Shallow by Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper is indeed a well-crafted song. Although – or because – it is slightly reminiscent of other great songs.
There are songs you hear for the first time – and yet you can’t help feeling that you’ve known them for years. It can be an unpleasant feeling, especially when you recognise that the artist you hear has blatantly ripped off some other song. But it can also be an exciting feeling. For instance when you recognise that what you are hearing is a pleasing reminder of several other great songs – even if you are not able to name them at the first go. Deliberately or just by intuition, the songwriter has managed to assimilate different influences and create a unique piece of music, which nonetheless pays tribute to its sources. And because those influencing sources have come together so gracefully and organically, you are haunted for days by the deliciously tortuous question: Dammit – what does this wonderful piece of music remind me of?
The last time I had this exciting feeling was when I listened to Shallow by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Written by Lady Gaga, Andrew Wyatt, Anthony Rossomando and Mark Ronson and featured in the movie A Star Is Born, Shallow won several prizes, including the Oscar for ”Best Original Song“. The powerful ballad was played very frequently when it was released and there was much speculation about the question whether Cooper and Gaga were having an affair. But that was not the reason why I got the feeling I’d known this song for many years. First of all, there is the mostly successful concept of the ”VIP torch song duet“ – you can’t go wrong with it. And then there is the way the acoustic guitar is played. The song’s mood. Some distinctive chord progressions. Last but not least, there is the melody in the verse parts.
I may be wrong, and you may have a different opinion, but here are the four songs that come to my mind when I listen to Shallow. Once again: I’m NOT addressing the topic of plagiarism – it’s quite the reverse: To filter the most significant and best elements from different (hit) songs and put them together in a touching new musical entity is great song art to me. Extreme was the name of an American band which conquered the world with More Than Words in the early nineties. It is the mood of this reflective love song which may have inspired Shallow – and of course the way the acoustic guitar is being played.
Some of the chord progressions of the Cooper/Gaga song remind me of Only You by Yazoo, especially in the refrain with the following lines: ”All I needed was the love you gave / All I needed for another day / And all I ever knew / Only you“. Among the artists who covered Only You is Selena Gomez, and her calm electronic rendering of the song emphasises its beautiful harmonies perfectly.
As for mood and melody: Something in Shallow also seems to echo the song classic Dust in the Wind by Kansas. It may be far-fetched, but if it’s true it is a much better achievement than the Dust in the Wind cover version someone did for a German tea advertisement in the 1990s.
And here’s the most intense déjà vu I experience when listening to Shallow. I can’t help but think of And Then You Kissed Me, an exceptional song released by the Swedish Band The Cardigans in 2003. And Then You Kissed Me combines the feeling of love with the distasteful topic of domestic violence. Although it reveals some nasty details, it is extremely touching. I don’t know how readers of this post feel, but to me the guitar and the vocals which set in after a strange organ intro are something like a blueprint for the first song part of Shallow.
Of course all the songs I mentioned are completely different from the Cooper/Gaga hit. They start out differently and take different directions. Nevertheless, they might have left some traces – that’s the reason why Shallow sounds so familiar and compelling to me. One could say: Under the surface you can discover a lot of things. Why else should the Gaga/Cooper lyrics contain lines like: ”We’re far from the shallow now …“? What makes Shallow unique is the fact that the song neglects the classic verse-chorus pattern. Rather, it increases step by step, with the finale setting the climax.
Lady Gaga belongs, quite legitimately, to the pantheon of pop music superstars. Smart songwriting, powerful vocals, extravagance, a provocative ambivalence in her songs and the ability of reinventing herself again and again, make her a fascinating entertainment diva. From dancefloor queen to country lady, from rude rock singer to sensitive singer-songwriter – whatever she does comes across authentically, and yet it is always part of a flamboyant Gesamtkunstwerk, including overpowering performances and powerful music. With these skills, Lady Gaga has become an attractive stage guest for fellow superstars, even for old stagers like Sting.
50 years ago, at the legendary Woodstock festival, Jimi Hendrix demolished the American national anthem: The Star-Spangled Banner.
