Beth Ditto on the cover of NME. (courtesy of NME)
Like countless others, I watched Britney Spears' meltdown in early 2007 with an obsessive eye. What did it mean that her decline had been allowed to get to this point? Princess Diana-style paparazzi filmed her cracking up, and we watched it on YouTube. Clearly, she was losing her grip on reality, and there was a lot of money invested in her career, but maybe something else was happening beyond substance abuse and mental illness.
I found it particularly intriguing that her freak-out was so tied to her image; we watched, glued to our screens, as she said, "I don't want anyone touching me. I'm tired of everyone touching me" and demanded to be allowed to tear out her own hair extensions, bit by bit. When no one would help her, she took clippers and shaved her own head. Obviously, she wasn't in a good frame of mind to be making any kind of decision. But isn't it interesting that, as a female performer, what she wanted control over was her own body; her image?
Beth Ditto, lead singer from queer indie-disco group The Gossip, read this as an act of defiance, saying, "I'm loving it. If you think what her hair meant to her and what it meant to a generation of little girls — she really did turn out a generation of little Britneys." Ditto concluded, "For this to happen is one of the most radical things ever." She went on to acknowledge that Spears was not in a healthy place, but noted that "it can be amazing and empowering" to get to that point. Any girl who has ever felt tempted to shave her head, or gone for a year or a lifetime without wearing makeup, knows how liberating this can feel, especially when you're young.
All of this brings up the question of how women, and especially female performers, are judged on the basis of looks; how our bodies are mediated by the marketplace. This is true even in indie and underground bands, and is definitely the case in pop music. If the mainstreaming of porn has meant more stripper-dancing in music videos — starting with heavy metal, moving to hip-hop and and settling in Top 40 --it has also meant that female artists are pressured to become those naked ladies in their own videos. Madonna and Lady Gaga seem to be the rare exception to this rule by opting to comment on objectification as a part of the performance.
While some female performers may experience sexual objectification as empowering, it may not be that simple. As long as we live in a society that uses sex to sell things, this is going to be tricky for women. It might make you feel powerful to look hot in your video, but it also sets a precedent that other female artists will feel a need to live up to (diet, plastic surgery), and it encourages music fans to think of you in terms of your body rather than your work.
While I agree that music is sexual, especially when you can dance to it, I also think that women are in a tough place when it comes to this stuff. A lot of double-standards are at work. As an older female-musician friend of mine pointed out, it isn't necessarily liberating or radical to see women in music using their bodies to sell records. I think this becomes clearer as we get older and are no longer considered attractive. Does this mean that our music is no longer good? No, but it does make it harder to sell.
As long as the music industry focuses on image, women are going to find themselves in a double-bind. Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon recently said, "The idea of women empowering themselves by becoming sexual objects is backward. It seemed brilliant at one point, but it had really bad ramifications. Things lose their context so quickly."
I agree, but what are we supposed to do about it? I tend to think that our best bet is to insist that we are sexy, regardless of whether or not our bodies fit into the narrow, limited ideal for feminine beauty in our culture — young, tall, thin, light-skinned, European nose, straight hair and so on. This is why it's so awesome to see Beth Ditto (a self-proclaimed fat-positive, queer woman) gain success on her own terms, without dieting or altering the way she looks to cater to a mainstream ideal.
By insisting that she's sexy just the way she is, Ditto demands we acknowledge that there are more kinds of female bodies than just the skinny, weak-looking, classically feminine type. She is strong and curvy and confident. She is powerful and beautiful. On top of that, she isn't interested in men and couldn't care less if they find her attractive. For this — and because she sings like a punk-rock Aaliyah — Beth Ditto is my hero. I just hope she's able to make friends with Britney before it's too late.
Watch a video of Beth Ditto's band, The Gossip, performing a live version of their song "Standing In The Way Of Control:"