I’ll be honest: maybe it’s because I’m not a woman, or maybe it’s because I have only the most fleeting of interests in commercial pop music. But while I’m no person of colour - a term I’ll decline from ever using - I am black. And racial issues are important to me; however, it seems, in recent times, that the words “racial”, “racist”, “stereotypes”, “gender”, “feminism”, “sexuality” and (somewhat regrettably) “twerking” are being thrown around more than the sort of pulpy mush a toddler cares to chuck about at its mother at meal-time from its high-chair. Much was talked about Nicki Minaj’s single Anaconda - from its front cover to its lyrical content - but now focus has been drawn towards its accompanying video.
To say the video is shocking is neither surprising or of any importance: an overwhelming glut of pop music videos now utilise graphic depictions of hypersexuality (not to mention, scantily-clothed women, writhing and dancing) almost ad nauseam. But it’s perhaps the sheer audacity and relentless slurry of excessive sexualised imagery that stuns and bizarrely impresses, if being impressed could actually leave you utterly horrified. This isn’t the talk of a prudish conservatism - I listen to Crass, the Smiths and Bikini Kill, thank you very much - but rather a desperate bemusement at what’s being pumped before my very eyes. Overall, I found the video immensely crass and deliriously sickening; it was disturbing and confusing, and I was completely put off. There is the agreeably valid argument that MInaj’s attempts were to express her female sexuality freely and not in service of any of her male admirers, something it seems very few female pop stars have any control over if one glances their eye over a large proportion of popular music videos. And certainly, it could be argued that my sense of displeasure was a by-product of a video not aimed at me, not preoccupied with titillating and satisfying the male gaze; that Anaconda is a video made by a woman, for women, celebrating her sexuality and sexual independence. I can accept that; I didn’t at all find it in the least bit sexy, but then maybe I’m not supposed to. So then, who is the video for, if not other women? I can’t see it conceivably winning support from all women, especially if lyrics such as “fuck the skinny bitches, fuck the skinny bitches in the club, I wanna see all the big fat ass bitches in the motherfucking club” are anything to go by: given the enormous pressures put upon women to conform to a particular beauty standard, are these lyrics really that empowering?
Sure, the video may in fact empower many women proud to have a well-endowed backside. But there’s something else troubling me. Is the video really as sexually progressive as it looks? For a video and a song that flirts with the zeitgeist of modern-day cultural feminism and salutes female sexuality as a weapon not to titillate and attract men, it sure does a lot of titillating, not to mention excluding skinnier women: a little inclusiveness, rather than brash self-aggrandising and rampant objectifying, wouldn’t go amiss. In fact, there’s an awful lot of objectification for a video so hung up on female self-expression. And what about that front cover? As a man, I’m challenged by it not to feel somewhat like a voyeur; it’s practically begging for me to look around with a wry, aroused smile to see if anyone else has noticed. (Furthermore, videos that don’t go out of their way to be righteous and wrapped up in vague, muddied feminist rhetoric look almost identical to the uncomfortable, alarmingly sexist, hypersexualised pap of Anaconda and whatever else you’re likely to see on MTV these days; which brings up the question: are they even really sexy?)
Then there’s the other troubling factor in all this: race. When I found out that the disgust I was sharing with the millions of people who didn’t like or, worse, abhorred Miley Cyrus’ twerking phenomenon wasn’t based on the fact that it felt like a convenient, manipulative, focus-grouped, cynical, attention-grabbing and eye-rollingly exasperating piece of boorish sensationalism but that many found it to be a outrageous example of cultural appropriation, I felt a little puzzled. I thought what Miley had done was wrong because it felt like we were being universally exposed to a young teenage girl hopping on a woeful bandwagon and doing some shitty dancing on top of it. I was wrong: it seemed that Cyrus had cultural appropriated “black culture”, a term that I, as a black male, find ridiculously amusing. If twerking and trap music are innate qualities of “black music” then I might as well hand in my Black Person’s Card - the truth is there is no definitive “black culture”; there is however African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture. What Miley did may have been popularised by African-Americans but it’d be quite odd to say that they had a monopoly on it. It’s an argument applied to the whitewashing of rock-and-roll - championed by Chuck Berry, made famous by Elvis - but, in a cultural landscape restricted widely, if not exclusively, to Anglo-American society, where the cultures of many (not just races, but subcultural and counter-cultural groups) are being shared and imitated, the proposition that one young white female pop star can’t and shouldn’t propel an apparently underground dance craze to the mainstream - despite its obvious tensions - is absurd.