Woodstock, August 1969: During his gig at the most famous festival in rock history, Jimi Hendrix suddenly starts playing the American national anthem on his electric guitar. Oops! Is he trying to show his patriotism? The irritation that sweeps the hippie audience only lasts for a few seconds. Then they realize that Hendrix has exactly the opposite in mind. Let’s remember: The American national anthem was born in 1814 during the British-American War. According to the myth, lyricist Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words when, after a battle near Baltimore, he saw the American flag, the ‘star-spangled banner’, still waving above the US fort. But when Hendrix plays the anthem, nothing remains intact and there’s no feeling of pride at all. The exceptional black musician is acoustically tearing the US flag apart. And that’s not all: With sound effects like tremolo, feedback and extreme pitching, he is simulating machine gun fire, alarm sirens and bloodcurdling screams. In doing so, he is reminding his listeners of the brutal war during which the original anthem was written – and using it to voice a resounding critique of the Vietnam war. In this version, America is not the “land of the free and home of the brave” but a nation of warmongers who interfere in distant conflicts, throwing napalm bombs and „producing“ countless victims. The heroic lyrics are being masked – you could also say: They are being drowned out by the instrumental battle noise.
Of course staunch patriots and the American establishment interpreted this kind of destructive act as an insult. Especially in the American South, people threatened to become violent if he were to play his version of the national anthem onstage. Hendrix also polarized as a black artist and as a symbol of integration: In his bands, for example in several Experience line-ups, it was taken for granted that black and white musicians would play side by side. And there were many white women in his entourage who didn’t give a hoot about racial segregation. This led to drastic reactions on the one hand, and to changing attitudes on the other. In her essay ”Vodoo Child: Jimi Hendrix and the Politics of Race in the Sixties“ historian Lauren Onkey narrates how, especially in the South, the band was denied hotel rooms and access to restaurants. Their status as a well-known ”integrated band“ simultaneously laid bare the opportunities and limits of racial integration. As the author explains, Hendrix ultimately achieved some success when it came to emancipation: ”His extensive touring claimed the right of an African American to play with white musicians and consort with white women whenever and wherever he chose.“
In March 2019 my new book Provokation! Songs, die für Zündstoff sorg(t)en was published. It presents about 70 hit songs from the last 100 years which caused a stir in their time, and some of which are being discussed even today – from Rock Around the Clock to Relax, from Anarchy in the U.K. to Punk Prayer, from the ”British Invasion“ to ”shock rock“. The last chapter of the book explains some basic lyrical techniques and answers 26 FAQs around the topic of controversial songs. Due to issues of space, this little Jimi Hendrix piece didn’t make it into the printed version of the book.
About three decades ago, the conservative British politician Maggie Thatcher provoked an unprecedented flood of protest songs.
Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher “inspired” many bands and songwriters to compose protest songs which ranged from extremely critical to downright cynical. And in the last 70 years, few politicians have so often and so explicitly become a target of song lyrics as the British Prime Minister. Politics during her term of office (1979-1990) was characterised by privatisation, deregulation, and the destruction of trade unions, which – despite all economic success – led to an increase in unemployment, social hardship, and a widening of the gap between rich and poor. Her political reputation was further tarnished by the foolish war in the Falklands and by regulations which led to discrimination against homosexuals. A situation full of conflict for songwriters: On the one hand they were experiencing an increasingly tough struggle for existence, on the other they were getting lots of inspiration for moving songs. However, Bruce Robert Howard alias Dr. Robert, once a singer of the Blow Monkeys, doesn’t believe in the idea of Maggie Thatcher “as the ‘midwife’ of a thriving British counter-culture during the 80s and early 90s,” as the German newspaper “taz” puts it in a 2013 interview. “No,” Howard protests. “She was a polarising figure who encouraged greed and selfishness and destroyed people’s lives. Art may be able to flourish under these kinds of circumstances, but that’s nothing to be thankful for. In my opinion, Thatcher had a cynical view of human nature.”
