Don’t you dare let it turn you on! – Wrestling with female performances

Something is wrong with feminism in the USA, at least when it comes to pop music: female superstars who revel in posing erotically in hit videos are regarded as the epitome of the self-confident, emancipated woman. Thank goodness there are female artists who propagate other images of womanhood. The most fascinating come from Europe.

Recently, the British singer Florence Welch was at the top of the US charts with her band The Machine and the album “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”. What’s remarkable about that isn’t so much the music, which quite conventionally combines folk, soul, indie-, synth- and stadium rock to make truly catchy tunes. No, what’s remarkable are the videos that accompany the songs. Again and again, they show the singer – pale, without make-up and in street clothes – wrestling, and not just with men: There is embracing, shoving, hitting and struggling, and often the female protagonist – like in the hit “Ship to Wreck” – literally stands in her own way or runs away from herself. “Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch? Did I build this ship to wreck?”, the lyrics ask programmatically. Wrecking something, messing up, derailing a figurative train – Florence Welch likes to show women on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Certainly unintentionally, but in a very incisive way, she has thus set an exciting counterpoint in the American charts in particular: to the glossy videos of superstars like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus – and to the hype surrounding the emancipatory message that these videos supposedly convey. “I think I’m one of the greatest feminists in the world,” explained Miley Cyrus in a BBC interview one and a half years ago – even though in her videos she poses seductively in underwear or sometimes swings completely naked on a wrecking ball and licks steel parts. Her reasoning: “I show women that they don’t need to be afraid of anything”. With her show-stopping public performances, which included a very embarrassing “scandalous” appearance at the MTV Awards, the young lady may have emancipated herself from the clean teen star image she had established as Hannah Montana in the Disney series of the same name. But this has nothing to do with feminism as most people understand it.

Nicki Minaj is even more sexually aggressive. Even in German media publications which aren’t exactly mainstream, the flamboyant rapper is celebrated as a true feminist – because she breaks taboos, crosses boundaries and projects a self-confident “bad bitch” image. Stephan Szillus in the German newspaper “taz”: “When it comes to her image, the New Yorker skilfully plays with sexual identities and an ironically broken ghetto chic. With her crazy styling, various alter egos, and wild performances, the 31-year-old is actually something of a role model.” Sure, Nicki Minaj may treat samples without respect, present herself in her rap as a dominant, proud “slut” and tell adult stories about drug use and promiscuous sex with shady guys. But the videos about these issues always focus on Nicki Minaj’s body – and especially on her conspicuous backside. Self-confidence thus means showcasing one’s own physical assets in every erotic pose that you can think of. Celebrating the fact that the man is not allowed to touch her in the “lap dance” in the video for “Anaconda” as a feminist statement, as some critics do, seems far-fetched – after all, that is also one of the rules of the game in the relevant bars of every red light district. For the artist, it’s all about turning on and turnover.

Just how contradictory Ms. Minaj’s messages ultimately are can be seen when briefly comparing the video on “Anaconda” with the video on “Lookin Ass”: In the former, the derogatory remark about women with “fat asses” from another rap song is taken up and reinterpreted into a positive statement of admiration from a man’s perspective, as in: Look at this great ass, it makes every anaconda (i.e. the male member) wild. So the gaze is deliberately directed to Minaj’s most conspicuous body part and to the “hot” background dancers twerking through the video with her, which, for “Missy Magazine”, makes “Anaconda” the feminist anthem, i.e. “the big-butt-empowerment anthem of the year”. But in the video for “Lookin Ass” it is precisely this lecherous look, symbolised by a pair of male eyes, which is destroyed again with endless machine gun salvos – of course only after the artist’s curvy body, dressed seductively in lace underwear, has been shown for several minutes in slow motion. The strange message: “Hey, I’m only expressing my self-determined sexuality here – don’t you dare let it turn you on!”

R&B queen Beyoncé, on the other hand, is celebrated as the crowd-compatible epitome of the feminist pop star. What makes her an exception in the eyes of many music critics: She is living in a stable relationship with her colleague Jay-Z, is the boss of her own company, peppers her programme with songs about female self-empowerment, sometimes quotes feminists (like the Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the song “Flawless”), supports educational programmes for women with her charity work and also showcases a self-determined sexuality – in short: She is the perfect emancipated combination of wife, artist, boss and sex goddess.

