Women in music

Generational divide: Stars of the 80s think young women are being exploited.

The transformation of innocent child stars to raunchy pop princesses with smash-hit videos has prompted outspoken testimony from other singers about sexism in music. What’s going on?

  • Is this about Miley Cyrus? She seems to be permanently in the news these days.

    You would have to be living at the North Pole to miss her, it’s true. And the business machine promoting her new album will be absolutely delighted, even if a lot of the coverage is critical. By which we mean the reaction of other female music stars: both Sinead O’Connor and Annie Lennox have decided to speak out against marketing campaigns for young women that push a sexy image to the limit.

  • What limit?

    That’s the question. Because while O’Connor accused Miley Cyrus of allowing herself to be exploited by the male-dominated music industry, whom she dismissed as ‘pimps’, Lennox called for real-world controls, saying that ‘certain record companies are peddling highly styled pornography with musical accompaniment.’ This has taken the on-going debate about raunch culture into new territory: government regulation. Lennox called for rules to decide who can view some videos. She wrote on her Facebook page: ‘If a performing artist has an audience of impressionable young fans and they want to present a soft porn video or highly sexualised live performance, then it needs to qualify as such and be X-rated, for adults only.’

  • Isn’t this an over-reaction?

    Good question. Some of those defending Miley Cyrus’s marketing campaign have called the other artists who attack her ‘patronising’ and accused them of lacking female solidarity. Others say that each generation of musicians shocks its elders, usually because of something to do with sex. Elvis caused an uproar with his dancing at the beginning of his career; the Rolling Stones had to change the words of ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ to ‘Let’s Spend Some Time Together’ to sing it on TV; in the 1980s and ‘90s Madonna’s ever-changing image was always founded on sex.

  • Ha! So, what’s the difference?

    Well, many find none, and dismiss the current uproar as ‘moral panic’. But those who see Madonna as an inspiration and the latest pop princesses as doing a striptease too far, ask: is Miley Cyrus in control or being manipulated? This week yet another female star has decided to give her version of what it’s like to be a young girl treated as a product by the music industry. Charlotte Church said that she was pressured into dressing in a provocative manner for music videos, and into choosing revealing clothes – which she now regrets. ‘Whilst I can’t defer all the blame away from myself,’ said Church in a lecture, ‘I was barely out of my teenage years, and the consequence of this portrayal of me is that now I am frequently abused on social media.’

  • OK, but didn’t all this near-naked prancing make her rich?

    Yes. But there’s more to life. And the furore has arisen because people think the music industry is a major influence on how young girls see their place in society, and whether they value themselves only for their sexual attractiveness even when they are very talented. As one father of teenage girls lamented in an article last week: ‘Whatever her reasons for making the video, Cyrus does send a message: that the best way for young women to be noticed is to sexually objectify themselves. Sadly, it seems to have worked.’

  • This seems really depressing. What about the music?

    Good point! And there are some really positive things to say about women in music alongside all this. Think of Adele, whose sensational voice has made her a huge star worldwide. Or Taylor Swift, who doesn’t feel she has to take her clothes off in public. In fact, last year Emeli Sandé sold more albums in the UK than any other performer. And in the US Adele had the year’s biggest-selling album, with Swift in second place.

You Decide

  1. Is it fair to expect musicians to always control their own image and message?


  1. Class debate: ‘This House believes the music industry is no longer about the music.’


Word Watch

Raunch culture
A book by the American feminist Ariel Levy defined this concept as follows: when representations of women as sexually available predominate over images of women as active participants in society. The National Union of Teachers earlier this year condemned ‘the rise of what has become commonly known as “raunch culture”, where the old sexism of the past has been rebranded by big business.’
The Video Recordings Act 1984 is being changed to enable age ratings to be given to DVDs that are currently classed as sport or exercise. Products that are deemed unsuitable for children will carry the British Board of Film Classification age ratings: 12, 15 and 18. But a review of the impact of sexually explicit or suggestive media on children, the Bailey review, also wanted warnings on music videos online.
One of the world’s most successful businesswomen, Madonna is 55. Her use of sex in music videos and lyrics was partly about throwing off her Catholic upbringing, which she saw as oppressive to women. The novelist Zadie Smith, for example, recently told the BBC that listening to Madonna while at school had made a whole generation of girls feel strong.
Moral panic
Intense feelings of disapproval and fear that spread in a population about something that appears to threaten society. Usually used to dismiss whatever the concern is as unfounded or exaggerated.

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