Don’t they remember Elvis the Pelvis?
Far from suddenly using ‘faux porn’ to sell records, pop stars have always been sexist and, well, sexy.
‘What’s wrong with being sexy?’ once asked Nigel Tufnel, the witless guitarist of the fictional band Spinal Tap. ‘Sexist, sexist’, reprimanded the record company rep. Tufnel had to be told that there was something inappropriate about the cover of the band’s album, Smell The Glove, featuring ‘a greased, naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck and a leash and a man’s arm extended out… holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it’.
Sex has always been intrinsic to pop music, ever since Elvis ‘The Pelvis’ Presley emerged. Indeed, the term ‘rock and roll’ is believed to have derived from the movement of automobiles caused by amorous couples doing their thing in cars while listening to this music. Many radio stations, and the Catholic Church, took a very dim view of ‘It’s Now Or Never’ by Elvis Presley in 1960, the lyrics of which insinuate, ‘if I don’t get a shag tonight then it’s over’. It’s no coincidence that this song is credited with inspiring Barry White, that most sexy/sexist performer, to become a professional singer.
Sex has continued to sell, whether it be in that marvellous homosexual anthem by Electric Six, ‘Gay Bar’, or in songs in which the lyrics don’t actually make any sense, such as ‘I Wanna Sex You Up’ by Color Me Badd, ‘I’m Too Sexy’ by Right Said Fred, or when in 2009 the Kings of Leon bizarrely proclaimed that ‘your sex is on fire‘.
The perennial debate about sexualisation in pop has resumed this week following the comment made by Adele’s record label boss, Richard Russell, that female pop stars are using ‘faux porn’ to sell records. He asserts that the entertainment industry is too reliant on promoting female singers such as Rihanna with her overly sexualised videos. ‘Unlike Rihanna, Adele doesn’t do pornographic poses, wear provocative clothes or sing in praise of being beaten up by men’, wrote Sandra Parsons approvingly in the Daily Mail. ‘[A]nd record companies’, she continued, ‘will watch Adele and see that it’s not necessary to behave like porn stars in order to be successful’.
There has been a moral panic about overly sexualised solo female singers ever since Britney Spears appeared in a school uniform in the video for ‘…Baby One More Time’ in 1999. The video was ideal fodder for people who believed that pop music was degenerate and will turn us all into paedophiles. After that came Beyonce shaking her booty, Gwen Stefani being rather fruity in her suggestively-titled 2004 video ‘What You Waiting For?’, Christina Aguilera doing her whore-chic, and Lady Gaga indulging in burlesque sado-masochist fantasies.
Such performers seem to unite the conservative right and the liberal left: the former suggest that these artists encourage their young girl fans to demand bras at the age of seven, the latter that they objectify women as part of a monstrous neo-liberal capitalist conspiracy at the behest of those evil, nebulous corporations.
The ongoing hoo-haa has been set against the backdrop of the sympathetic obituaries written this week about Flick Colby, the entrepreneur who founded Pan’s People, the dance troupe of Top of The Pops fame. The tributes, from both left and right, have been paradoxical. They have all portrayed her as a kind of ambitious, muscular go-getter. They have all also intimated that Pan’s People was a kind of innocent indulgence from a past golden age, when in fact it was just as sexist as anything that appears today. These dancers only existed because either a) the BBC was incompetent and couldn’t be bothered or afford to get real acts, or b) the BBC knew there was an audience of drooling, pervy old dads out there who, always complaining that Top of The Pops was full of pooftas like David Bowie or Marc Bolan, needed placating.
The lesson seems to be that old-fashioned sexism is acceptable. As long as you parade women with hot pants and platform boots on pseudo-ironic retrospective programmes on BBC4 on Friday evenings, this is all okey-dokey. The same goes for those nostalgic I Love the 1970s-style programmes that are repeated on Channel 4 now and then, featuring talking-head, middle-aged comedians reliving their teenage fantasies about Kate Bush. Many people liked to moan about sexism on 1980s hard-rock videos or 1990s gangsta-rap songs, but somehow the soft porn of 1970s videos has been retrospectively romanticised.
I don’t want to sound like a feminist. In principle, I’m not against calling myself a feminist. It’s just that I never trust a man who says he is one. Men who protest thus always remind me of those kind of spotty creeps at university who said ‘I care about women’ only because they were trying to get one into bed.
Pop music has forever objectified women. This is often done by men, and often by women themselves. Yet I don’t remember a similar alarm in the past about the likes of Debbie Harry or Madonna encouraging seven-year-old girls to wear bras. Maybe our society has become more sexualised, or maybe we’re just more neurotic about the fact that children will one day go through pubescence. Maybe, in our infantilised society, we wish they would stay children forever.
There seems to be a case of double standards about the sexy music of today and yesterday. Nostalgia is an acute affliction of Western society these days. Pop music has always been sexy and sexist. To pretend this is a new thing is myopic. And if you disagree, then in the words of Spinal Tap, you can lick my love pump.
Patrick West is spiked’s music columnist. Read his blog here.
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