When Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s WAP became a raging internet sensation and topped Billboard charts for weeks, a conversation around the objectification of women in music emerged- was this kind of music feminist or did it fuel objectification? As women try to reclaim spaces within the male-dominated music industry, they are further constricted into narrow definitions of what their art should or shouldn’t comprise.
No secret to the public eye, lad culture and misogyny are deeply embedded in the music industry as a whole, but specifically in certain genres like trap, hip-hop or rap, and heavy metal in the west and Bollywood or rap in India as well. Not only is there a disturbing underrepresentation of women in the music industry, but even when women do make it big, there are scrutinised for the music they create and the way they create it.
On the one hand, women are expected to stick to soft pop or country, perhaps an extension of the archaic feminine values of softness and delicacy- which breeds artists like Taylor Swift, who write music mostly about heteronormativity and portray themselves in Eurocentric, traditionally feminine ways. But even these women are infantilised, deemed less than worthy of winning awards, believed to be catering to an unevolved ear.
When women do liberate themselves from these barriers, especially black women and women of colour, through songs that empower and embolden female sexuality, they are slut-shamed and called names by the same audience that otherwise greedily laps up the objectification and fetishization of women when it is done by males in the music industry.
We see this keenly through genres like hip hop, which have forever perpetuated misogyny and objectification of women, be it cult icons like Eminem, who frequently uses slurs against women in all of his most famous work like Marshall Mathers EP, or more contemporary rappers like Pop Smoke and Dababy most of whose music is centred around treating women are dispensable objects, encouraging the abuse and exploitation of women. The audience loves it, pedestalising these rappers for their bars, normalising lyrics about men owning their masculinity at the expense of women. But the moment we hear the voice of a Doja Cat or a Nicki Minaj or a Beyonce, she is denigrated and labelled as an artist using sex to sell her music.
When empowered women flip the same sexualisation of women that have long been a part of male verses and music videos and reclaim them for their benefit, they are dragged and scrutinised. The WAP was almost a feminist anthem of one kind- reclaiming agency over the female sexuality and expressing female pleasure through music, breaking the silence over a stigmatised topic considered taboo- which scared the patriarchy. Sexually liberated women are a threat to patriarchy, and two black women owning their pleasure was deemed “ungodly”, and although the song was certainly not innocent or holy, it was important. It was important to bring to the limelight the hypocrisy with which we consume music and culture of demonising women who express themselves in ways that have been limited to men for centuries.
This isn’t limited to the rap industry at all- in fact a lot of genres like pop or even country which may seem relatively harmless, police women for the music they produce. Female iconoclasts who have taken over the pop industry like Madonna, Rihanna, Billie Eilish and Lizzo are looked at through binaries of the virgin-whore complex, wherein society only sees women in two roles- either the virgin or the whore. Either they are starkly stripped of their sexuality, like Billie Eilish, in which case they are infantilised, or they are seen as sexual women who need to be controlled. In both ways, women are policed for singing their truth to power, creating music they enjoy and owning the space they take up in the music industry. In the country music genre, traditional and unequal gender roles are vastly written about, along with unhealthy male hedonistic depictions of women in suburban settings. Songs like “Hey Girl” by Billy Currington or Jason Aldean’s “Night Train” and “Burnin’ It Down” more than depicting how women are used as pawns in country music.
Women are often also used as figurines to sell male music to a wider audience, wherein they are photographed scantily clad and used on the cover of albums and records or positioned carefully in music videos to feed to the male gaze. This is seen starkly in Indian music industries- be it the ‘item song culture’ in Bollywood or deeply problematic representations of women in the Punjabi music industry.
For a country that claims for its entertainment industries to be progressive towards gender parity, songs like Gandi Baat that promote non-consensual sex and aggressive masculinity, often even pimping culture, are a stain. Tied into the idea of attracting more attention to the movie and driving up profits, filmmakers use such item songs which contradict notions of consent and romanticise stalking. Another such example is songs like Chikni Chameli, which sexualise women to a point of borderline harassment, around lewd and obscene men.
Thus the question arises- who controls the female voice and body in the music industry? Are women policed no matter what end of the spectrum of music they lie in? Can they ever truly reclaim their identity and sexuality from the cishet men that run the global music industry? Only time will tell.
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