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So damn easy to love

10 May

by Jess

Laura: i like that beyonce does subversive stuff while doing sexy dancing with her amazing body
Jess: like gaga!
Laura: yes!
Jess: they are a perfect pair
Laura: they should get married
Jess: even though i didn’t like telephone that much
Laura: though i suppose jay z wouldn’t like that
Jess: oh who cares what he thinks
Laura: yeah, he can suck it
Jess: he can have 99 problems and a bitch is two

We didn’t have cable when I was a kid, which I thought was because it cost a lot, but was really because my mom figured I would be glued to MTV 24/7, and she didn’t like me watching all the booty-shaking vids and getting body image problems. She was right in some ways — I mostly wanted to watch The State, Beavis and Butthead, and 120 minutes, and I got much bigger body image problems from her having me on a diet all the time, but there was definitely a near-constant stream of blatant, unexamined objectification going on in most of the videos being aired.

There still would be, I assume, if MTV played videos anymore. And with the sound off, Beyonce’s latest would fit right into that tradition. The Divine Miss B never once puts on pants with anything that can accurately be called an “inseam,” and spends much of the video either gyrating, weeping, cooking, or scrubbing. By those lights, not a very feminist moment, by golly. But… ok, watch the thing:

To me, the lyrics here throw the visuals into sharp, subversive relief. She sings about “making me so damn easy to love” by being beautiful and classy and dirty in the bedroom, sure, but the explicit conclusion is: “I’m clearly lovable, so what the hell is YOUR problem?” And in light of that narrative — “I’ve done everything that’s supposed to make a woman desirable, and you still don’t love me, so in the end I’m terrific and you’re a chump” — you start seeing the rictus of a smile while she’s doing her hula girl moves. The trappings of femininity are all over the video, but they’re cast as fruitless attempts to ensnare a guy who doesn’t appreciate either canonical desirable-woman accoutrements (“I got beauty, I got class / I got style, and I got ass”) or intelligence and independence (“Don’t have to ask no one to help me out / … / Keep my head in them books, I’m sharp”).

Is it a little maddening that the bulk of the song is still a checklist of feminine ideals? Is it stone cold infuriating that a woman with pipes like Beyonce’s still has to take her kit off to be a big star? You bet it is. There’s only so subversive you can get while still getting widespread acclaim — Beyonce is a woman of color, which breaks the usual bombshell mode, but she’s still thin, beautiful, light-skinned, and European-featured, and she’s still making it clear that she scrubs the floor in hotpants for the sake of her man. But what’s new here is that it’s a song about what’s wrong with the man that he doesn’t appreciate her. There is no point at which she wonders if she ought to be more beautiful, more obedient, more scantily dressed. If it’s not quite a feminist song, it’s worlds more feminist than most of what’s out there at this level of fame. And that very fact makes it subversive — it sneaks a new idea (that the femininity checklist won’t get you loved, and that the problem might be him and not you) into an antifeminist culture.

Okay, I’m talking like a big thinky blogger, but full disclosure: my reactions to this video are not entirely intellectual. The first thing I said to Laura when she showed it to me was “I wish this had come out eight years ago” — that is, when I was in a relationship with a guy who not only didn’t appreciate me but essentially exploited me. Not incidentally, he also made me feel like there was something deeply wrong with me for not being both more satisfying and more satisfied. It was in his interest for me to never think to answer “why don’t you love me?” with “maybe you’re just plain dumb” — that wasn’t going to get his back rubbed, his apartment cleaned, or his dick sucked. He kept me from making the connection by keeping the focus on me not being beautiful, smart, obedient, or levelheaded enough to keep him happy. (Oh, and also by making me feel, and basically telling me I was, more or less insane.)

So I’m not just having a strict feminist reaction here — by those lights, there’s not a pop song in the world that passes. I’m also thinking about what this song would have done for me when I was buying so hard into the hype. Hortense at Jezebel just wrote a terrific post about how much Tragic Kingdom buoyed her out of her angst as a teenager — I can’t say I feel that way about No Doubt, although I was also 15 when the album dropped, but I definitely understand how an anthem can be the thread you follow out of a very dark place. I remember how I felt about Lush’s “Ladykillers” when I was a teenager (“when he’s nice to me, he’s just nice to himself”) and about the Golden Palominos’ “I’m Not Sorry” after a different emotionally abusive relationship — that “oh!” moment, that sense of a second pair of eyes opening wide inside your head. I could see this song waking women up and guiding them away from what’s destroying them.

This guy hasn’t even lived in the same country as me in five years, and I still wonder what I could have changed that would have made him love me. Last night I went to a coffee shop a few blocks from where he used to live, to watch my exceptionally beautiful and talented friend Acacia play a show. Acacia is a very impressive person, both naturally gifted and extremely skilled at her craft — plus she’s very pretty, plus she has in the past been very well-endowed in the particular areas this guy fancied (I mean, talent also, but mostly I’m talking about boobs here). So at about the point of drunkenness where I get maudlin, I was sitting there watching her rock the fuck out on a Patty Griffin song and thinking “what if I’d just been this good at something, what if I’d only looked like her? What if I’d basically tried this whole relationship, only as Cacie?” Can I repeat that this started in fucking 2002, and I still think this way after two cocktails? The answer I came up with was “well, in that case he would have just been a complete dick to Cacie, and I could never tolerate that.” But the only reason I could get to that conclusion was that he has been gone for five years (and I am in therapy). The right kickass anthem might have jump-started the process, maybe even given me a clue back when he still lived here and I really needed it. And this one, as ubiquitous as it is, could never have flown under my radar.

