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Wreath Lectures

Lily Allen's Trainers, Lady Gaga's Willy & Notions Of Gender In The 00s
Hazel Sheffield , December 15th, 2009 09:33

In the latest Wreath Lecture looking back at a decade in music, Hazel Sheffield examines the representation of female artists, post 90s Girl Power

"Never retreat, never explain, never apologise; just get the thing done and let them howl." Nellie McClung

"As long as you have to persuade female stars to take their clothes off to sell records, there isn't going to be a culture of respect." Lucy O'Brien

Was 2009 the year of the female? That's certainly what some sectors of the press would have you believe. When Krissi Murison was announced as the new editor of the NME in July the Independent proclaimed 'Girl Power Rules'. That same month it was revealed that a record five of the total twelve Mercury Music Prize nominations were for women, while earlier in the year the BBC Sounds of 2009 had been swamped with girls: Florence, Little Boots, La Roux, Lady Gaga, VV Brown. Sky called it 'the New Girl Power' and the Mail noted the rise of the 'laptop Madonnas'.

But the women behind the hype were quick to shun the idea that girl power was back. Victoria Hesketh (Little Boots), told Sky News it was 'dismissive' to group emerging artists by gender, adding "it's kind of bad - a girl isn't some kind of genre you know." Murison tried her best not to be drawn on the subject of her being female, repeating the phrase "the most interesting story about my appointment is that there is no story" in more than one interview.

How did 'girl power' become a dirty phrase? Just a decade earlier it was ubiquitously (and proudly) appropriated by every young, impressionable schoolgirl in the wake of the Spice Girls. A whole generation of ten and eleven year old girls, myself included, were ruthlessly targeted as consumers of music for the first time by Simon Fuller and the men behind Heart Management. The discovery of 'Wannabe' was a commercial awakening for pre-pubescent girls the world over. When those five feisty women appeared with their mini-dresses and exposed midriffs, Geri Halliwell goading "tell me what you want, what you really really want," we replied with our pocket money. It sold six million copies worldwide – the best-selling single by a female group in history.

Girl power was a lie – a great marketing scam as tricky as God TV or ITV phone-ins. We thought the Spice Girls meant individualism, self-reliance and independence – in truth they were just cartoon dollar signs in the eyes of businessmen. It's no wonder that these days the women blazing trails are quick to deny a revival of such ideas.

Those of us who, as kids, got sucked in by that great 90s phenomenon have emerged largely unscathed. I'm pretty sure not many women in their early twenties are lying awake at night worrying about the playground squabbles they used to have over who got to 'be' Baby Spice (or not 'be' Sporty – Ginger and Scary were self-allocating in shallow Spice World). What's far more chilling is to behold how the concept of girl power evolved this decade.

When the Pussycat Dolls or Girls Aloud take to stages across the world gyrating in lingerie they are not performing in the interests of the tweens who buy their records – no ten year old ever made the call for fewer clothes please! More flesh! Pop music and its female protagonists have become sexualised to the extent that strippers choreograph the moves imitated in front of mirrors and lyrics are about power in the bedroom, as though that's the battleground chosen by kids. Sex sells. But why sex is being used to sell records to young girls?

The problem with Girl Power, and the greatest danger of appropriating such language, was in its being based on the false premise of female independence. It made girls believe in a kind of pseudo-feminism, when actually that imaginary construct was only ever for commercial gain. In reality the evolution of Girl Power could only ever result in the hyper-sexualisation of the female because of the nature of it being merely a marketing slogan invented by men – men who, eventually, would look for ways to push the commercial appeal of the girls involved even further, through sex.

But while Girl Power's steady trajectory was reaching its salubrious grave, the last half of this decade saw women of a different ilk punctuating the mainstream. Up to 2005 Shakira, The Pussycat Dolls and a pimped out Britney Spears had some of the best selling singles by year in the UK. Women in the mainstream either became unfathomably dull (Hear'Say, Atomic Kitten, S Club 7) or increasingly risqué – leaving very little space for the emergence of individualism in any form.

Then, Lily Allen's 'Smile' became the 11th best-selling single of 2006. In a year where the top selling albums were saturated with male indie bands like Snow Patrol and The Kooks, this was a small but significant indicator of the rise of female pop that might follow – and not for any distorted notions of women overcoming adversity to steal the limelight from guitar-toting, male musicians. Music is cyclical: feed people Rakes and Fratellis for years and eventually they'll starting looking for something different.

This decade, in part, there was a revival of 80s synth-pop and the emergence of several strong, diverse and (towards the end of the decade especially) glamorous female personas. The most successful of these – La Roux, Florence and The Machine and Lady Gaga – formulated distinguishing stage personalities. The pastel androgyny of La Roux, the burlesque theatrics of Gaga and Florence's sylvan fantasy world were exciting and new alternatives to the drabness of indie – but none of them were particularly feminine or sexy in their approach. The prevailing consensus towards the end of this decade was that girls could appropriate any costume, or any character, that they wanted, without it necessarily saying anything about their music or their real identity.

