Tuneful Tuesday: ‘Bang Bang’

The song that was all the rage this summer is a strange one, a collaboration between three female artists that combines scale-defying vocals, hip hop and tough voiced street dancing. The styles of the three artists are markedly distinct, but feed into, ultimately, what seeks to be some sort of feminist/reclamation anthem that I’m not entirely sure hits its mark.

I’m assuming you know that the song is, of course, ‘Bang Bang’, by Ariana Grande, Jessie J and Nicki Minaj.

bang bang

Women Beware Women: The song starts off on the premise that ‘you’ the girls are addressing (one boy or several, we’re not sure) is not single. He is definitely interested in someone else, who has ‘a body like an hourglass’, and has ‘let’ him ‘hold her hand to school’. Jessie and Ariana insist that though this mysterious girl has all those perfect traits, they themselves will do much more for the boy in question, including ‘giving it to [him] all the time’. They assert themselves as sexually more potent and willing than this hourglass-figured silhouette. Remind you of ‘Dontcha’ by the Pussycat Dolls?

The Varied Settings: The three women start off in markedly different settings. Jessie dances on a New York street, at first only with other women, and then opens up the floor to a stream of enthusiasts, all of whom get caught up in the infectious rhythm. Ariana is arianaacting like a little diva in a bedroom, stretching luxuriously on her bed in between dabbing makeup on her face. Nicki struts around in super high heels on a skyscraper’s roof, a helicopter in the background. The women are evidently claiming the spaces—the streets, the bedroom, the epitome of professional success—for their own, in the absence of, or after pushing, the men out of it. These are their spaces, which they invite the men to afterwards.

Owning it: During Nicki’s rap, she names herself (‘Queen Nicki dominant’) as well as her fellow singers (‘It’s me, Jessie and Ari). She seems to warn off ill-wishers (‘if they test me they sorry’) or her costars, we’re not sure who given the phrasing of the song. The fact however that their names form part of the lyrics makes it clear just how much they are invested in and ‘back’ the song. The lyrics are aggressive, suggestive, dictating, in no nickiuncertain terms, what the mysterious ‘you’ wants—the singers seem to know that better than the person him/herself. And all three seem immensely confident about their own attractiveness and sexuality, including the nineteen year old Ariana, striking poses in public and/or private view with what looks like gleeful abandon. In the final image, pink light floods NYC, signaling a total ‘girl power’ takeover.

Conclusion

For all its assertion and seeming power, I don’t really think ‘Bang Bang’ is the gleeful anthem of women’s sexuality that it seeks to be. Sure it starts with a reneging of conventional beauty standards (the ‘hourglass body’ and ‘booty like a Cadillac’ are discounted), but these are thrown aside because the new women promise ‘it’ ‘all the time’. They are positing themselves as better alternatives based purely on the fact that they are,presumably, better and more willing in bed. No other reason.

finale

Second, the video, while it seems to showcase three very confident, attractive women, also privileges only a certain kind of female body: young, lithe and dressed in a manner that is, above all, sexually attractive. Ari, Jessie and Nicki wear short, scrappy dresses/outfits that hardly seem conducive to dancing very comfortably. Their stilettos, also hardly known for comfort, are focussed on in various shots, and (as Amy from the Big Bang Theory told us), women traditionally wore high heels in order to ‘make the breasts and the buttocks more prominent’. Again, catering to the male gaze. And of course we can’t forget how all three, Ariana especially, continue to look provocatively at the camera, drawing the viewers into a promised, or at least hinted at, liasion.

But here we go into complicated terrain: is owning and declaring sexual intent not a feminist, powerful position? Or is it a way to gratify and seek male attention? Is it still objectification if the person doing the objectifying is you? If Queen Nicki chooses to talk about how she can ‘let [him] have it’, is she acting powerful or just catering to some male fantasy?

Big questions, and probably much more than the singers themselves ever thought to raise. Ah well, we can’t deny that it’s a catchy song and that, despite the ridiculousness of its lyrics, it is quite fun to listen to.