In the 1980s, the Blow Monkeys not only belonged to “Red Wedge”, an initiative led by the musicians Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, and Jimmy Somerville to support the Labour Party, but also “dedicated” their 1987 album She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter to the daughter of a grocer. It included the hit (Celebrate) The Day After You, which the BBC banned from its radio programme at the time. But where others only celebrated the “day after”, i.e. the end of the Prime Minister’s term of office, Morrissey went even further. The former front man of the Smiths, who had already declared The Queen Is Dead in 1986, even used his 1988 solo album Viva Hate to imagine the despised leader’s execution, not without conjuring up an anti-aristocratic popular uprising scenario like that of the French Revolution. ”The kind people have a wonderful dream / Margaret on the guillotine / Cause people like you make me feel so tired / When will you die?” Of course only a first name is mentioned in the lyrics, but the allusion is more than clear. So clear that – as the singer revealed in his 2013 autobiography – Morrissey was questioned by Scotland Yard. According to the star, the goal at that time was to find out whether he posed a real threat to the famous politician.
Numerous other songs from that era used clear or veiled references to provoke: I’m in Love With Margret Thatcher by The Not Sensibles, Kick Out the Tories by the Newton Neurotics, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie (Out, Out, Out) by the Larks, Thatcherites by Billy Bragg or Shipbuilding by Elvis Costello – a song that cynically revolves around the construction of warships for the Falkland War, juxtaposing possible new jobs with future casualties of war. In 1986 even a French singer, Renaud Sechan, joined in the Thatcher bashing. His song Miss Maggie formulated nasty declarations of love to womanhood itself, each topped by a gibe aimed at the hated British politician. Always the same boorish line of reasoning: women, no matter how underprivileged they are, can never be as stupid, as brutal, as warmongering as men – with one exception: Madame Thatcher …
When “Madame Thatcher” actually died in 2013, it helped a punk song of the band Hefner, which had already been released in 2000, to get heavy rotation on the internet. The Day That Thatcher Dies lets a song protagonist look back on the 1980s and his political socialisation by the Labour Party. The lyrics are defiant: „We will laugh the day that Thatcher dies / Even though we know it’s not right / We will dance and sing all night.“ Towards the end, the piece also quotes a cheerful children’s song from The Wizard of Oz, the famous 1939 film musical, namely Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead. Ding-dong, the witch is dead? For many of Thatcher’s critics, that seemed to fit all too well. Ding-Dong! itself promptly experienced a revival, even advancing into the top echelons of the British charts thanks to social media promotion – and was also boycotted by the BBC. But nobody really cared.
First belated fame, then the award-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” – and now a book is out on the search for the legendary 70s songwriter Rodriguez. Does the “Sugar Man” deserve that? And: Aren’t a few self-promoters just repeatedly fuelling the myth they have created?
Just to be clear: I think the long-forgotten 1970s
singer-songwriter Rodriguez and his songs are really extraordinary. And also
extraordinarily good. But I belong to the growing number of sceptics who have
been uncovering more and more holes and weak spots in the hype surrounding
Rodriguez that has prevailed for the last several years. This criticism is
directed less against the artist, whose demeanour has certainly been reserved,
if not downright modest, than against those who have capitalised on his
miraculous rediscovery and are still capitalising on it. These include South
African record store owner Stephen Segerman, journalist Craig Bartholomew
Strydom, also from South Africa, and Swedish documentary filmmaker Malik
Bendjelloul. Segerman and Bartholomew Strydom have recently published their
book Sugar Man – The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez. In
it, they describe once again how they set out in the 1990s to search for the
songwriter – who was believed to be dead – finally tracking him down and
helping him to his well-deserved fame after a quarter century’s delay.
This search and Rodriguez’s incredible
subsequent success are also at the heart of the film Searching for Sugar Man,
released by Malik Bendjelloul in 2012, which in 2013 earned him the most
prestigious award a director can receive: an Oscar. Bendjelloul committed
suicide in May of this year, allegedly he was depressed. Not least because of the
publication of Segerman and Bartholomew Strydom’s book, I was motivated to finally
watch the highly acclaimed film, the DVD of which I had put on my 2014
Christmas wish list. At first glance, it is a really beautiful, touching film.
It tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American songwriter who
released Cold Fact and Coming from Reality in the early 1970s,
two fantastic psychedelic folk albums with great melodies and unusually
profound lyrics. The tragedy: Both albums, although praised by the critics,
were total flops. Which is why, the film continues, Rodriguez withdrew
completely – unaware of the fact that in the 1970s and 80s his music became
extremely popular in South Africa, of all places. Via audio cassettes brought
into the country by tourists, as well as through bootlegs and later re-releases, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality became the soundtrack of the
South African anti-apartheid movement and were sold hundreds of thousands of
times. But also because of apartheid, established facts about dissident artists
were rare on the ground and at some point, rumours spread that Rodriguez had committed
suicide on stage at one of his concerts.
