April 17, 2014

Church talks women in music at #RadFest13

Singer and musician Charlotte Church has delivered this year’s BBC Radio 6 Music John Peel Lecture at the Radio Academy Radio Festival in Salford.

The full speech will be broadcast tonight on 6 Music and be available to download too.

Update: Listen here on the 6 Music website.

Here’s a transcript of what Charlotte had to say:

Thank you for coming to my Lecture this evening…

- I’d like you to imagine a world in which male musicians are routinely expected to act as submissive sex objects.

Picture Beyonce’s husband Jay Z stripped down to a T-back bikini thong, sex-kittening his way through a boulevard of suited and booted women for their pleasure.

Or Britney Spears’s Ex Justin Timberlake, in buttock-clenching denim hot pants, writhing on the bonnet of a pink chevy, explaining to his audience how he’d like to be their teenage dream.

Before we all get a little too hot beneath the gusset, of course, these scenarios are not likely to become reality, unless for comedy’s sake.

- The reason for this is that these are roles that the music industry has carved out specifically for women.

It is a male dominated industry, with a juvenile perspective on gender and sexuality.

From what I can see there are three main roles that women are allowed to fill in modern pop music, each of them restrictive for both artist and audience.

They are mainly portrayed through the medium of the music video.

You’ll find them very familiar. I call them the ‘One-of-the-girls Girls’, the ‘Victim/Torch Singer’ and ‘Unattainable Sex Bot’.

The ‘One-of-the-girls Girls’ role is a painfully thin reduction of feminism that generally seems to point to a world where so long as you can hang out with your girls it’s possible to sort of wave away the evils that men do.

This denigrates women and men equally, and yet is commonly lauded for being empowering.

The ‘Victim/Torch Singer’ can be divided up into the sexy victim i.e Natalie Imbruglia in her Torn video, and the not-so-sexy victim.

One female artist who does not use her sexuality to sell records is Adele.

However, lyrically her songs are almost without exception written from the perspective of the wronged-woman, an archetype as old as time, someone who has been let down by the men around her, and is subsequently in a perpetual state of despair.

But to me, The Unattainable Sex Bot is the most commonly employed and most damaging, a role that is also often claimed to be an empowering one.

The irony behind this is that the women generally filling these roles are very young, often previous child stars or Disney-tweens, who are simply interested in getting along in an industry glamourised to be the most desirable career for young women.

They are encouraged to present themselves as hyper-sexualised, unrealistic, cartoonish, as objects, reducing female sexuality to a prize you can win.

When I was 19 or 20, I found myself in this position, being pressured into wearing more and more revealing outfits and the lines that I had spun at me again and again (generally by middle aged men) were

“you look great you’ve got a great body why not show it off?”

or

“Don’t worry it’ll look classy.  It’ll look artistic.”

I felt deeply uncomfortable about the whole thing, but was often reminded by record label executives just whose money was being spent.

Whilst I can’t defer all blame away from myself, 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, being called ‘slut’, ‘whore’ and a catalogue of other indignities that I’m sure you’re also sadly very familiar with.

Now I find it difficult to promote my music in the places where it would be best suited because of my “history”.

The culture of demeaning women in pop music is so ingrained as to become routine, from the way we are dealt with by management and labels, to the way we are presented to the public.

You could trace this back to Madonna – although it probably goes back further in time.

She was a template setter.

By changing her image regularly, putting her sexuality in the heart of her image, videos and live performance – the statement she was making was – I am in control of ME and my sexuality.

This idea has had its corners rounded off over the years and has become “take clothes off, show you’re an adult.

Rihanna’s recent video for ‘Pour It Up’ may have over 40 million hits on Youtube – but you only have to look at the online response to see that it is only a matter of time before the public turn on an artist for ‘pushing it too far’.

But the single, like all of Rihanna’s other provocative hits, will make her male writers and producers and record label guys a tonne of money.

It is a multibillion dollar business that relies upon short burst messaging to sell product.

And there is no easier way to sell something than to get some chick to get her tits out, right? When the male perspective is the dominant one, the end point is women being coerced  into sexually demonstrative behaviour in order to hold on to their careers.

This idea repeated over generations CAN’T BUT have a negative effect on women whether they are in the industry or not.

I needn’t point out that these roles are interchangeable for artists and they are not prescriptive to all female musicians.

For every chart-topping star that fits neatly into one or other of these archetypes, there are 20 other artists, who may not have the same earning potential but have carved out their own roles, as human beings, not objects.

One has only to look at Julia Holter, Haim or Polica to see strong women unrestricted in their art by their gender or sexuality.

Throughout the industry wherever you find women they are doing brilliant things.

Trina Shoemaker is a three time grammy award winning engineer, Mandy Parnell is a mastering engineer who has worked on some of the best received albums of the last 20 years, and Marin Alsop this summer became the first ever female conductor of the last night of the proms.

She recently said

“There is no logical reason to stop women from conducting.

The baton isn’t heavy. It weighs about an ounce. No superhuman strength is required. Good musicianship is all that counts. As a society we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles.”

Out of 295 acts and artists in the The Rock & Roll hall of fame 259 are entirely male, meaning that Tina Weymouth’s part in Talking Heads make them one of the 36 female acts.

The Association of Independent Music’s 2012 membership survey revealed that only 15% of label members are majority-owned by women.

PRS claims only 13% of writers registered are female. The music producers guild: less than 4%.

Last year I toured with an exceptionally talented female sound engineer, and last week I launched a publishing company that unintentionally has all female staff, but I’m constantly disappointed to find out how few women there are in certain areas of the industry.

So is it simply all down to sexism, myths about women perpetuated by men.

