Are music videos too sexual or do they represent power in women?

Rihanna’s latest video has crossed more lines than Miley’s Wrecking Ball. Louise O’Neill yearns for the days of Bananarama and MT USA.

Although the origins of the music video can be said to date back to 1894 when music producers decided to promote sales of a song called The Little Lost Child by projecting images onto a screen during live performances, and artists of the 1960s and 70s such as Elvis, The Beatles, and David Bowie used videos in an ever more clever and inventive fashion; it wasn’t until the 1980s that the music video as we know it came to exist. 

The creation of MTV in 1981 was to change the music industry forever, with a music video now possessing the power to ensure a song’s success. 

(In hindsight, The Buggies’ Video Killed The Radio Star, the first video to be played on the channel, seems incredibly apt). 

In turn, the advent of Youtube in 2005 prompted the steady decline of MTV, and the channel is now more likely to air countless re-runs of reality television shows than music videos. 

In order to be deemed a success in today’s market, a song must not only have heavy radio play but must also break records for most views on Youtube and Vevo within a certain time period. 

It would appear that many artists are turning to increasingly sexualised videos to accomplish this. 

Blurred Lines caused indignation not only for its offensive lyrics but for the discrepancy between how men and women were portrayed in the accompanying video, with the men wearing suits and the women dancing around them naked yet went on to sell nearly 15 millions singles worldwide. 

The video for Wrecking Ball, in which a naked Miley Cyrus straddles a swinging wrecking ball and performs fellatio on a hammer, garnered 19.3 million views within 24 hours in 2013, only bested in August 2014 when Nicki Minaj released the explicit video for Anaconda which racked up 19.6 million views on Vevo within 24 hours.

It’s a far cry from what audiences in the 1980s could have expected from their favourite popstars. 

While Madonna was facing censorship for her appropriation of religious iconography and her refusal to be repressed by traditional sexual mores, her contemporaries presented a far more wholesome facade. 

A big-haired Kylie Minogue showed a group of backup dancers how to do The Loco-Motion and then lay on her four poster bed, plaintively singing to a photo of her beau in I Should Be So Lucky. 

For her 1987 hit, I Think We’re Alone Now, the video is cut with sections where Tiffany sings to an audience wearing an oversized black sweater and stonewashed jeans. Kate Bush rollicks around a field in a flowing red dress for Wuthering Heights. 

Running Up That Hill, for which she was nominated for an MTV Music Video Award for best video by a female artist, features Bush and Michael Hervieu performing a beautifully choreographed dance. 

Cyndi Lauper’s iconic Girls Just Want to Have Fun, features an impressively diverse cast of young women dancing through the streets like they’re at the world’s best sleepover.

Even the furore over the Lolita-esque imagery in the 1999 video for Britney Spear’s Hit Me Baby One More Time (in which the singer dances in a Catholic school girl uniform) seems antiquated now. 

In 2004, politicians were campaigning to ban the video for Call On Me, featuring women in leotards dancing in a sexually alluring fashion. 

2005 saw the release of Candy Shop by 50 Cent which was set in a brothel, 50 Cent the central figure, trying to decide which nameless woman to ‘choose.’ 

It is unsurprising that a 2007 study in the U.S looking at the representation of women in music videos found that: “In the Billboard top 100, six of the top ten songs have lyrics that talk about a girl physically, like some sort of object” and attractive, scantily clad women acting like window dressing has become a tired trope. 

In the summer of 2014, weary of highly sexualised videos by artists such as Robin Thicke, Calvin Harris, and Basement Jaxx, the End Violence Against Women, Imkaan and Object campaign commissioned a report by Dr. Maddy Coy called Pornographic Performances to collect research about sexism and racism in music videos.

The results showed that the majority of music videos depicted men as the ones with “power and dominance, and women as passive recipients of their ‘gaze’”. 

Those who watched the videos in a controlled environment were found to be more likely to “endorse the ‘sexual double standard’ which sees men who have many sexual partners as admirable and women who do so as ‘sluts’”.

However, all is not lost. Many commentators have noticed an interesting trend in recent years in which female artists, some of whom are among the most powerful figures in the music industry regardless of gender, have decided to either completely reject the pressure to perform in a sexually suggestive manner or have claimed ownership of their sexuality and their bodies. 

Artists such as Lorde, Florence Welsh, Adele, and Taylor Swift are firmly in the former camp, with Swift commenting on her ‘chaste’ image by saying, “I’m a lot of things. Overtly sexy is not one of them. I’m fine with all the other things I am.” 

Swift has used her videos to mock the media’s representation of her, most notably with Blank Space, in which she acts like a crazed, jealous lover who attacks her boyfriend.

While Taylor Swift’s refusal to act in a way that does not feel natural for her should be applauded, there are many female popstars who wish to use their music to express their sexuality. 

In an interview with Out Magazine that was published in 2014, Beyonce addressed the criticism of some of the explicit videos on her album such as Blow and Partition by saying: “There is unbelievable power in ownership, and women should own their sexuality... You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist, and a feminist —whatever you want to be —and still be a sexual being. It’s not mutually exclusive.” 

Her sampling of the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ on the track Flawless was a fascinating choice and has introduced an entire generation of young women to feminism.

Other artists are following suit. While one could argue that the video for Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda is merely pandering to her male audience, there are a few subversive moments throughout that suggest otherwise. 

The scene in which she appears to be about to fellate a banana but instead chops it into pieces is, in Minaj’s words, is “always about the female taking back the power, and if you want to be flirty and funny that’s fine, but always keeping the power and the control in everything.” 

Rihanna, simultaneously one of the most compelling and infuriating popstars of the last 10 years, is constantly playing with her image and the manner in which her sexuality is portrayed.

In her most recent video, B*tch Better Have My Money, the singer kidnaps and tortures the girlfriend of the accountant that mismanaged her money.

The video, which is disturbing to watch, has prompted furious debate since its release this month. 

Many are understandably upset about the depiction of violence enacted upon a female victim, believing that as a survivor of domestic abuse herself, Rihanna should have been more cautious. 

Others see it, as Tracy McVeigh at the Guardian wrote, as “an empowering challenge to music industry stereotypes”, with Vogue.com columnist Karley Sciortino saying: “It’s good to normalise the female body. 

In so many music videos where you see nudity, it’s framed in these really specific ways: abstract female body parts just looking hot. 

When Rihanna’s naked she isn’t posing in a hypersexual way, she’s covered in blood and she’ll cut your dick off. She looks powerful, but it’s almost casual, normalised. 

“It’s about showing a powerful representation of the female body, where women are in charge of the way that they’re being viewed.”

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