The first album I ever bought with my own money was Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time. I was a nine year old girl in Real America, so my preferences were predictable (if not a complete given). As legend has it, the album was released with the ellipsis in the title because Hit Me Baby One More Time was a reference to sexual promiscuity at best and sadomasochism at worst. And while most nine year olds’ comprehension of sadomasochism was limited in those backwards days, it was extremely important that we not be exposed to even a hint of it, so help us Tipper Gore.
I remember catching wind of the Britney controversy through the elementary grapevine, and learning through muffled giggles that it was some sort of reference to sex. I shrugged and moved on with my adolescent life. My friends and I played the album constantly — under the watchful eyes of our mostly conservative parents, of course.
I am not a parent, but I am now a grown up, so perhaps it’s my turn to overanalyze what #kidsthesedays are listening to.
We’ve been indulging in media like it’s our job for as long as we could get away with it; panic over our favorite melodious pastime is unsurprisingly alive and well. Elite nail-biting over the residual effects of music on our toddler brains has a long and amusing history: Before Robin Thicke became the living embodiment of rape culture, we blamed Popeye for window-smashing and the dulcet tones of The Beatles for brutal murders.
Tipper famously feuded with our most Twisted Sister Dee Snider over the supposed evils of rock music. (Snider got the best of dear Tipper in his testimony before her Parents Music Resource Center-driven Senate hearing: “As the creator of ‘Under the Blade,’ I can say categorically that the only sadomasochism, bondage, and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms. Gore.” Al was not pleased.)
But while the Washington Wives’ efforts and resulting advisory sticker campaign seem piddling now, this failure to save us from the inflated dangers of the “porn rock” occult largely stems from the feeble attempt to play regulatory catch-up with media. Law can represent cultural norms, but it cannot create them according to a group’s wishes without unintended consequences. (And if Footloose taught us one thing, it is that culture ultimately trumps legislation when it comes to shaping social order.) A federal campaign for censorship might be futile in the long run, but the fact of the matter is, we will never stop obsessing over what music does to us. There is no real debate over whether music influences us or not. The controversy usually lies in the extent to which we internalize the message of a song or genre. And in 2014, this means looking at the Age Of The Female.
It has been decided that music is experiencing a new feminist preoccupation— grrl power saturates all. But the brand consistency could use some work: Beyoncé is a bootylicious feminist icon despite her problematic nuclear family and submissive streak. Even though she was born this way and won’t apologize, Lady Gaga is scorned for denying feminism. Ke$ha brushed her teeth with whiskey and we didn’t care (until now), but T.Swift breakdances and we are outraged at the appropriation.
Regardless of their publicists’ missteps along the long cultural road to commercialized Marxism, the anthemic female pop train in the age of rationalism and social experimentation stops for no man or mother. Be who you are! Regret is for bozos! The patriarchy is holding you down!
These messages are derivative (ask your parents), but just as the beat goes on, so does the cultural chatter. And the messages seem to have worked as our newfound time preferences are showing: we’re holding off on our nuptials and babies at an unprecedented level, going to college, and Leaning In (in a low-cut blouse if you a bad bitch). Goodbye, internalized misogyny—hello internalized consumer liberation!
These are all great things if you’ve embraced your reprogramming. But in a time when traditional values are ridiculed and driven underground, their impact on female happiness ignored, and anything less than Full Progressivism Now is shamed, it is right to consider whether the rationalist swing has swung too far the other way.
Ladies love to be told we can be “one of the boys” (whatever that means) sans judgment, consequences be damned. The Internet’s most esteemed feminist bloggers’ hilarious hybrid neo-Victorian/slutcore apologetics for California’s “throw the book at the betas” sexual regulations provides one potent window into the mind of the modern adventuress. This recalls the issue of music: if we’re going to continue to meticulously evaluate pop music based on its level of girl empowerment, why has no one made a fuss over Sia’s “Chandelier”?
“Chandelier” has a distinct, but subtle, message about the potential limits of social liberalism based on Sia’s real life experience. Party girls don’t get hurt, don’t feel anything / When will I learn? / I push it down, push it down, Sia sings. She doesn’t stop there. I’m holding on for dear life / Won’t look down, won’t open my eyes / Keep my glass full until morning light / Help me I’m holding on for dear life.
The song’s heavy beat disguises its message with a superficial pop feel, but that adds to the takeaway: party culture means you have to keep up regardless of the hangover. To put it bluntly, the song feels like a morning after—living like tomorrow doesn’t exist might catch up with you on that very tomorrow. Sia robs this progressive party attitude of its alleged empowerment by exposing its weaknesses, and she promotes a warning signal that waves of young girls could benefit from. I might have treated “Chandelier” the same way as “Hit Me Baby One More Time” at nine years old, but at nineteen, it may have served a useful and effective purpose.
Sia’s message has something truly provocative to offer in a time when some libertarians parallel progressives in scoffing at the idea of any social accountability. If a life lived without any regard to existing social institutions leads to consequences no one wants to warn us about, and a contemporary artist is sounding the alarm, maybe we should listen. And if the self-awareness isn’t obvious under the extremely catchy chorus, maybe try a different version.
Look, most of the time I, too, just want to listen to “Shake It Off” without deconstructing the cultural implications of a music video. It’s a great pop song, and I would be lying if I said I haven’t also listened to “Partition” eleven hundred times. But if we’re going to continue to examine pop music through a feminist lens, then in the spirit of free and open discourse, it’s time to let our highly educated brains give Sia’s cautionary tale, among others, proper consideration.
Give it a listen.