Monday, November 18, 2013

Lily Allen, Juicy J, and the Atlanta Strip Club Hype Machine

At this point, it almost seems too late to comment on whether this new video for British pop singer Lily Allen... a searing commentary on recent trends in pop music misogyny, or simply white feminist racism.

Featuring (4 of out 7) dancers who are black, champagne spray on nearly-nude bodies, auto-tune, a fur coat, and a fancy car and rims, the video came across to many as a white, upper-class woman patting herself on the back for pointing out music industry sexism, while reinforcing the media stereotypes of black women's bodies needing to look a certain kind of sexy.

Satirical intention or not, this is a point best illustrated by the scene where Allen stuffs cash between one black dancer's breasts.

Juxtaposed with song lyrics like "I won't be bragging 'bout my cars or talking 'bout my chains/Don't need to shake my ass for you 'cause I've got a brain," it's hard to not to interpret her single as a attack on women who appear or star in music videos, particularly black women in rap videos.

Allen insists her song is a commentary on the beauty pressures of music industry, and not anything specific about black American culture.

But it comes in the wake of a white, 30-year-old Macklemore and white, 16-year-old, New Zealander Lorde getting major hits by critiquing status symbols associated with black artists. Each song, in turn, evoked questions of racism in popular music. Not to mention the cries of cultural appropriation and exploitation from the recent Robin Thicke/Miley Cyrus MTV VMA twerk incident.

In a sense, the braver move would have been for Allen to have gone scantily-clad herself in "Hard Out Here" while sneering on camera with her current body-shape. That's not to say she was obliged to look sexy in her video for a song about body issues and pop media.

Rather, her body issues have been fueled to a large degree by a mostly white, UK tabloid media. And as Ayesha A. Siddiqi phrased it, "Allen’s first solo single since 2009 manages to scapegoat not just rappers but black women for all the insecurities she’s been grappling with over her career."

At the same time, it's worth exploring what exactly the intended-to-be satirical "rap video vixen imagery" is referencing.

Most people have pointed out the Robin Thicke "Blurred Lines" jab ("Robin Thicke Has A Big Dick" vs. "Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy").

However, "Hard Out Here" (and chorus line, "it's hard out here for a bitch") probably references two other songs.

The first is the latest Britney Spears single "Work Bitch" and it's accompanying music video:

In case you didn't catch it, the chorus goes:
You wanna hot body/ You wanna Bugatti/ You wanna Maserati/ You better work bitch/ You wanna Lamborghini/ Sip Martinis/ Look hot in a bikini/ You better work bitch/ You wanna live fancy/ Live in a big mansion/ Party in France
Beyond Spears' lyrics being the direct opposite of Allen's, "Hard Out Here" is likely a slam on "Work Bitch" for the following reasons:

1. Appearances of fancy cars in both videos
2. Dancers in both videos wearing similar leather outfits
3. "Work Bitch" features Britney placing a Beats Pill into a dancer's mouth; "Hard Out Here" features a dancer smiling while licking one, in a nod that can hardly be coincidental

"Hard Out Here" also references the Oscar-winning Three 6 Mafia track, "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp", made for 2005 film Hustle & Flow, about a Memphis pimp-turned-rapper.

Three 6 Mafia has since dissolved (and recently re-formed under the name Da Mafia 6ix).

However, the one non-reuniting member, Juicy J, is as busy as he's ever been.

The influential rapper/producer has had recent guest spots on a Katy Perry track and a track co-featuring Miley Cyrus (and some opportune, status symbol-namedropping Chicago Bulls imagery).

However, his own solo career is another example of what Allen's video meant to skewer. Consider the video for "Bandz A Make Her Dance (feat. Lil' Wayne and 2 Chainz)":

Basically, it's a song celebrating throwing money at strippers. Though the video isn't dominated solely by shots of gyrating black women, it prominently features shots of Juicy J and one girl wearing a porn site logo on their t-shirts.

"Bandz" may pale in comparison to another track on his recent Stay Trippy album called "Scholarship". There's no official video, but it does feature the following bridge:
Say you need some extra cash to pay for college with/ And it just so happens I got a lot of it /Spin around the pole while you're doing splits/ By the end of the night might earn you a scholarship
In a way, Juicy J did one better than a promotional music video. In conjunction with the popular WorldStarHipHop, he launched a $50,000 scholarship competition to find a girl who could twerk the hardest.

