If there’s one thing Miley Cyrus has been good for, it’s opening up dialogue on the perception of women in music. Between her sledge-hammer-licking videos and infamous VMA antics, the twenty-year-old singer has unwittingly unleashed a debate that’s seen everyone from Sinead O’Connor to Amanda Palmer voicing their opinions on the over-sexualization of women in the industry. Most recently, Welsh singer Charlotte Church added to the conversation in a John Peel lecture in which she related her own experience as a young female trying to navigate from child star to adult performer and the pressure to sexualize herself in order to do so.
In the fifteen minute lecture, Charlotte discussed the role music executives play in coercing young women into sexing themselves up to maintain their career. “They are encouraged to present themselves as hyper-sexualised, unrealistic, cartoonish, as objects, reducing female sexuality to a prize you can win,” she said, adding that many of these women are often previous child stars or “Disney-tweens.” While she commented on the appropriateness of such hyper-sexualized images and how they influence children, the most interesting parts of her lecture were the power dynamics that it raised, pointing out that while sexed up images can foster a feeling of control for women, they do nothing to change who actually has the power in the music business. Instead, they play into a potentially false system of empowerment which only serves to make rich men richer as they feed off of a woman’s desire to express herself.
This idea of misleading power is an interesting one that can best be illustrated by a recent Celebrity 100 list. In June, Forbes magazine released their annual list of the world’s most powerful musicians. Surprisingly, seven out of the top ten music acts were women, with Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Madonna and Taylor Swift holding the top four spots. Rihanna, Katy Perry and Jennifer Lopez were also in the top ten, giving the appearance that women are currently the most powerful people in the music industry. But anyone who knows anything about the record business knows how far from the truth this is. The music industry is still, sadly, overwhelming male dominated. Between record executives, managers, producers and writers, it’s an industry that is run by men who, like any other businessmen, are eager to cash in on whatever they can. As Charlotte pointed out in her lecture, 259 of the 295 acts in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are entirely male while only 13% of registered writers, and 4% of the Music Producers Guild are female. Add onto this the prevalence of male A&R execs and label owners and you have a crushingly male powered industry.
So, how did Forbes assess the power of these women in their field? Through a superficial equation that measures the amount of fame and money that a celebrity has. Using a formula that evaluates estimated earnings, social media popularity, and the amount of press and television coverage that a celebrity receives, the magazine created their own hierarchy of perceived control. It wasn’t judged on the influence that they have on society, or the decisions that they make. It wasn’t judged on how strong and self-assured these women are. It was judged on the amount of money they take in and the column inches they generate. Given this model, women in music would derive their power from the amount of attention they receive, not their artistry. A provocative music video which gets millions of hits on YouTube or a torrid love affair with Harry Styles which sets the gossip mags in a publishing tizzy will do more to boost your Forbes power ratings than any amount of industry accolades or writing and producing credits will. Is it any wonder, then, that Miley Cyrus is swinging around naked on construction sites?
The majority of the women in the Forbes list rely on some form of hyper-sexuality to sell their music, and, therefore, establish their authority. From Katy Perry’s whipped cream shooting breasts in ‘California Girls,’ to Rihanna’s recent strip club video for ‘Pour It Up,’ most of these women use their sexuality to sell records. It attracts attention, and, at the same time, gives them a sense of empowerment. But while they might be in control of their own image and doing what they want to do, they’re not the only ones profiting off of their sexual expression. ‘Pour it Up’ with its 54 million hits will make a bundle of cash for Rihanna, but it will make a hell of a lot more for the record execs behind her who are more than happy to go along with her increasingly explicit artistic visions. Women in music should be wary of this. While young women are watching and being influenced by the over-sexualization of women in popular music, men are also watching and learning the ways in which they can cash in on women cashing in on their own sexuality. They’re making a business out of female empowerment and when that happens, when other people make money off of the sexuality that you are trying to claim, then it no longer belongs to you. It becomes just another commodity.