Which leads us onto the racial issues concerning a rather innocuous video made by controversy-friendly yet by-and-large inoffensive popster Taylor Swift. Her video for the song Shake It Off depicts her and a multi-gendered, multi-racial group of people dancing. There’s a whole host of dance forms on show, from ballet to breakdancing b-boys and body-popping. But, lo and behold, twerking makes its ubiquitous appearance. Swift crawls under the legs of twerkers and gives a rather tame embarrassed giggle. However, the video - inevitably - has attracted criticism from some, not least Earl Sweatshirt who tweeted that the video was “inherently offensive and ultimately harmful…perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture”. Such vitriolic attacks made by the rapper despite the fact that he proclaims not to have even watched the video itself, a sad fact that almost laughably renders his passionate denouncement pretty much pointless. Watching the video myself, whatever racial stereotyping that was being displayed, if any at all, no matter how brazen, implicit or even subliminal, could convince me that the video was as bad Earl and others claimed it to be.
Juxtaposing Swift’s Shake It Off and Minaj’s Anaconda is the intentional centrepiece of this article. If the latter doesn’t appear to be perpetuating racial stereotypes but the former is apparently blatantly aware and guilty of it, I feel as if we may be living in a peculiar universe where political correctness is no more a mere matter only taken on up by aged, miserable, priggish, out-of-touch reactionary conservatives (the sorts of people who gladly fall closer to the right-wing of the political spectrum) but a rabid sport now warmly welcomed by teenagers on Twitter, self-righteous bloggers (a group I probably, reluctantly, fall into), the misplaced ideologies and fanaticism of Internet social activists and (ahem) the fringes of more open-minded or liberal politics - and I say that as an ardent left-leaning, wishy-washy, Marxist-bothering liberal. Just glimpsing at Anaconda’s leering close-ups of female curves and broad butts, while disconcerting for me, is frankly more stereotypical than Swift’s more family-friendly fare. Why? Because it shamelessly objectifies and perpetuates the vicious myth of the hypersexualised black female, a racist image not seen so boldly in abundance since the 1970s. It’s the sort of thing that makes album covers of nude (not naked) black women on funk records of that same era look innocent, artful and lovably kitsch (even cute), redolent of an era where the kind of unabashed racial and sexual politics of today were barely considered, let alone used to sell music.
What’s most troubling and disheartening is that young women will see nothing of worth or optimism in Swift’s plainly decent video, such is the hysterical waves of scrutiny it has attracted (and will, sadly, continue to attract). Even more saddening is the fact that, to many young black women, the sight of Nicki Minaj’s flaunting her butt-cheeks may inadvertently become another female body and racial standard by which they’ll feel compelled to live up to; not that there isn’t anything in Minaj’s video to champion - like, for instance, the need for all women to freely express their sexuality how they like without the threat of criticism, something it has somewhat failed to do, demonstrated by this very article - but there’s a foul sense that what Minaj is selling isn’t what women or female-fronted pop actually needs. It’s set against an era when Warpaint can be accused of internalised misogyny for pouring scorn on Beyonce and Rihanna for taking, what they feel is, female empowerment backwards; surely, any criticism shouldn’t be directed at Warpaint but the way in which female pop stars in marketing in the first place. Moreover, Warpaint perhaps have any every right to discuss how they feel about other female artists - it is, after all, a women’s issue. And that’s probably why I’m not exactly qualified to make the case for Taylor Swift: I’m just a young black male and crucially not a young black female, nor one who pays strict attention to the pop charts. Therefore it means my only contribution to this wildly quarrelsome discourse may simply have to be that I preferred Taylor’s song better.