This week Lily Allen released her first new single in four years, called “Hard Out Here” (NSFW) and this is where I’ll sit and wait while you go watch the video and listen very closely to what she’s saying. If you can’t watch right now, then at least take a look at the lyrics to get a sense of the blistering levels of sarcasm on display. The entire production, from the auto-tune, to the video, to the lyrics, calls out the bad practices in pop music and addresses the inherent inequality in the way women and men are presented. There’s been some debate about Allen’s use of background dancers, that she might be walking the line between satire and objectification a little too close for comfort. To me, the fact that we see the male executive directing the actions of the dancers and Allen, turns the images into a story. You see what the motivation is, why they’re dancing that way, and it gives the context which is lacking from many other videos that use dancers as decoration. Other people may disagree.
Most of what’s being attacked, though, is the kind of rote version of female sexuality that has become overused in pop music. We’ve come from Madonna using her sexuality as a source of power, to a very specific version of female sexuality being used as a form of advertising. Charlotte Church recently spoke out about this, and her experience as a young woman in the music industry. She focuses on the use of female sexuality to sell product to men, but what’s more concerning to me is the way exploitative images of female sexuality are being used to sell things to girls and young women. The people advocating this may be men, as referenced in Church’s speech and Allen’s video, but the end consumer is almost always female. There’s nothing wrong with young girls listening to pop music, and I don’t find sexualized images in and of themselves a problem. What I find troubling is the SAME sexualized images being used over and over again, as a matter of course, because it stopped being a decision the performer made for herself and started being a step on the career ladder. As Church puts it, “take your clothes off, show you’re an adult.” Allen herself croons in her earlier single, “The Fear”; “I’ll take my clothes off, and it will be shameless/cause everyone knows that’s how you get famous.”
I don’t care if young women want to dance around in their underwear and grind on willing partners. I don’t care if young women want to wear turtlenecks and read books all weekend long. I don’t care if young women want to spend all their free time riding mountain bikes, or knitting, or rebuilding engines, or perfecting their liquid eyeliner application, or all of the above. More what I mind is that the images presented to them tend to show that women only acquire worth by being desirable and there is only one way to be and look desirable. Allen is working to draw attention to these images, and how flat and meaningless they are. “Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?” is a much harsher way of saying what a dozen other pop songs only hint at, and in such bald terms you can see how shallow the sentiment is. And, as Church points out in her speech, a lot of this inequality goes much deeper than just pop stars. Hopefully women like these two will continue to speak out and use their platforms to spread a message beyond the kind of passive, performative sexuality that’s become so routine it’s boring.
Still, it’s easier to be boring than to be reviled and women who speak out against these images, or who simply refuse to play by the well-established rules, often find themselves on the receiving end of some very harsh treatment. Allen has had trouble with the paparazzi that drove her from the public eye four years ago. Church talks about the treatment she’s received based on her previous public image, and other pop stars like P!nk, Grimes, Lady Gaga, and Adele have been widely insulted and denigrated for not fitting into pre-approved roles for pop-stars. Nicki Minaj has discussed it as well, particularly in regards to ambition and the perception of ambitious people depending on their gender. Even the average female musician, speaking out about personal experiences with people insulting or demeaning them because of their gender gets to hear thoughtful responses about how they’re just too sensitive or that men get insulted too sometimes. That we should just be quiet unless things are REALLY bad, and even then we probably shouldn’t say anything either because we’re making it up or to blame for the way we’re treated.
Lily Allen has been one of my favorite song-writers since her first album, and while she took her self-imposed hiatus from the industry I wondered if I’d ever hear her unique voice again. If not on her own recordings, then on songs she might write for others. When I heard she had a new single coming out I was worried that four years away might make her shy, or hesitant to draw attention to herself given how she was treated by certain gossip bloggers and paparazzi the last time she was in the spotlight. Now, I just can’t wait until she has a full album out.