In an interview, Juicy J notes that there are girls who strip to pay for college, hence his justification of making the song with top pop producer, Dr. Luke (who himself is white).

Sure enough, in spite of what Allen may believe about girls not needing to strip if they have brains, plenty of contest hopefuls have begged to differ.

Here's how Juicy J announced the closing of the contest:

And in case the stripper-friendly branding wasn't entirely clear, Juicy J even has a web game, "Stay Strippy" in which the player earns points by hitting pole-dancing strippers with dollar bills. Hitting strippers with dollars enough consecutive times in a row gives the player combo bonuses, not unlike a fighting game such as Mortal Kombat.

Although he may be the most unapologetic purveyor of the stripper-friendly rap aesthetic right now (or maybe 2 Chainz), he's not the only one.

Party rap and blunt descriptions of women became a permanent part of popular music when, in 1992, Miami Bass group 2 Live Crew had an obscenity ruling that deemed their music illegal to sell overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit - in a defense based, in part, on the argument that the explicit language "reflect[s] exaggeration, parody, humor, even about delicate subjects." Music with filthy lyrics across all genres has since been free to sell and distribute across the United States.

Over the past two years, media outlets have noted the long-time role Atlanta strip club DJ's and strippers have played in promoting songs into potential hits.
Hip-hop producers have been breaking records in Atlanta strip clubs for a long time now — at least as far back as 2003, when Lil Jon was doing it with songs like, "Get Low." He's been quoted as saying "the butts don't lie," meaning if the strippers can dance to it, the song has potential. In Tamara Palmer's book, Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip Hop, Lil Jon says "Get Low" had a slow start: the dancers "didn't feel it at first." But eventually it grew on them and several dancers at different strip clubs asked the DJs to play it during their stage sets. "Get Low" took off — in mainstream clubs and on radio and TV across the country.
What this means is that black women's bodies are quite literally used as promotional objects to break new rap artists and producers into international recognition.

This may not let Lily Allen off the hook with some of her critics. But I can think of two arguably worse examples of black body music video exploitation (for songs that I do actually enjoy) in recent memory.

"Indie" band Arcade Fire's new album Reflektor has been promoted with a self-described blend between Studio 54 and Haitian Voodoo.

An interactive video for the title track features a lot of Haitian cultural imagery, and despite the album's lyrical ode of the myth of Orpheus, using the 1959 Brazilian retelling Black Orpheus as a lyric video takes the original film out of context, just for the sake of a publicity campaign over a half-century later for a bunch of Caucasian musicians.


Arguably, the Eric Wareheim-directed video for Major Lazer's "Bubble Butt" serves as a better satire of sexy, scantily-clad women in pop music videos.

...or it's problematic because of the comical use of a black woman's comparatively large buttocks to loosen up white women on the dance floor, who then proceed to twerk and otherwise dance suggestively.

(in the interest of full-disclosure, this video did make me laugh)

At the end of the day, "Hard Out Here" offers the most frank critique of sexualizing women in entertainment and unabashed commercialism likely to be experienced by millions of pop fans worldwide anytime soon.

...unless you count Adele turning down a $20 million contract from L'Oreal.

Still, by using black dancers and objects typically associated with rap videos, Allen lets members of the media off the hook who perpetuate the subjects she is railing against (the white manager figure factors in, but doesn't fully symbolize the problem). As Siddiqi points out, "Allen’s ability to ignore race doesn’t dissolve her song’s major racial connotations".

But at the same time, Lily Allen critics should remember that just because a music video uses humor to critique racial double-standards in pop...

...doesn't mean that the song in question makes it any less likely for a woman to be called a bitch.


Adrock said...

Miley Cyrus similarly hired some African American females with large rears to twerk in her "We Can't Stop" video, but her racist undertones are overlooked by her drug-induced party lifestyle and general insanity. Lily Allen does the same thing only clearly tongue in cheek, trying to point out how awful this trend is, and gets blasted as racist (despite having dancers of multiple races). And what about the dancers themselves? Do they know they are being objectified? Of course. Do they know that they are essentially being ridiculed? Do they care? Are they in on the joke?

Blogger said...

I've just downloaded iStripper, so I can watch the hottest virtual strippers on my taskbar.

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