Some people said he had set himself on fire,
others that he had shot himself. Which of course strengthened his mythological
status. Until two South American fans, the aforementioned Segerman and
Bartholomew Strydom, laboriously tracked down Sixto Rodriguez in the late 1990s
and brought him to South Africa for a highly acclaimed concert tour. So in the
end, the film concludes, the whole world got a chance to hear about this
According to the film, the two protagonists
took three paths, among other things, in their tear-jerking search for
Rodriguez. Firstly: They tried to follow the flow of money. Because, they
reasoned correctly, whoever has sold that many records must have been paid some
kind of royalties. But the two men quickly reached the limits of this line of
enquiry and met dodgy ex-label bosses who stonewalled them. Hmmmm, very
suspicious! Secondly: They used the emerging internet and created a website
called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt” where they encouraged people to hunt for Rodriguez
and asked fans all over the world to help them. And thirdly: They carefully listened
to Rodriguez’s songs again. Where, in the piece Inner City Blues, they
came across the magic line “Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this
morn / A cold fact”. The film revels in once again setting the scene where one
of the two heroes, as if electrified, reaches for the atlas to find out where
Dearborn is. And – what a surprise! – Dearborn turns out to be a small town
southwest of Detroit! Which finally leads to a turn of events. Eventually – the
film implies that the search took several years – all the different paths
finally converge: Our South African heroes find one of the producers of
Rodriguez’ first album, and the singer’s daughter actually gets in touch via
the website. Rodriguez is said to be alive; he lives right next door in
Detroit. And one day, this moment is also recapitulated in a highly dramatic
way, Bartholomew Strydom and Segerman finally get to talk to the man himself on
Gosh, golly, gee, goose bumps!!!!!
But this is the point, if not sooner, at which
I began to have doubts. Not about whether the two had even contacted Rodriguez,
because that was indisputable. No, I had doubts about the way they said they
had tracked Rodriguez down – about the supposed detective work, about all the
crime-story elements that the film presents in such a compelling way; about the
glorification of these two fans who purport to have done something amazing in
order to look behind the myth, in order to help their idol to his deserved
fame. One aspect in particular made me wonder: Every record contains
information about the authors of the songs and about the producers in the
studio. And even the most obscure records are listed in telephone book-like
directories with every label number, which applies both to the original
releases and to re-releases, even when the labels switch. How was it possible
that a record store owner and an investigative journalist of all people, even
if they worked in restrictive South Africa, shouldn’t have been able to take
the simplest path in such a case? To consult catalogues or simply search directly
for the producers listed on the record covers? Mind you: The process of liberalisation
and the transition from apartheid to legal equality for blacks in South Africa
had already begun in the late 1980s, with Nelson Mandela elected president in
1994. Therefore, the country was no longer isolated during the search for “Sugar
Man”. And in the meantime, the internet had also been born and was available!
Plus: At least one of Rodriguez’ producers was a known entity.
We are talking about Dennis Coffey, a session guitarist of those Funk Brothers who worked for the famous soul label Motown. It was Coffey and his partner Mike Theodore who produced the first Rodriguez album, Cold Fact, in the heart of America’s music industry! They had discovered the artist in his native Detroit, and, looking at the issue today, it seems like a bad joke that the two South African master researchers, after a long and arduous search, finally, well, tracked Rodriguez down exactly there: in his hometown Detroit!
