't see the 90s as a zenith of the feminine ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but given my usual immersion in current music video imagery and thematic elements of today's songs, it was a jarring contrast.

I am realizing that in middle school, I was on the cusp of what I see as a very negative trend in music. "Baby One More Time" was on this list, as well, and my totally biased opinion is that this is the song that brought us to where we are now - the idealized woman as one who is aware of and self-exploits her sexuality to gain control over men. I had kind of forgotten that it wasn't always this way... When I was in early middle school, we had Lilith Fair. We had the Cranberries, Paula Cole, Hole, Liz Phair, and Sarah McLaughlin... I don't want to hold them up as the gold standard of femininity or anything. I mean, they seemed like they might kick some random dude in balls and rip off their bra to burn at any time. Whatever. But what I would submit is that their brand of female empowerment was far less troubling than what is the prevalent image of being an independent woman means in popular music these days.

The idea now being sold is that empowerment is controlling the male gaze puts the power back in your hands and makes you a strong woman. False. This makes you a woman who is objectifying herself on her own terms. It makes you a woman who is still defining herself in sexual terms judged by men. Say what you want about the bra-burners, but at least their flavor of empowerment is about dealing with yourself on your own terms. It is love and sexuality coming from your own preferences and desires, rather than what is most likely to illicit a socially pre-conditioned positive response.

You can certainly take that idea too far and it turns into a kind of smug selfishness that takes no consideration of others into account. Then again, the whole blatant sexuality bit is manipulating others to make yourself feel powerful, so that's not too much better. Either extreme is problematic in a distinctive way. However, all things considered, I would rather have girls thinking that they can define for themselves what makes them special rather than trying to conform to a specific type in order to get positive feedback from someone who isn't looking at them as a full person.

Anyways, that was my small feminist/what's-the-matter-with-kids-these-days rant...

Do you think that music from female artists is more or less positive today than it was 15 years ago? 

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