Beyoncé’s success is actually based on a merciless performance principle that has a lot to do with self-discipline and self-denial – Beyoncé has long been something like the Heidi Klum of Soul. What she exemplifies here seems like a superhuman effort and is unlikely to serve as a role model for the young woman next door – because this perpetual balancing act between career, family, and sexual desire, presented with perfect make-up, is hardly attainable in the real world. In addition, Beyoncé likes to dutifully explain that she does everything she can to “please” her husband, and her alleged “self-determined sexuality” is also highlighted in video images that are reminiscent of, of all things, red light district bar scenes and soft porn. You could add Shakira and Rihanna to this list, two US superstars who also control their own careers. They deserve great respect for that, really. But with regard to their videos at least, this independence mainly seems to mean that these days they can decide to let themselves be portrayed as sex objects – just think about the clip “Can’t Remember to Forget You” that Shakira and Rihanna released together, and which is also full of lesbian vibes.

Don’t get me wrong: This is not about being prudish or anti-sex. A self-determined and fulfilling sexuality is certainly desirable for every human being, and erotic music clips are definitely also beautiful to look at – if you are even interested in them. But one wonders why the ample exploitation of voyeuristic impulses is so aggressively sold as emancipation. Why the spin doctors are peddling this message to the music industry – and why certain media outlets are parroting it. In Europe all this stuff seems less relevant. Of course, here young female singers are also made to seem as appealing and sexy as possible. But you’ll mostly look in vain for American-style erotic performance shows. And: Besides Florence & The Machine, there are other interesting female artists who project completely different, more humdrum, darker images of womanhood in their clips. For example, the newcomer rock band “fon” from Leipzig. Their black-and-white video clip for the song “YMMB – You Make Me Break” shows singer Katharina Helmke naked, smeared with earth and paint, wrestling with another naked man. The initial tenderness turns into a brutal fight, a rape is implied. Then the female protagonist grabs a boulder and strikes it again and again. It’s unclear if this revenge is really carried out or if it remains a fantasy. It is a video that moves you without catering to any voyeurism – here, nudity stands for vulnerability.

The mistress of performing femininity in pop videos, however, is and remains Roísín Murphy from Ireland. Since 2004, the former singer of the duo Moloko (biggest hit: “Sing It Back”) has been releasing music clips for her Electronica-influenced solo albums in which she plays diverse female roles, similar to the photo artist Cindy Sherman. In contrast, Nicky Minaj’s flashy costume changes look like a children’s carnival party. The recently released CD “Hairless Toys” is accompanied by a few videos which Murphy herself directed. In “Exploitation”, for example, she plays a pill-addicted theatre actress, in “Evil Eyes” a frustrated wife and mother who, after various rebellious acts, falls into a deep depression. Other trademarks of Murphy videos are absurdly uncomfortable costumes and choreographies that contain strange elements of movement and are danced in a provocatively careless way. All of this undermines the perfectionism, glamour, and artificial sex appeal of leading pop industrial productions.

Against this backdrop it is interesting to note that Kiki Allgeier’s documentary “See me disappear” about the death of the anorexic model Isabelle Caro has recently been shown in movie theatres. These are all counter-images to the polished performances of female superstars in the USA. And so it’s no wonder that one of the most flagrant “women’s videos” that has recently been released is also from the USA. It’s called “Tiff”, was made by the band project Poliça from Minneapolis and describes, according to singer Channy Leaneagh, “a woman who is her own worst enemy”. And that is a literal description: The female singer/protagonist is sitting tied up in an underground dungeon and is being beaten to a pulp by her tormentor – who is herself. Repulsive, bloody, hardly bearable to watch.

None of these female artists describe themselves as being feminists. After all, it would be a disaster if contemporary feminism amounted to nothing more than showcasing women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But it’s also a good thing that there are other versions of womanhood as alternatives to the squeaky-clean female superstar pin-ups – alternatives that can be positively inspiring. The best example is the American singer, dancer, and label operator Janelle Monáe: Without any kind of erotic hoo-ha, she captivates her audience with an incredible musical spectrum from soul to rock, from Latin to electronics, with fantastic dance videos (“Tightrope”, “Q.U.E.E.N”) and with (in a positive way) crazy album concepts that revolve around an android called Cindi Mayweather. We wish America would produce more of this kind of female pop artist.

Addendum February 2020: A current essay on this topic would, of course, have to mention Billie Eilish, an American singer who – alongside Poliça – delights in defying “classical” female roles und ironically attacking the rock and rap machismo.