To put it simply: Why didn’t they go through the labels and recording studios? Why didn’t they just call the Detroit city council and/or Dennis Coffey or write a letter or an e-mail and inquire about Sixto Rodriguez?The Swedish documentary filmmaker Bendjelloul only appeared on the scene in 2006, when the whole thing had actually been over for years. Rodriguez had already performed in South Africa in 1998 after his rediscovery. But now a really big spotlight was trained on everything that was happening. After all, there were still a lot of music lovers all over the world who had never heard of Rodriguez before. The film’s enormous impact seems even more grotesque the more you find out about Rodriguez and his career afterwards, quite simply through various newspaper articles. Because in all those years, the artist had by no means been as obscure and forgotten as Searching for Sugar Man so strenuously implies to cinema and DVD audiences. Apart from the fact that Rodriguez had even campaigned to become mayor in his hometown of Detroit in the late 1980s, he had also had some success as an artist beyond the 1970s. A household name not only in American and European indie circles for several decades, he was also a veritable star in New Zealand and Australia. Down Under one of his records had reached gold status, and in 1981 he toured there with superstars like Midnight Oil. Of course he was somewhat forgotten in the 1990s – but someone who was really interested in him, especially if he was a record store owner or an investigative journalist, should have found it easy to quickly discover the basic facts. Even from South Africa.
And let’s be honest: A rock star who self-immolates
or shoots himself with a gun on stage – is anyone really supposed to believe that? If
something like that had actually happened, wouldn’t it have become one of the global
stories of the century? It’s a bit silly to build something up that big and
then spectacularly prove the unbelievable opposite against all rumours… So all
those years it must have been crystal clear that Rodriguez was leading a pretty
normal life somewhere. The whole fuss might have been totally unnecessary. Against
this backdrop and in hindsight, the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man
seems increasingly annoying to me. I’m joined here by a number of journalists
and film critics, especially from the English-speaking world, who have expanded
on the film’s gaps and inconsistencies. A typical example is Bill Cody’s
January 21, 2013 article on ‘comingsoon.net’, in which he sceptically asks
whether Bartholomew Strydom and Segerman really seriously searched for
Rodriguez and how much artistic freedom is allowed in a documentary film that is
supposed to reflect something like the truth: “Is it okay to bend the truth in
order to make the story better than it really is?”
One of the movie’s weak points, apart from all
the facts being withheld and the dramatizations, is that it asks the right
question about the unpaid royalties and implies many heinous things, but doesn’t
ultimately offer satisfying answers. The same way that the film actually raises
more questions than it answers. Because it focuses on all sorts of narrative
strands and hardly ever finishes any of them. Least of all about Rodriguez himself.
Highly mysterious smokescreens are created, and complicated explanations touted
in view of the different names “Sixto Rodriguez” and “Jesus Rodriguez” in the
song writing credits, which can somehow be explained at the (long-winded) end. People
from the music business talk, the feverish seekers talk, then the daughters of
Rodriguez, one of whom – yet another touching story – fell in love with a crew
member and promptly started a family, and also two incredibly eloquent
Rodriguez colleagues and friends from Detroit, who describe their buddy “Sugar
Man” as a noble hero. Were they the only two people from the artist’s circle of
friends that the filmmakers could find? Rodriguez himself only speaks in a few
scenes – in other words, it is ironic that we learn least about the main
If we really needed another book on the subject at the moment, then it should be an (auto-)biography about the artist or the true story from Rodriguez’ point of view. Or an investigative report that really uncovers where the money went, so that the songs’ author can finally get his well-deserved royalties. But instead, Messrs. Bartholomew Strydom/Segerman go centre stage again, with the same old story. And if you glance into the book, you’ll be amazed at the style: the two authors write about themselves in the third person! That leaves an impression not only of extreme self-absorption and artificiality, but also of blatant profiteering.
The site ‘sugarman.org’, which calls itself
the official Rodriguez website, is also significant in this context. It starts with
movie posters and record covers, followed by a 360-degree view of “Mabu Vinyl”,
Segerman’s book and record store in Cape Town, as well as announcements,
interviews, and reviews of the new book by Segerman and Bartholmew Strydom.
Other questions arise, e.g.: What does ‘sugarman.org’ say about the legal
disputes that have arisen in recent months, because after the success of the
film all sorts of people suddenly came out of the woodwork to find out whether
they too could earn some money? And what does the artist himself say about all of
this? Here, too, it’s striking: It’s all about the researchers presenting
themselves – if you want to discover anything new about Rodriguez, you have to
click through for quite a while to learn just a little bit. It almost reminds
you of the brilliant but psychologically unstable Beach Boy Brian Wilson, whose
career was steered by psychotherapist Eugene Landy for a few years. It seems as
if the movers and shakers have primarily created their own profitable myth.
Whether any of this ties in with Bendjelloul’s suicide is not known.
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.