Tuneful Tuesday: ‘Animals’

Last week I looked at ‘feminist’ Taylor Swift; this week I’m going to analyse what is perhaps one of the most sexist, disturbing, rape-culture espousing songs to hit the radio in the last few months. I’m talking about Maroon 5’s ‘Animals’, of course.

maroon 5

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Maroon 5. They’ve put out some very catchy songs, with totally (unintentionally) hilarious lyrics. If you’re feeling down about something, just throw on ‘Payphone’ and laugh at the sheer angst that’s captured in those verses. Or listen to ‘Moves Like Jagger’ and try to figure out what Christina Aguilera’s ‘secret’ is. But this song, well, I think Adam Levine is either very stupid and doesn’t get what his words and his video seem to say, or, the much more likely option, he knows, but he just doesn’t give a sh*t.

The stalker trope: However you slice it, there’s no denying that the ‘I’ of the song, the man Levine portrays in the very graphic video, is an unwelcome stalker. He sees the girl stalkerfor a few minutes at a butcher shop (go figure) and seems to decide that he must have her. We see clips of him putting up hundreds of her photos, some of them cut up to display single body parts like one eye. He fantasises about making love to her, stands under her window (presumably) while she’s sleeping, and even dreams of curling up in bed next to her unknowing, sleeping body. He follows her into a club and taps her on the shoulder and does it again, even when she turns away pointedly. Levine’s character is also presented as the quintessential antisocial—we don’t see him actually interact with anyone in the video apart from the girl, and he seems to spend his time hanging out in and humping slaughterhouse-hung carcasses.

The ‘animal’ imagery: Yeah, yeah, pop stars mix up their metaphors all the time—just think of Katy Perry and her ‘dark horse’ song, the messy misuse of which metaphor earned her this parody—but Levine in this song exhorts his ‘prey’ to both ‘run free’ as well as find ‘another fish in the sea’. I’m still not sure there’s any animal out there that both runs as well as finds its mate in the sea.

But in all seriousness, Levine’s use of the animal as symbolic of something base and primeval is not without precedent. He’s totally espousing Tennyson’s ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. He’s also made it clear that he is at the top of the food chain, the predator in this ‘relationship’ who hunts down and eats alive his chosen meat. Just like ‘animals’, you know? Though maybe he operates more like an insect, some of whom are known to eat their mates after copulating with them.

The blood: At the end of the video, Levine and his victim bathe in a waterfall of blood, ala Carrie. Maybe this is an allusion to the infamous Stephen King story; maybe the proximity to blood and butchery is what gives Levine’s character the sort of uber-stalker powers that he displays. Maybe it’s what gives him the super sense of smell (he claims he can ‘smell’ the girl’s ‘scent for miles’) and  lets him know that the two will eventually become one.

creeep

Or, we can go old school and read the waterfall of blood as an allusion to the girl’s virginity, which Levine will violently wrest away tonight. After this she’ll be just another carcass for him, swinging from the hooks of his slaughterhouse. Ridden hard and put away wet, as Chuck Bass once said. Eesh.

The girl: So, what’s the girl’s take on all of this? We don’t know! She walked into a butcher shop, bought some meat, and seems largely unaware of the torrent of emotions she’s unleashed in this creepy man. According to the lyrics of the song, she has no choice in what Levine intends to perpetrate. She is ‘prey’, she is going to be ‘eaten alive’, she can’t ‘deny’ the ‘animal that comes alive’ when he’s inside her (ew). But what does the Animalsvideo tell me? She seems to have a happening enough life, going out with her friends and not looking like she’s the least bit interested in this desperate man. Her blasé brushing off of Levine’s groping hand in the club communicates that she is secure, powerful enough to push off his advances despite his creepy insistence. She goes about her own life, completely uncaring of his rabid fantasies. And who’s left standing out in the cold and rain? Him.