Back to Lily Allen. There was something in that now-infamous trainers-and-dress uniform back in 2006. Typically clothes have been means of the formation of identity in society. They signify allegiances between individuals and can serve as symbols of rebellion – thus when the teenager was 'invented' in the 50s, the leather jackets and quiffs of James Dean and the Teddy Boys were an enormous 'fuck you' to authority. Clothes are used to reflect the character of the person wearing them, their attitudes and beliefs.

Gender identity has always been particularly fraught with binary notions of male vs. female embalmed in language that has made it almost impossible to escape categorisation on either side of the divide. Thus when Madonna and Annie Lennox wanted to subvert gender stereotypes in the 80s they wore shoulder pads and suits – male symbols of power – to do so. In the nineties, with the Spice Girls, you could wear tracksuits and trainers and be 'sporty' or pink dresses and pigtails and be 'girly', but in the end it always came down to the binary opposition of male vs. female – one or the other, without allowing for the very human greyscale inbetween.

In music this decade we have started to see the deconstruction of this binary opposition and, with it, the increasing use of clothes as a barrier between image and identity rather than a gateway between the two. When Lily Allen wore trainers with her dresses she wasn't making a claim for anything sporty, girly or otherwise. She was saying "who cares?"

One of the most successful women to subvert traditional constructs of gender and identity this decade is Lady Gaga. Try typing Lady Gaga into Google. Five of the first ten autotype suggestions are related to gender. Is Lady Gaga a hermaphrodite? Does she have a willy? Stefani Germanotta has constructed an onstage persona so strong that people are at a loss to really say anything about the identity of the person behind the act, even to the extent of whether she is male or female. Those outlandish outfits, the confusion over her sexuality, the fascination with her gender – love her or hate her, Lady Gaga wasn't ever just about the music. "I'm not going to allow you to portray me in a way that is your idea of what you think I am," she said in a recent Times interview with Lynn Barber. And it's difficult – beyond the obvious fact of her exhibitionism – to disagree with that.

These women, and others like Karen O and Beth Ditto, are taking traditional structures to task and atomising notions of gender and identity for the sake of it – because post-modernism declares that the language we have used for centuries to categorise sex is no longer adequate and often woefully restrictive, even derogatory. It's a notion that men – Bowie, Prince, Boy George, Antony and the Johnson to name but a few – have been exploring for some time.

This post-structural landscape is one in which androgyny goes unquestioned. Mica Levi of Micachu and Romy Madley Croft of The xx can just be – no gendered costumes or make-up, no labels, no explanations. Bands made up of men can be called Women or Girls without anyone blinking an eyelid – they're just band names, after all, and we've become accustomed to the idea that names, gendered or otherwise, don't necessarily tell us anything about the people involved.

As such the interesting thing about Krissi Murison becoming the editor of the NME isn't so much that she's the first girl to get the job. Far more interesting is that she insists that the fact of her gender is irrelevant. In Murison's eyes, as in the eyes of Little Boots – we should no longer be addressing her achievements in this context.

The changing language with which it is acceptable to address this is pre-empting real, statistical changes in the gender make-up of music and the music industry. In terms of the figures, Krissi Murison's appointment is still against the odds. If she had become editor ten years ago there would probably have been a lot more gender-related media fuss surrounding it. Even now, the numbers show that women are still in a minority. A study last month by Creative & Cultural Skills shows that 66% of people working in the music industry are male. When it comes to promotion and management work the figure rises to 77%. In terms of payscales, 78% of women earn less than £20,000, compared to 51% of men. Of the 165 'tastemakers' who decided the longlist for the artists in the BBC's Sounds Of 2010, only 40 were women.

Yet for Murison, to acknowledge questions about her gender would have been akin to having to justifying her professionalism on these grounds – an idea that seems ludicrously outdated. When asked if it would have been possible for a woman to hold editorship of the NME twenty years ago she replied "of course". And while semantically that's true – it would have been possible – it was even less likely to happen twenty or even ten years ago. That the media quizzed her about the fact of her being female this year proves that as a society we still find in necessary to talk about women being appointed as bosses and managers and artists. Until we no longer find these kinds of appointments and achievements fascinating in the context of gender – and until the figures become 50/50 – there isn't equality in the music industry or any other sector.

The fact that this year was heralded for the strong female figures that emerged in pop is more than enough proof that we are not yet at that point where gender, and in some respects feminism, is irrelevant. But the language in which we address or refuse to address these issues is changing, which indicates that attitudes themselves have come a long way since the nineties. Old structures are slowly being overturned. And they're being overturned by women who would never willingly be portrayed as feminist for their achievements. Perhaps that's the greatest achievement of all.