So really for me, the question of whether this song succeeds from a feminist perspective is peripheral to the question of whether it can actually help women. The fact that Beyonce’s success is built on her adherence to beauty ideals and general semi-nakedness as much as on her talent is important — of course it is. The fact that women’s worth still gets boiled down to “omg boobies!” is a big part of why I bother writing about shit in the first place. But my analysis of this song is based first and foremost on the image in my head of some lost and despondent 22-year-old belting it alone in her car while she drives away at 3 am from the apartment of a man who only wants her for what he can get from her. “There’s nothing not to love about me. There’s nothing not to need about me. Maybe you’re just not the one… or maybe you’re just plain dumb.”

Lady Gaga cures what ails me

2 May

by Laura

I used to be Into Music when I was younger — not quite to High Fidelity levels, but I played various instruments, I had a lot of musician friends, and I was a fangirl of the (rock) musicians I liked. I was Into Music because it brought me joy, but that joy was mitigated by the fact that it was a very serious endeavor to be a music fan: you had to like the right music, for the right reasons, and your taste in music said something real and lasting and true about you. This idea — that fandom was a way of advertising your true self — is an entirely apolitical view of art: something about the music must speak to you, man, because it resonates with something deep within your very soul. That’s why you had to be a serious fan: if you weren’t, it meant you were influenced by crass things like marketing, and hype, and peer pressure, and that meant your very soul was empty.

So yeah, obviously, this all took place when I was a teenager and thus most susceptible to marketing, hype, and peer pressure, and also desperate to prove to myself and others that my lack of coolness by mainstream standards was secretly the biggest sign of coolness by other, better standards. It was an atrocious lapse of judgment to admit to liking major pop artists, among my crowd of music dorks; you may as well wear a t-shirt that said “I sold my soul” (when, as we all know, a proper t-shirt says “Corporate magazines still suck”).

I’ve been thinking about this dynamic recently for two reasons: 1) Silvana’s amazingly great Tiger Beatdown post on Dude Music, and 2) Lady Gaga. I should probably write about Silvana’s post, since that would be the more intellectual way to go — she writes wonderfully about the way that certain music fans “just happen to like” only music by white dudes, which was (I realized much later) the unwritten rule of the above crowd. A band could get as hugely popular as could be and not ruin your cred, as long as it was fronted by alienated white dudes, but an even slightly popular artist who “just happened” to be a woman or a POC or, god help her, a WOC was beyond the pale. So to speak.

Instead, I’m going to talk about Lady Gaga. Because, seriously, look at this fucking woman:

She is a national treasure. Not since Madonna and Prince has a pop star embraced the total fucking weirdness you can bring to superstardom, the way you can take your artistry seriously while not taking capital-A Art seriously. Lady Gaga writes catchy pop tunes, and she turns her fame into a kind of nonstop performance art. Remember when rockers used to be afraid of selling out? (We fans used to argue about it endlessly, in the Nirvana days.) Gaga has taken selling out to the maximum level: she says, yeah, I’ll put your cell phone in my video, along with the queerest thing you’ve ever seen on MTV. She knows that being a thin, nearly naked blonde is the quickest path to stardom, so she dances in bikinis but then has you watch her make out with the butchest lady in the prison yard.

I find this positively inspiring. In my late twenties, I came to a startling realization: I like pop music. Not all of it! But not none of it, either. Most of my favorite artists still probably fall under the indie rock category, if you are into categorizing that sort of thing (I am not, anymore). But when I stopped playing music myself, and stopped hanging out with musicians, and stopped caring about what cool boys and their cool girlfriends thought of my taste in music, I found that I liked a lot more pop music than I’d realized. In fact, in general, I liked a lot more art just because it made me feel good, and not because it spoke to my very soul. I didn’t care about being a proper fan because I didn’t have time to, but the result was that I no longer felt that fandom was part of my identity, and I no longer judged other people by their iPods, either.

It’s not that music doesn’t move me anymore — it does — or that I don’t go gaga (forgive me) over new artists occasionally — I do. It’s just not identity-constitutive anymore. Some music delights me, and other music does not. The aspects of music culture that I thought were important seem not only irrelevant but illusory: I don’t understand them anymore. Why did we all think it was so important not to get caught humming Shakira in the shower? Why did we think that some bands — some products — were somehow unmarketed when all other bands were total sellouts and industry fakes? Why did what t-shirt you wore seem so telling of your character?

Part of it is the tribalism of the young, no doubt. But much of it was a cultural elitism that is still perpetuated by the type of rock industry dudes Silvana writes of in her post. I knew several girls who were in bands back in my music days, but I didn’t know any all-girl bands. It wouldn’t have made sense to anyone, including me. Pop music is for dumb screaming girls or slutty dancing girls. Serious rock music is for serious dudes and their girlfriends who keep their mouths shut, who could sing sometimes maybe.

It’s such a relief not to be inundated by that pernicious bullshit anymore. Let’s make a sandwich instead.

Not for serious dudes