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Tina Turner performing at Central Park in 1969. Musician Jan Seides sees her as part of a generation that wasn't afraid to be "flamboyant, exuberant, sexy" and prefigured the styles of Lady Gaga and Beyonce.
Tina Turner performing at Central Park in 1969. Musician Jan Seides sees her as part of a generation that wasn't afraid to be "flamboyant, exuberant, sexy" and prefigured the styles of Lady Gaga and Beyonce. Walter Iooss Jr. / Getty Images
Today Morning Edition aired a piece by Zoe Chace about the characters created and inhabited by hugely successful pop stars, most of whom (these days) are women –- the alter egos of Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj. She’s not saying this phenomenon is completely new, but that it's more prevalent and in our faces in the past five years.
In the questionnaire we sent out to hundreds of women musicians this spring we didn’t ask specifically about image, but the musicians who filled it out brought up image again and again, in response to questions as varied as “Do you see differences between generations of women musicians?” and “What is your role in your group?”
Many of the women who participated in our project say they’re inspired by the risks these stars take:
Carol Lester (Carol Lester & The World Women): This generation as in every generation there are the cover girl pop stars who are created and marketed by men (expect in the case of the fab Madonna who NEVER had a middle man and acted as her own pimp). There are also those women who break that mold and show the good bad and ugly or the beauty and the beast in who they are (and we all are). These women have less money behind them in marketing dollars and their reign is shorter, but their following is strong for the rest of their lives from female fans who understand the risk these women took in telling it like it really was in their lives through music. Here are just a few of my favorite women who inspire me to keep on writing and performing: Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Chrissie Hynde, Phoebe Snow, Alanis Morissette, Beyonce, yes even Lady Gaga.
Jan Seides: My take is that the younger generation isn't afraid of being flamboyant, exuberant, sexy. My generation was far more subdued. I think the difference began with the punk rockers. In my generation the model was Joni Mitchell, who though brilliant, was subdued and "feminine". Now that model is Lady Gaga and Beyonce. In between were Tina Turner, Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith.
But some say they’re annoyed by what they see as attention-grabbing antics. Do pop stars' constructions (be they costumes or stage sets) put pressure on less well-funded women musicians to be outrageous, to get more naked or cross more lines just to get noticed?
Anji Bee, Lovespirals: From my perspective, the most important thing is to develop a strong internet presence that includes quality audio, video, and photos. The more professional you come across, the more likely people are to take you seriously. I personally wouldn't rely on gimmicks to get attention, but that seems to be working out for Lady Gaga, so who am I to say anything against it?
Jessica Martins, Via Audio: I think that generally speaking, the path that popular women musicians have taken is not the best example of what women musicians like me are trying to achieve; the auto-tuned, sex-driven pop star icons shown in the media are a bad representation of what is actually sexy - being good at my instrument is the sexiest thing I can think to do on stage. It used to not always be about the things that surround the music - the image, the reaction - but, rather, the raw emotion and natural talent involved in making a classic song and performance. This is not to say there are not still women out there doing this effectively - they're just harder to find than the "icons" that are spoon-fed to us today.
Joanie Leeds, Joanie Leeds & The Nightlights: I definitely see differences between generations of women musicians. For one, dancing in a bra and panties would have never happened back in the day. I think about what my grandmother must be thinking when she sees a Lady Gaga performance on TV. I know that my generation is pretty desensitized to these sort of images nowadays but it's still shocking to see women dress like that. Sometimes I wonder if she wore jean and a tee shirt and sang with out all the smoke and whistles if any one would like her or her songs at all. I think the female artists from years past had to be really strong because it was more about the words, performance and the artists' presence. I don't mean to generalize either but it seems like today you can just throw on some weird outfit and hump the stage and get a record deal. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong generation!
God-des and She: Women used to be able to just be amazing musicians and not have to sell their bodies ... since Brittney Spears and Beyonce all that has changed. You need the "whole package" to achieve mainstream success these days and it’s sad cause the music isn't about making people feel inspired it's about making people feel aroused.
Do all flamboyant characters force rank and file women musicians to spend more time than they really need to conceptualizing their appearance?
Räuberhöhle: If you learn since your childhood that you have to be pretty and nice, you must be a freak to go crazy on stage ... getting red and sweaty and your make up is going liquid ... not very ladylike. It took me years learning that it's more fun not thinking about this crap and just have fun for myself.
Hannah Lew, Grass Widow: In terms of being a female performer, specifically, I feel that we are constantly confronting the way that people use our image/discuss it. We spend a lot more time working on songs than we do working on our appearance, and it does bother me when people objectify us in the spirit of centuries of patriarchy. This is not to say that performing in front of an audience isn't part of what we do and I feel aware of how our image as three young women plays into that. Women shouldn't have to hide their confidence and celebration of themselves because men can't control themselves. That attitude seems to be in the service of men-excluding women from the audience.
But then again, if sex sells, and the musician feels fine about it, who’s to stop her?
Jess Klein: I've coached a few younger women on stage performance stuff and been totally blown away by their confidence and their willingness to put themselves out there. I think it's taken me a long time to really own what I do as a performer. So it's good to see young gals stepping up and not being afraid.
Andrea Rogers, Night Driving in Small Towns: I feel that a lot of women in my generation and the generation directly preceding mine come off a lot harsher because they struggle so much to be successful while still retaining the characteristics that make them distinctly female. It is very difficult to retain your femininity in a way that, say, Connie Francis did. Instead, we have flashy, oversexed, photoshopped versions of what women are supposed to be; and on the other side of the scale, we have hyper-masculine, overly made-up, trans-gendered versions of women. Some may say this is a result of women breaking out of the patriarchal machine, testing the limits of sexuality and gender roles. But it may very well be just another female survival mechanism inherent in the music industry.
You can read all the responses to our questionnaire here, and tell us about your own experience in the comments below.