This article was originally published on my Wordpress blog on May 12th, 2014, as an assigment for my Spring Term Media Studies class with the byline: "Alex Anderlik is a senior in the Class of 2014 at Phillips Academy but hails from Missoula, Montana. When he's not wasting time on the Internet, he's trying to figure out how to waste more time on the Internet. You can reach him at google.com/+AlexAnderlik."
When talking about popular music, perhaps no names pop up more than Taylor Swift and Beyoncé Knowles. On the one hand, I have the prolifically repetitive innocence princess, T-Swizzle, as thin as paper and even whiter. On the other hand, I have the assertive and fanatically-worshipped Queen B, who not only embraces the sexualization of her black and curvier body but who claims that doing so is an act of empowerment. In my head, I still can’t get Pharrell to go away.
I watched the first music video which popped up when I searched each artist’s name in YouTube. To be clear, I don’t actually listen to any of these artists, but from what I overhear in my friends’ conversations, I don’t think any of these latest hits are anomalies in each musician’s career.
First I watched “Everything Has Changed” by Taylor Swift (and featuring Ed Sheeran). Suffice to say I was horrified. I could hardly imagine a video more eagerly embracing the gender stereotypes formulated in the “traditional” 1950s era and laid out by Jessica Valenti in The Purity Myth, among many others. The theme of this video is essentially Swift reminiscing over her (apparently overtly sexualized) pre-pubescent days. You’d think that a record-setting artist who’d been a 6-year-old so recently would remember that elementary schoolers actually think about things besides slow-dancing with their significant others, but Taylor Swift had a unique life after all.
Unsurprisingly, the video opens with a young Caucasian girl living in a massive suburban McMansion, twirling her blonde pigtails and tugging at her skimpy white dress while she waits for the school bus. Already, the blinding metaphors of “innocence” and “childhood purity” are stinging my eyes.
She sits next to a pants-wearing boy, who barely acknowledges her between sips from his mug and glances at the Comics section of a newspaper in his hands. As you could probably predict, he plays the knight in shining armor to her princess in the school play, draws in a notebook while she sews, and even receives a fake tattoo from her in the subsequent montage of their childhood romance.
Neither character seems to care about their education, their friends (if they even have any), or anything that could possibly exist outside the sphere of their love story; instead of sitting in class, they sneak out to hide in a dark, empty classroom to play with a snake and build a pillow fort. Who needs subtlety, anyways?
At the end of the video, we get our first surprise when our characters get picked up by their respective parents – none other than Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. Considering the fact that both of these singers would have been sixteen when these kids were born, not to mention that both children have almost identical bodies, clothes, and personalities as their parents, it seems more likely that these kids are actually clones.
The overall theme of the song is a nostalgic reminiscing of the highly-conventional romance which allegedly dominated Taylor Swift’s early adolescence, and the video implies that she is seeing the same exact story playing out in the next generation. Who knows: if Taylor Swift songs are all the next generation is hearing, maybe her impossible fantasies of romance-obsessed 5-year-olds will wish their way into reality.
After watching that video, I was ready for something different. Something very different. Beyoncé was my immediate choice. The first YouTube result for her was the recently-released music video to “Pretty Hurts,” which is one of the songs on the self-titled album she unexpectedly debuted on iTunes. Taylor Swift would probably cover her “daughter’s” eyes if they watched this video, which depicts the hardships faced by Beyoncé’s Miss Third Ward character in a fictional (but most likely realistic) beauty pageant. Where Swift longingly embraces the romantic narrative of gender, beauty, and sexuality, Beyoncé shoves its ugly side into the critical spotlight.
The women in this video are unhappy and unhealthy, aggressively damaging their bodies through under-eating, over-exercising, and purging. Wearing little more than swimsuits and underwear, these contestants (many of whom are black) are dramatically over-sexualized; a far cry from the virginal, innocent “good girl” of Swift’s video. It’s clear that the smiles on their faces are shallow masks (some quite literally made of plastic) hiding the loathing they have for each other and for the beauty pageant as a whole.
All the while, the anthem’s lyrics are decrying those very same gender roles as destructive and impossible. Beyoncé sings of a mother who tells her daughter that intelligence doesn’t matter, that “what you wear is all that matters.” She speaks (or rather, sings) out against the institutions of female beauty which pressures girls to transform their bodies into the impossible plastic figurines. The song’s hook emphasizes the unattainable obsession with perfection which is so clearly manifested in the concept of beauty pageants themselves: “we shine the light on whatever’s worst / perfection is the disease of a nation.” After all, the goal of conventional beauty is set at the expense of self-esteem and physical health, as women are conditioned to feel deeply ashamed of their own bodies simply for being different: “we try to fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see / it’s the soul that needs the surgery.”
The most powerful moment of the video comes at around 4:00, when the music stops and the pageant’s host asks Miss Third Ward a conventional pageant question: “What is your aspiration in life?” Miss Third Ward is at a loss for words. She has never been given a true voice before, never allowed an ambition other than the glittery crown marking her absolute compliance to the sexual appetites of men which constitute our societal norm of beauty for women.
What is the real desire of a woman who has overworked, starved, and abused herself only to smile coquettishly while an unsettlingly over-glammed Miss Shaolin takes the crown? According to Miss Third Ward, it’s “to be happy.”
Unfortunately for her, the rest of the pop music industry doesn’t want to listen:
“Here come bad news talking this and that, yeah, Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back, yeah, Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine, yeah, No offense to you, don’t waste your time Here’s why: Because I’m happy!”
Pharrell, emerging from the shadows of an urban alley wearing impeccable pastel beach clothes while dancing goofily and singing in falsetto, could care less about the suffering of women in beauty pageants. Or apparently any suffering at all, for that matter.
The annoyingly-catchy spring fever hit of the year is, unfortunately, left unexplained: Pharrell never explains just how the men and women of various ages, races, and occupations in his video decided to all dance emphatically.
Considering the fact that Pharrell grew up in the resort city Virginia Beach, Virginia, it seems odd that he decides to sing his song in rusty metropolitan basements; while that seems to be the backdrop for many famous African-American performers, “Happy” is just about the polar opposite of the racy rap songs and aggressively masculine gang culture which manifests itself in the “cool pose” of these artists.
Ultimately, I think just about the only real meaning in this video actually betrays itself through Pharrell: after all, how can a black man in what appears to be impoverished city slums emphatically insist that all the world’s problems will go away if you just express your glee through a jig or two?
Answer: When that man is a superstar worth $80 million. Who started his own luxury clothing line called “Billionaire Boys Club.” And has a half-pipe in his own house. (He insisted that he’s still a humble guy, though: “I’m building a computer shelter for kids who are, y’know, less fortunate financially and come from low-income housing… I’m gonna change the world, baby.”)
Together, what might be considered the Holy Trinity of the current moment’s pop music – Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Pharrell – is sending a lot of mixed messages. A 24-year-old white female singer from Pennsylvania (who maintains total artistic control over her $40 million-a-year empire and made her name as a country musician by singing generic songs more closely resembling pop) performed a song called “Everything Has Changed” about how nothing has changed. A black female pop star spontaneously debuted her own music without warning, decrying damaging gender roles and the over-sexualization of African American women, either despite or because of her own highly-sexualized career. And a hugely-successful black male musician from Virginia brought upper-class beach clothes to the alleys of Los Angeles to sing about how everything is great and we should ignore all problems.
One thing is clear, however: all of these songs and artists are unfathomably successful. Who knows – maybe there is a method to all this madness.