The message and the music: why applauding any song with a feminist sentiment is dangerous
(A piece written in December 2013)
As 2014 beckons and 2013’s musical output is assessed, once again the red carpet is rolled out for Beyoncé, as her self-titled album is declared the fastest-selling ever to hit iTunes and achieves sales of over 800,000 in just three days.
Queen Bey’s triumphant return, particularly her new songs which attack sexism and objectification such as Pretty Hurts and Flawless, have caused delight from many pro-female corners of the press, with some commentators, such as the New Statesman’s Sarah Ditum, hailing her contribution as part of a “revolutionary year for women in pop” and for “fists-up feminism.”
Ditum also includes Britney Spear’s Work Bitch, Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here and Katy Perry’s Roar, as other examples of this revolutionary sound, along with Haim, Janelle Monae and Neko Case, among others.
“Maybe men just aren’t good at music anymore,” she suggests, as she praises these women whose sharp, feel-good lyrics have supposedly allowed for “a good year for feminists on the dance floor.”
But why should we applaud music simply because it has a phoney feminist, pro-women sentiment, and what’s wrong with all the female artists writing music which has nothing to do with working hard, and roaring, but is more along the lines of I’m-utterly-dependent-on-a-man-and-I-can’t-live-without-him? (And, by the way, men certainly have been good at making music in 2013, fear not. Kanye West, The Arctic Monkeys, James Blake, David Bowie…the list goes on.)
Women singing about being miserable, downtrodden and broken-hearted isn’t a bad thing. By only creating a retrospective list celebrating women who sing empowering, positive songs, we risk accusing any female artist who chooses not to sing about how marvellously independent she is as somehow not fulfilling her duty.
Music then becomes a vehicle for an ideology or an agenda, even if it is a well-meaning one. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore whether the music is any good. As long as it speaks about women in a positive way, it seems there is automatic cause for celebration. That’s not what music should be about.
We forget that music, when written by the individual behind the performance, is simply a way of expressing an emotion. That emotion can certainly be feisty independence, but it doesn’t mean it has to be, and songs and artists shouldn’t be left off the list because they don’t fit this dubious criteria.
One of the best new female artists to emerge in recent years has been, undoubtedly, Lana Del Rey. Rey’s lyrics are the epitome of dependence; the antithesis of Beyoncé’s hugely popular Single Ladies anthem model. From this year’s Oscar-nominated Young and Beautiful, to her melancholy Summertime Sadness, her songs ooze reckless abandon, Lolita-esque vulnerability, Hollywood glamour and romance and above all, damaging devotion. Men leave her; she cries a lot, she launches herself into another doomed romance, and so on for most of her electric debut album. It’s a fabulously-crafted theatrical image, brand and sound that Rey has pulled off, and it has nothing at all to do with feminism.
Take her song Off to the Races, in which Rey croons about being “Wasted, facing time again at Rikers Island and I won’t get out / Because I’m crazy, baby, I need you to come here and save me / I’m your little scarlet starlet / Singin’ in the garden / Kiss me on my open mouth.” She’s hardly the empowered woman, but more appealing than Perry telling us we’re about to hear her roar.
Rey follows in the footsteps of all female recording artists, and male artists, who have ever decided to write about feeling utterly miserable. Amy Winehouse’s critically-acclaimed and hugely popular album Back to Black included songs based on her troubled relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, often pining after him from a pit of emotional despair.
Dusty Springfield sang about little else. Songs such as I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten, I Only Want To Be With You and I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself are probably some of the most famous and well-loved songs of the last century, and yet, had they been released this year, would there be a big fat cross against them, because they do not adhere to this new, revolutionary sound championed by Beyoncé and the rest?
Women can still be revolutionary in music by writing, creating and performing songs which are not always about single ladies, independent women and paying your bills. It’s better to listen to good music about broken-hearted, miserable women than listen to bad music about how you better work hard, bitch, and the pressures of the beauty industry, which claim to be in some way feminist.
Music should be judged purely on its own merits. We should ignore any sort of notion that female artists whose songs appear to attack sexism and champion independence automatically makes them worth a listen – it doesn’t necessarily. The industry simply needs great female musicians singing about whatever the hell they want to, and we should be wary of judging them based on whether or not they champion the feminist cause. This only serves to undermine women’s contribution to music.