Dirty Sexy Liberalism
Pop music replicates and recreates culture. US puritans wouldn’t have been scared that Slipknot were going to drive children to satanic psychopathy, or that hip hop was going to breed a bunch of women-haters if music culture didn’t permeate our lives. From eight-year-olds flicking through the sleek press shots of album-case pamphlets, to the channel-flicking everyman, new-to-stumble-upon MTV and feeling zero for not living in a cream-clad mansion, commercial culture provides an appealing and alluring identity.
Succumbing to music is subconscious. Foot-tapping to a tune transpires; you find yourself singing lyrics and next you’re pretty much practicing self-indoctrination. Look more positively back at the enduring pacifism of Dylan, the often-appropriated Kwesi Johnson or the volume of people who still look to Marley as a kind of demigod. Whether or not an artist’s persona and political voice is constructed, music creates a platform for the spreading and sharing of thought.
But the world over-lauded the manufactured meaning of 2013; viral media went wild in lapping up the “liberalism” of pop. Beyoncé plied a fifth, self-titled album with sassy pleas for us to stick a final “post” in front of patriarchy, Lily Allen allegedly outed and ousted music-exec-misogyny, Snoop Dogg consolidated the ideological growth out of rap culture and into liberal lion-hood and Macklemore went as far as to spit a few bars about thinking he might’ve actually been gay one time. When the breasts continued to jiggle, and big dick references remained tantamount to the assertion of male magnitude, those such as Allen stood up to “fight commercialism”; ‘Hard out Here’ was an attempt to set the whole “sex sells” policy to right.
But ‘Hard out Here’ was far from the selfless feminism whose pride it wore – you know, like that kind of good charity where your right hand doesn’t see what the left giveth. ‘Hard out Here’ was the pinnacle of Allen’s commercial comeback, poignantly preceded by a cover of ‘Somewhere Only We Know‘ for John Lewis’ overplayed Christmas ad. After doing a preemptive, Bieber-act of “retiring” early and an insidiously ironic Channel 4 documentary about “not wanting to be famous anymore”, she then chose to place herself before us with a direct parody of Thicke’s already-admonished ‘Blurred Lines’.
Unfelt, auto-tuned vocals stated that she was too intelligent to shake her junk for cash. She made herself the figurehead of Anti-Cyrus Feminism 2013, but didn’t actually tell anyone what being a feminist was about or what feminists were meant to do. At the heart of it, feminism became popular on the back of the bitter memory of the VMAs, and Allen adopted it like the latest trending BPM.
Preaching equality is good, but if devised as a promo strategy, its emptiness becomes visible with the inevitability of sweat-stains on a tight, grey T-shirt. Some time back in April, Simon Hattenstone interviewed the Dogg himself about transitioning into Lionhood. He’s overboard in declaring his adamant support of gay rights. Unsurprisingly, the paradigm shift comes at a time when equal marriage rights movement has a rush of media support. But as the interview goes on, Snoop’s attention wavers. He’s subsumed by a music video muted on a screen in the room. “She is fine”, he says; “She got tush. You know when they got body?”. He slips from neoliberal leader to Human-Crufts competition judge in the drop of a few words.
We want to reimagine Snoop, and welcome Allen, Beyonce and Macklemore as people reinventing pop’s political power. But can we really deem them great for saying things which are just expected from your averagely decent, non-famous person? Sure, it was good for Macklemore to get up and point out that gay love was the same as straight love – but wasn’t that already a given? It was thoughtful of Beyonce to incorporate Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s then-trending TEDx talk into ‘Flawless’ – but does it make her a real, self-thinking feminist?
Reinvention is a key part of selling commercial music. The pop-music industry puts pressure on artists to package and present themselves as commercially viable objects. Think about Nicki Minaj; the creatively planned “split personality disorder” that allows her to slip in and out of different characters to appeal to different social demographics. Or about the way Beyoncé sampled Major Lazer’s ‘Pon de Floor‘ for ‘Run the World‘ after it had been circulating underground dance environments for two years. Her appropriation of meme-centric feminism is just the same as her well-timed uptake of dancehall; an attempt to tap into the hearts of a growingly prolific subculture.
Pop might be making a few liberal claims, and maybe its helping the oh-so-impressionable kids to veer away from bigging up the bigotry. But if they want to challenge the dominant systems of society, it’s hypocrisy to pose their attacks from within the money-mongering heart of mass, music culture. Pop is a process of continual change, rebellion, reversal and recycling. These artists are not consolidating a different worldview, but rendering liberal attitudes the latest fashion accessory to be sexed up and sold to you.