Sex And The Music Industry
Sexuality in the music industry has been a subject of conversation and a selling point ever since we can remember. The male gaze has always been the focal point in terms of selling anything, despite the fact that women have been known to be the bigger consumers overall.
We’ve seen female artists go through sexually charged “liberations” in order to shed a “good” persona that was put on to them against their will. We’ve seen their popularity skyrocket as a result. Consequently their accounts grow exuberantly. We’ve also seen them grow out of this selling point after realising said liberation did not serve them. Also that this was never their own direction in the first place.
Women have always been forced to reside in two specific boxes…
…when it comes to the music industry. The sensual box that uses sex to sell or amplify their product or the very sterile box where the confines are tight and the choices are bleak. In this latter box, the idea of elusiveness and purity reign supreme. Rarely are you allowed to hang around in both.
Men for the most part, have had free range in terms of experimenting with their sexuality and their persona. They have had the freedom of being whoever they chose to be with very little consequence or backlash. This in turn has granted them the advantage of being able to fall into their own accord at a much quicker rate.
We have often shunned women who change their mind – who grow, adapt and evolve. If sex worked for them, they must keep delivering it. If they present us with a pure, “good girl” persona, then they better not think of ever stepping out of it. Otherwise it could be game over or a steep uphill battle towards redemption.
Take a look at some artists who have changed their mind and pushed the envelope for the better. What that has meant for their careers and our communities as a whole.
Let’s dive into this discussion with a rapper who has stood firmly on his own accord from the start. Yung Thug has always been in his own lane, and it’s worked wonders for him. He has had the opportunity to create various fantasies over the course of an album cycle and the chameleon effect it has had on his music has never been lost.
In 2016 Yung Thug released his mixtape titled Jeffrey (his birth name). He made headlines immediately upon its release and the commentary had absolutely nothing to do with his music. On the cover of the album, Yung Thug was donning a lavender couture gown designed by menswear designer Alessandro Trincone.
He looked great on the cover, and the garment complemented his style perfectly. However, this was an extremely unusual garb for a black rapper. Rumours swirled, speculations ran rampant and the outrage bubbled over. But fortunately it opened a deeper dialogue in relation to gender roles, masculinity and even more so what that all means for the black community as a whole. Could you in fact be straight while going against gender norms?
Despite taking a hit, the rapper has opened the floodgates to a new generation of artists who are not afraid to express themselves and go beyond the confines of what we as a society deem acceptable. We have since seen an increase of rappers sporting nail polish, dresses and pearl necklaces among many other barrier breaking pieces.
Artists like Lil Yatchy, and Yung Blood have embraced colourful nails and top notch pedicures only amplifying their career by way of influence in the process. ASAP Rocky made pearl necklaces and long black skirts a mainstream aesthetic. Even Kanye has exemplified these staples through his designs for his various brands.
Eventually we will see all these men start to profit on the ever changing landscape and new industries will be created as a result. Machine Gun Kelly is working on a unisex nail polish line for example – something that would have alienated his career just a few short years ago. This is an example of how quickly things could change for the better. When its in a male dominated industry and how profit quickly follows suit.
While artists of the past have tried to make strives when it comes to gender and the persona they chose to present, it never had as much impact as it does today. Boy George for example, would perform in a full face of makeup and it was regarded as just something this artist did specifically but was not encouraged to become a mainstream thing. David Bowie would experiment with genderless clothing and makeup as well, and he was considered an alien who’s tactics were again reserved exclusively for him. If anyone else tried to follow suit they were accused of plagiarizing as opposed to being influenced or they were missing the point entirely ( a.k.a unwell).
While these men surely inspired change, some would argue that they came up in the wrong time period. I would beg to differ. I believe that it was necessary to showcase this in a conservative era. The idea subconsciously seeped into people’s psyche and allowed for a more open approach as things started to evolve. For example the most homophobic person was still able to relate to Bowie in a way, which in turn maybe alleviated some of the bigotry that was plaguing the world.
When Frank Ocean released Channel Orange in 2012 and casually sang about his first love with a man, the world was ready. We had been properly prepped and conditioned to swallow the revelation and embrace it. While there was backlash of course, love prevailed and helped so many people in the process. A few years later when Tyler the Creator, who had come on the scene as a hyper masculine provocateur, grew out of his initial persona and grew into who he truly wanted to be, we gave him the space to do so. When he started to make music that reflected this growth, and felt compelled to sing about his sexuality, it barely made headlines, which was extremely refreshing and important. No one questioned it and it really just continued to be about the music. This is where we are at now. The Lil Nas’s of the world could comfortably make the music and tell their narratives in a manner that they so chose without “backlash”. Heck, even Eminem has denounced his past homophobic ideologies and has become increasingly inclusive. As big name artists keep following suit, the change is reflected in our ever changing climate and is slowly seeping into our communities for the better.