Nicky Minaj seems to think so. In what has now become known as her “pickle juice rant” she talks about how she is derided for demanding a certain level of professionalism from the people she works with.

She says:

“When I am assertive I’m a bitch when a man is assertive he’s a boss.”

Minaj is one of many top-flight female artists who use alter-egos in their work. Her other personalities are often men who rap violently about women.

So to what extent are these myths about women perpetuated by women themselves?

In a very recent very public spat between the legendary Sinead O’Connor, and the infamous Miley Cyrus, Mother O’Connor wrote a concerned open letter directed at Miss Cyrus, who herself responded by ridiculing O’Connor’s bipolar disorder on twitter.

If women are to become free agents of their gender’s destiny in a music world that is reliant upon shouting loudest over the clamour, it stands to reason that online pissing contests only serves to detract from the strong messages being put forward by such artists as Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu.

Their recent collaboration on ‘Q.U.E.E.N’ is an eloquent and impassioned rally cry for what Monae identifies as “everyone who’s felt ostracised and marginalised”.

And yet it is women that she addresses most specifically in the track, ending with the line

“electric ladies will you sleep? or will you preach?”

The recent flapping about Miley Cyrus’s blah blah blah has clearly struck a chord with the likes of O’Connor and opened up a worldwide debate on the use of female sexuality to sell product.

Annie Lennox cut to the jugular when she talked about the age-propriety of what she calls “dark” and “pornographic” music videos. She has called for videos to be rated as films are, with x-ratings being applied to the most sexually explicit. It is interesting to note that anyone of any age has been able to watch Christina Aquilera’s simulated masturbation in her “Dirrty” video on youtube since the website began, and yet you must sign in to the site to prove your age if you wanted to watch Bjork’s stunning video for “Pagan Poetry”.

Whilst I would argue that neither videos are acceptable viewing for young eyes, I know which one I’d rather have to explain to my child.

Whilst channels like YouTube and Vimeo have a responsibility in dealing with these issues, Radio stations shouldn’t think they are beyond criticism.

As Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director General, announces the new iPlayer channel for Radio 1 the question must be asked:

should programmers take into consideration the image of an artist when deciding whether to play and promote their music?

There are countless examples from the last few years of songs that have been in high rotation, that have little to no artistic worth, but are JUST PLAIN RUDE.

I’ve been asked to give some examples, but I don’t want to give the Daily Mail an excuse to ignore the rest of this lecture.

BBC Radio is notorious for misreading sexual metaphor and innuendo as innocent, (most famously with Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side) but more recently there doesn’t seem to be a decency barrier at all, unless you’re dealing with words like “fuck”, or “shit”, or “hippopotamus cock”.

If there are no sanctions put upon music that is written so zealously about genitalia, or uses soft porn in its promotion online, what is to stop artists feeling that making their music and videos more sexy will undoubtedly drive up their online views and subsequently encourage more radio play.

And so to “Blurred Lines”, which many in this room have no doubt added to their playlists.

The “Blurred Lines” video which had the biggest part in jettisoning a song, by a mediocre artist into the biggest track of the year, was on youtube for just under a week before it was taken down, and remains on Vimeo without any age restrictions.

The indefensible Robyn Thicke stated in an interview with GQ that his intention was to do “everything that is completely derogatory towards women” because he respects them so much.

He continued saying: “People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman.”

It is highly disappointing to note that the director of this crass and misogynistic video is a woman, Diane Martel, who also captured Miley Cyrus’s twerking for the first time in the video for “We Can’t Stop” and is responsible for an objectionable little number by Leah LaBelle called of all things “LOLITA“.

- What is possibly more disappointing than this is the presence of the exceptionally talented Pharrell Williams at 2013′s round table of chauvinism.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Cyrus quoted a message to her from Williams, who said of her VMA’s blah blah blah “The VMAs was nothing more than God or the Universe showing you how powerful anything you do is. It’s like uranium – it has the power to take over lives or power entire countries.

Now that you’ve seen your power master it… You’re not a train wreck, you’re the train pulling everyone else along”.

With this kind of encouragement it is no surprise whatsoever that young women feel it necessary to be more and more shocking in their bid to be the most… forward-looking?

- Canadian electronic artist Grimes, whose third record Visions was met with universal acclaim, says “i don’t want to be infantilized because i refuse to be sexualized”.

To my mind what this industry seems to want of it’s women increasingly is sex objects that appear child-like.

Look at the teddy bears everywhere, the Britney Spears Rolling Stone cover with a tellytubby from 1999, I state again “Lolita”!?! The terrifying thing is that the target demographic for this type of music is getting younger and younger.

Jennifer Lopez seemingly trying to engulf the camera with her vagina on Britain’s Got Talent earlier this year is a mild example of how frequently carnal images creep into the realm of what is deemed ok for kids.

- But ultimately it does not need to be this way. Sex can be art. Look at Bjork’s Vespertine, a highly sexual and sensual record by a woman entirely in charge of her career and her sex.

The same can be said about almost every Prince record and should be.

Both are artists, adults and human beings intelligently addressing a human subject, not exclusively a male one. I support Annie Lennox’s plea for ratings on videos.

If Rihanna had not grown up watching the videos of the nineties then it might not be quite so essential for her to portray her sexuality so luridly, so constantly, and so influentially upon the next generation.

If the power was taken away from sex in pop by making it harder for younger viewers to access it, then maybe the focus would shift to making works of artistic beauty and conscience.

And fundamentally that would actually be putting the power back in sex, for a future world where humans are able to portray their sexuality as it is for them.

Posted on Monday, October 14th, 2013 at 7:14 pm by .

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