There has never been a better time for women in music. There are more female major artists in the musical world then ever before, and, at time of writing, the majority of the US Billboard charts top 10 singles are releases by, or fronted by women. It would be safe to assume, then, that third-wave feminism has been particularly effective, would it not? And yet, looking at the female artists that fill the charts, I am not entirely convinced that this is the case.
It seems that whenever a new female musician or musical performer achieves a high level of success, the ‘F’ word is never far behind, whether that is Joan Jett, Madonna, The Spice Girls or Lady Gaga. The success that these talented women have achieved is without question, but which of these could be considered truly feminist and which are merely exploiting feminism to their own ends? For that matter, is there a real difference?
When Joan Jett first picked up a Gibson Guitar, (the Melody Maker), there were no women in the music world producing the kind of hard-edged rock that she played. Touring with the likes of Runaways and later with the Blackhearts in the near-entirely male Rock establishment of the time, Jett transformed from something of a novelty, with an image for the band that exploited their youthful sexuality, to being a genuine Rock icon on her own terms.
Along the way, however, she endured being abused and spat at by men, in attempts to force her from the stage- a position that they felt she had no place to be in. She responded by resolutely refusing to be steered off course, wearing the same clothes as her male piers, and eschewing any hint of ‘girly-ness’. By smashing the stereotypes that had been used to exploit her, she opened the door for many to follow in her footsteps.
No one could deny that Madonna is completely in control of her own career. Even from her earliest singles, she exuded a sense of feminist power, whether that was expressing preference for money and possessions over love and romance (‘Material Girl’), or sexual independence (‘Like a Virgin’). Despite her many ‘re-inventions’ throughout her career, from the ‘Blonde Ambition’ days, to even subverting the submissive image of the geisha later in her career, she has never looked less than powerful and in control.
In more recent times it is, perhaps, Lady Gaga that is most regularly referred to as a feminist icon. She is also often mentioned when discussing Madonna, and there seems little doubt that the two artists share some common characteristics. Both are from, allegedly, similar Italian-Catholic backgrounds, and both began their respective careers in New York. Both artists portray images of female empowerment and control, and both are followed by, and occasionally court controversy.
However, Lady Gaga is much more overt in her statements on the subject of feminism. Declaring her notorious ‘meat dress’ to be a statement about the objectification of women in the media (‘I am not a piece of meat’), amongst other things. She points out the inequality seen in the freedom men have to express their sexuality musically, and be hailed as ‘rock stars’, yet she isn’t afforded the same privilege, it being deemed ‘distracting’ if she attempts the same. This is all well and good. However, Gaga often follows these statements with a denial that she is a feminist, and a celebration of American male culture, working to reinforce the prevailing misogynist attitudes, at least on some level.
It is this duality that serves to make her feminist leanings seem somewhat contrived, perhaps even dangerously so. As an example, consider Katy Perry. She committed perhaps the ultimate feminist sin with her track ‘I Kissed a Girl’. This slice of sexploitation pop espoused the joys of kissing a girl, purely, it seemed, for the benefit of men. This was draped in a veil of pop innocence that seemed to trivialize this objectification of the female gender. Later tracks (‘California Gurls’ for example) seemed to similarly sexualize music aimed at young girls.
When placed in the context of the Billboard top ten, it raises the question, is every young girl able to appreciate the difference between Perry’s ‘sexploitation’ and Lady Gaga‘s more pointed statements? There are, after all, both pretty outwardly sexual, and Katy Perry is on some level at least, exploiting stereotypes to her own end, and is in control. What damage could this ambiguity cause?
It may seem that this is all ‘doom and gloom’. However, there are more girls taking up playing the guitar than ever before, and this number is increasing year by year. There are female artists who are less calculated in their statements about empowerment, and far braver (Beth Ditto, for example). Plus, the era of women being judged should long be passed- empowerment is everything, and the girls motivated to pick up instruments clearly feel that. We can only hope that, whatever they choose to play it is on their terms. Perhaps think ‘What would Joan Jett do?’ and not ‘What would Lady Gaga do?’