Conclusion:

Frankly, I don’t understand how anyone can listen to this song and not be the slightest bit disturbed. Then again, I think this is part of the inherent sexism of the entertainment industry: let’s all tear Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus apart, but let’s conveniently ignore the blatantly ‘rapey’ lyrics of ‘Animals’, shall we? Let’s ignore the fact that a man is claiming he wants to ‘prey’ on a woman, regardless of whether or not she wants to ‘run free’. Let’s just close our ears when he sings about how she can ‘pretend that it was [him] alone’ who made things happen—pretty much the go-to line of any guy claiming he didn’t ‘rape’ a non-consenting partner.

Last year, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ got into a lot of trouble for its problematic music video and lyrics. I’m surprised Levine wasn’t pulled through the same ring of fire. My apologies, ‘sexiest man alive’, but any guy who sings about his need to ‘prey’ on me or another girl is automatically demoted in my estimation. I’m all for tough love, but baby, this ain’t it.

Tuneful Tuesday: I Knew You Were Trouble

So once a week I’m going to analyse a pop song, because I think it’s fun and might be a nice change from the heavy duty fantasy stuff. Also I think pop songs are the future of academic criticism, which has pretty much exhausted everything else. Presenting, example one: Taylor Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNoKguSdy4Y

Taylor Swift’s relationship to feminism has long been suspect, like that of many popstars not named Beyonce. People have dissed her for being ‘conventional’ and ‘anti women’ because of her early song lyrics (pieces like ‘Ours’ and ‘Better than Revenge’ come to mind), and the fact that she’s a white, obviously attractive young woman makes her guilty of incredible privilege. I suppose the fact that she sings about love and heartbreak doesn’t help her either, in more than a few people’s eyes. Whatevs. I’ve loved her and continue to love her and unlike all those hipsters who are discovering her ‘feminist politics’ now, I rather think she’s been at it for a while.

I think Taylor’s first brush with ‘feminist’ lyrics and hitting back at the music industry began with ‘Red’ (2013), the album that signaled her shift from country to pop music. I’m going to analyse one of the songs in this collection, and interrogate its complicated politics.

I Knew You Were Trouble

There are four main points that jump out at me and complicate any reading of this song:

The Fairy Tale trope – Taylor opens with the classic line ‘Once upon a time’, immediately claiming a universal, fairy-tale like space. Her experience, or that of her protagonist, is one that should act as a cautionary fable for all those listening. By using the phrase and literary genre, Taylor also casts herself as a fairy tale character—most likely, based on the events of the song, a princess who’s lost her way. This is not new for her, since she famously used the trope in ‘Love Story’, her first big hit. love story

Taylor’s relationship to the fairy tale has changed considerably—from a naive, waiting–for-rescue princess in ‘Love Story’, she’s become one who narrates her past ‘mistakes’. She should have known this particular prince was ‘trouble’, she says, and not fallen into his arms. The next step in this journey has been taken in ‘Blank Space’, where she’s graduated to becoming the ultimate powerful woman of the fairy tale: the wicked witch.

The audience – Most pop songs are addressed to a generic ‘you’. If you’re a female pop artist, your audience is usually going to try and figure out who the ‘you’ is. This is particularly common with Taylor’s music, thanks to her very publicly-documented relationships with various celebrities. The first comment on many of her romantic songs (or break up songs) is ‘who is this about?’, and the good tabloid journalists (and music critics) will try to provide the answer.

taylor-swift-has-chosen-her-next-victimI’m not going to go into the sexism that’s inherent in this kind of reporting and reception (I’ll save that for some other time). Instead, we should turn our attention to how Taylor, in ‘I knew you were trouble’ shifts between addressing a specific ‘you’ and talking to a larger, general audience. She refers to a ‘he’ who is ‘long gone’, one who’s left her—the same ‘he’, presumably, who she should have known was ‘trouble’. This indicates that she’s already pulled out of her self absorption/heartache (at least in short bursts) to address the larger audience and make a cautionary fable out of her experience. This is pretty strong for a female pop artist, or any artist, who’s writing a break up song.