When it comes to Women…
It’s no secret that sex has always been the main ingredient when it comes to producing a female driven album cycle. More times than not, this ideal has been brought on by the studios, which have always been run and made up of old white men. Whether you came onto the scene at 14 or 26, the formula was more or less the same. You either tapped into your innocence in an almost childlike manner or you used your sexuality to create a fantasy. Both directions were fine lines to dance on.
If you leaned into it too far, you were shunned. If you changed your mind as you grew up it was increasingly discouraged. The ideas and the emotions you felt as a 14 year old would be drastically different than the ones you felt in your mid twenties so why were they not given the agency to evolve ?
Madonna opened the floodgates by being unapologetically herself in a time where women were very much conditioned to be docile, respectful and suppressed. From the start she was always the subject of negativity for being too provocative, too outspoken and too into herself that it left a bad taste in the mouth of men who were used to being able to predict and control women’s every move. This was someone who was giving women all over the world agency over their bodies, over their thoughts and expressions and in turn over their lives. What would men do when they couldn’t police how their wife’s were stepping out of the house. What would they do when they wanted to wear that dress that made them feel empowered or those big hoop earrings they had seen in the ‘Express Yourself’ music video?
When Britney Spears strutted the high school halls in a stereotypical school girl uniform a few years later, she reached instant stardom. However due to her age, unlike Madonna, she did not have the confidence to be unapologetically be herself and take control of her story from the get go. Her career formula was initiated with the male gaze in mind and her talents would be an afterthought. Hitting the scene in her school girl fit was the first example of this. An image that men sought out in their pornography at night – a garb that had always been so sexualized in the most concerning way. But it sold and it sold big. However, just as fast as she was propped up, she was taken down before the age of 25. Why was it that she was allowed to express her sexuality within our confines only. Why was it that after having children it was deemed irresponsible to sing about sex but it was completely acceptable as a seventeen year old ?
Christina used the opposite approach by presenting us with a wholesome girl next door persona that reflected her age at the time. She made a point early on to showcase her talent first and foremost. As she got older and chose to tap into her sensual persona, she was shunned. How dare she change her mind, grow or explore other avenues to tell her story. When she shared the stage with Britney and Madonna for that infamous VMA performance, the world couldn’t care less that she was also involved in the makeout scene. This was a realm that men thought she had already exhausted by fully leaning into what they considered the end of the line so it was deemed as nothing new.
While the climate has changed a little since then, we still put female artists in a box that they are not allowed to shy away from, sans risking the loss of their career. They must be one thing and that thing forever – despite the fact that time goes on. This is why a lot of female artists have a hard time elevating their careers past the age of 30. They are encouraged to flaunt their persona to men who are not buying their music but still get to police their longevity. And in order to do so they have to constantly uphold the illusion that they are young and pretty at all times. This disgusting notion is seen across the board from corporate offices to film sets. The day women are allowed to age and peel off the layers of their lives in a manner that is completely their own is when things start to change across industries everywhere. Similar to the way that gender norms and sexuality have been more acceptable for male artists, we need to give that same energy to women who just simply want to be themselves without having to sit in the same dusty box forever.
When it comes to females in the rap industry, we are taken to the opposite side of this makeshift spectrum in regards to sexuality and gender. Female rappers are often treated with a separate set of rules. It’s no secret that most of these women are black, and when it comes to black sexuality, it often does not belong to us. We do not have the agency to just be. If you’re Rihanna you represent pure femininity. She’s allowed to be sexy, sing at a Victoria’s Secret shows and dabble with gender roles at her liking because at its core the world believes that she’s playing by the rules. Whilst someone like Meg the stallion or Nicki who work in a male dominated sector of the industry – they’re often treated with the same set of rules as the men, without being able to profit on the benefits that these male counterparts have. They are tasked with the almost impossible feat of having to be pretty and feminine while also out performing everyone at all times, otherwise they’re deemed incomparable or less than. Male rappers could rap about discriminating women, and fucking as many people as they so chose in their multi million dollar mansions, however as soon as a female rapper raps about sex in the simplest of forms, it’s deemed dangerous and irresponsible. This double standard is again propagated by the male gatekeepers of the industry. Encouraging women to be ‘’themselves ‘’ all while not affording them the chance to take agency over their bodies nor the chance to express what being female means to them specifically.
As women keep banning together to take back what has always been their own, we need to give them the space to continue to do so. We need to consciously break down these double standards and create an inclusive world where people can express themselves however they see fit. The next generation is thankfully making this a priority. With the rise of Tik Tok, people are able to study and break down how people were treated in the past and are able to make room for a new wave of standards that do not force people to stay boxed in.
We should always have the right to change our minds – When new information arises, when we grow out of something or even as we age and our perspectives shift. The more change we see happening on a mainstream stage the more it will travel throughout our communities and in turn, hopefully create an inclusive full world.
Hopefully in reading this piece it will have sparked a little fire in you to help do your part and to be prideful of our community, all that we’ve done and what we will continue to do, beyond the month of June.
Written by: Andrew Du Beau (@andrew_dubeau/Instagram)