Gone are the days where female musicians were simply just innocent women trying to make a name for themselves in what used to be a predominantly patriarchal industry. Nowadays, it seems you can’t watch the music channels without seeing Nicki Minaj half naked provocatively dancing or Miley Cyrus presenting awards in her underwear.
So what has caused this burst of sexualisation into the industry? Do females trying to make a name for themselves do it in order to gain publicity or is it just how they want to portray themselves? It’s questionable for different artists. Nicki Minaj has always been oozing sexualisation in all aspects; her clothing, lyrics, music videos and dancing. Whereas Miley Cyrus started off as iconic childhood alter-ego Hannah Montana/Miley Stewart and has now become almost an unspeakable household name due to her outrageous displays of sexualised behaviour and provocative clothing. It still seems as if there is some kind of choice for budding female musicians to choose which path they take to fame but it’s questionable whether that is a choice that will remain. When popular female musicians in the public eye are constantly taking their clothes off and sexualising themselves and gaining attention from doing so, it becomes questionable whether aspiring female musicians will feel a similar ‘need’ to do the same.
It wasn’t until the 70s when female musicians started topping the charts with number one hits. Of course, there was number one hits from women in the 60s— Shirley Bassey, Sandie Shaw and Petula Clark are just three of the several women but, it was still dominated by men. It wasn’t until the 70s when women started to become more acknowledged in the music industry. The 70s saw some of the most influential women in music explode into the public eye with classic number one hits— Kate Bush with Wuthering Heights in 1978, Gloria Gaynor with I Will Survive in 1979 and Diana Ross with I’m Still Waiting in 1971. The 70s was a turning point for women in music. Then along came the 80s— bright, bold and boisterous to sum up a decade in three words. With the 80s came one of the most influential female figures in music; Madonna. Madonna was really the first female musician to display sexualisation in her appearance, videos and lyrics. In 1989, her release of Like A Prayer caused much controversy. Her video to accompany the song was condemned by the Vatican for racial, sexual and religious implications. The video shows Madonna scantily dressed, Catholic symbols such as stigmata and Ku Klux Klan style cross burning and Madonna having sexual dreams of a black saint. When the video was released there was outrage among religious groups and families as well as the Vatican but, the song was still considered a turning point in Madonna’s career— she proved she knew how to sell a song. She sold 5,000,000 copies worldwide and for a woman at that time, that was an achievement. Then came the release of her book ‘Sex’ in 1992. She released it alongside her fifth studio album Erotica and it was literally a book of photographs that featured adult content and soft-core pornographic material as well as simulations of sexual acts. Madonna didn’t even really promote the book due to the amount of controversy that surrounded it, the book pretty much promoted itself. Shortly after its release, the book was banned in Japan.
At the time, Madonna was seen as a massively controversial figure in the industry, even if it was just to promote herself and gain publicity. Nowadays, her actions would be classified as PG in comparison with the likes of Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj. It’s hard to remember Miley Cyrus in her innocent years on Disney channel when you see her wearing what appears to be underwear twerking against Robin Thicke at an award show watched by millions. Her promise was to pull off “the best VMA performance of all time” at the 2013 VMA’s… She certainly managed to pull off the most infamous VMA performance ever seen. So when she was back to host the 2015 VMA awards it was questionable what she’d have up her sleeve this time… or should I say lack of sleeve. Our favourite Disney star arrived braless and then proceeded to perform many outfit changes throughout the night in which she seemed to put less clothing on every time. But what’s it all for? Her new found provocative manner has indeed gained the attention of the public and the media but whether it is good or bad attention is down to individual opinions. As Ian Gittins from Virgin Media Music said in October 2013 after her VMA performance: “PROVOCATIVE. That seems to be the word we are contractually obliged to use in relation to Miley Cyrus nowadays. Her provocative new musical direction. Provocative videos. Provocative interviews. Provocative twerking with Robin Thicke”. It’s difficult to pinpoint a reason for her outrageous behaviour in recent years, so what she is trying to provoke exactly is debatable.
As for rapper Nicki Minaj, she has always been considered one of the most sexualised females in the music industry. After her first release Pink Friday in 2010, Minaj exploded into the public eye with a bang. Every single one of her releases thereafter seemed to shoot straight into the charts. When Anaconda came out in August 2014, there was much controversy surrounding the music video— Minaj in low-rise trousers with a g-string on show and then a tiny bikini surrounded by half naked women twerking. Critics from the national review said the video “…promotes prostitution and drug abuse and promotes immorality to young girls” and it was banned in a city in Israel as they claimed the video to be promoting rape culture. The difference between Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj is that Minaj has always been a sexualised figure in the industry from the start.
Whether it’s just how an artist wants to portray themselves or a method of promotion, what kind of message is it sending to budding female musicians who are trying to make it big in the industry? I spoke to three female artists; Ruby Lord from Suffolk, Gemma Honey from Guernsey and Tyler Greentree who is part of the group Zoo Age from Canada. I asked them about how they feel about the sexualisation of women in the media and if they feel any pressure to match the current females in the charts:
As a female artist, do you believe there is pressure to sexualise yourself in order to become more popular or make yourself known?
Gemma Honey: I think lots of female artists have always felt pressure to sexualise themselves in order to make it in the industry. It’s an industry that’s ruled predominately by males. That reaction, whether it be good or bad gets you noticed.
Tyler Greentree: I have never found that idea creatively fulfilling. I have often been more attracted to the ideas of invisibility and physical obscurity, perhaps because I have always been driven by a rather quiet but pretty inwardly fierce rebellion against the limited expectations of what our culture has for all of its females.
Ruby Lord: I do feel like there is a pressure to sexualise yourself as a female artist…it seems the way to really get recognised now, which I think is a shame – it should be about your music and talent.
Do you think artists such as Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna have relied heavily on their sexual image in order to become popular in the industry?
Gemma Honey: Of course artists such as Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj and Rhianna have relied heavily on their image. It’s sad really because even if they can sing, they’re still heavily relying on image to get further in their career.
Tyler Greentree: Most definitely! They capitalise on it. These three examples almost seem to take the notions of our society’s moral and mortal terror of fascination with feminine sexuality and shove them down our throats with a laugh, while not breaking eye contact.
Ruby Lord: I really do think that those artists have relied on their sexual image. Why not be the best musician you can be and have people love you for the music?
Do you think that future female artists will feel more pressure to sexualise themselves in later years due to the way in which the media portrays current female artists?
Gemma Honey: I think that female artists starting out in the industry will see that sexualising themselves will further their careers but I still have faith that maybe the future women of the industry will realise that if you do decide to take that route, some people may see you as an object instead of an artist.
Tyler Greentree: I think that there will always be artists that receive pressure to highly sexualise themselves. As an artist, I think it’s about having fun. It’s also about always standing by what you believe, whatever that is, no matter how much people want you to compromise—whether it’s the right to express yourself however you want or to save the elephants!
Ruby Lord: I definitely think that the pressure will continue over the years — and more and more female artists will stop caring about their music and care more about their appearance.
Despite the outrageous females that seem to be twerking all over our screens at this current time there is still hope for future females to not feel pressured to do the same while still pursuing their dreams of making it big.
Words by Sophie Nayler