The ‘I’ factor – What really struck me about this song was how very driven it was by Taylor’s insistence on using ‘I’, on blaming herself for falling for this sham prince. In the voiceover that accompanies the music video, she says, ‘the worst part wasn’t even losing him; it was losing myself’. Taylor is claiming agency for her own mistake—while some may see this as a victim blaming herself for the misfortune that has befallen her, I prefer to see it the same way Taylor does, using it as an empowering experience that she will, in the trouble taylorfuture, avoid, and help her listeners avoid. ‘Shame on me’, she says, for hoping to be a princess again. That won’t be happening any more.

The music video – The video for the song (posted here) is downright disturbing. It opens on a blasted landscape, which we later figure out is the aftermath of a big concert where Taylor was cheated on by her boyfriend. Through the course of the song we realise that this boy came in with problems, possibly owed money to the wrong people, and gets roughed up while he’s out with her. She doesn’t seem to be aware of what exactly is going on in his life—just has a vague idea that he is perhaps bad news, a premonition that’s only borne out later in the song.

enrique heroThe desert-like setting (small town in an arid landscape) and the boy’s evident problems remind me of Enrique Iglesias’s 2003 hit, ‘Hero’. There, a man and a woman have made a break with ill-gotten cash, and the man winds up being dragged away for it while the woman watches, weeping. In ‘Hero’, Enrique asks in a rather sentimental fashion whether his girlfriend will ‘save [his] soul’; in ‘Trouble’, which I choose to read as the female response to this plea, Taylor realises that saving any man’s soul is a hell of a lot of trouble, and probably not even worth the emotional investment. The video shows her trying to help her boyfriend out as he’s being pushed around, and then being cheated on for her pains. So much for trying to be there for him, she should have known he wasn’t a hero worth the saving, just more ‘trouble’ and yet another ‘mistake’.

Jennifer Love Hewitt probably came to the same conclusion after all that broken hearted weeping.

It’s also interesting to note that what really pushes Taylor away from the boy is not his money problems or his evident ‘bad’ company, it’s the fact that he cheated on her in public. What drives her away is this final, physical betrayal. Who knows, if Enrique had acted the same way in ‘Hero’, might JLH have walked away? His ‘trouble’ is also therefore of his own making—not something that he once fell into and then was unable to walk away from. The sympathy the audience, and Taylor, might have had for him evaporates with this final image of his smug smile vanishing into the strobe lights.

Conclusion

trouble 2‘I Knew You Were Trouble’  negotiates a complicated terrain. On the one hand, the break-up song is traditionally seen as a victim’s plaint, the lament of someone who has been left behind to scoop pieces of themselves together, and thus automatically relegated to the ‘weak’ party. In this case, it’s very clear that Taylor is the one piecing herself together, who has ‘lost’ herself along the way.

On the other hand, the break up song, through its very existence and its assertion of feelings, acts as a self-affirmative medium. It gives its protagonists a chance to explore their residual feelings and come to some sort of catharsis, work through the remnants of relationships that sound (from the lyrics) intense and more than a little emotionally draining. The messy clearing away of these feelings is something that the protagonists do individually, engaging in a one-sided dialogue with the absent other in order to come to terms with their own feelings. It is an entirely self-driven and self-rewarding/abusing exercise, with the absent other as nothing more than a convenient prop on which to deflect abundant emotion.

Taylor’s song straddles this contradictory reading, positing her as both victim (the stray princess, the hunted object) as well as rueful learner, the burned hand who ‘should have known better’. She both denies and grants herself agency, veering from stance to stance within a few brief verses. The reading of the lyrics is only complicated by the music video and the accompanying voice-over. Though she starts the video prone on the bare ground, obviously recovering from some sort of emotional and/or physical blow, she pulls herself upright and ends up traipsing all over that site, heedlessly singing her story. Ain’t no one going to trouble her no more. witch taylor