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July 17, 2006 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Head to Head: Popular Culture as a Woman’s Domain

Popular culture is a site of struggle. This was said by someone, but not me. Probably Raymond Williams, or maybe Bourdieu. Thanks, Media 103. What we might broadly consider ‘pop culture’ has always been something people with far too much leisure time on their hands have fought over. What gets let in? What gets left out? Is it just, y’know, pop records and comics and everything left over after we decide what is ‘high’ culture, or does it signify a deliberate attempt to subvert that tradition, a la Warhol and the tin of Campbell’s Soup? Who can lay claim to ownership or the right to appropriate a part of culture as ‘theirs’? I’ll freely admit, James, you’ve tossed me a doozy. I take my hat off to you. Popular culture as the domain of women, now this will be hard.

Head to Head: Popular Culture as a Woman's Domain pic. When I think of pop culture, the visual image is something like Lichtenstein’s comics paintings, and the aural, obviously, is pop music. And by pop, I mean popular. I’ve dedicated a significant portion of my cogent years to the worship of musicians, many of whom I imagine would be sick to the pits of their tortured depraved souls to hear themselves referenced in the same pantheon as the Hollies, Britney, Maroon 5, Coldplay or Keane, but it’s all popular music. And herein lies my first problem. With the best will in the world I cannot argue that pop music is a woman’s domain. Record executives (the ones who ultimately decide who will and won’t get a contract) at the world’s biggest labels – all probably are men. Poptones, Rough Trade and Sub Pop, the three big indies, are all headed by men. What’s a girl to do? Vamp up the overtly sexualized packaging and claim to be celebrating her woman’s right to express herself as a sexual being, Christina Aguilera style? You’re still titillating teenaged boys, my dear, and it’s the little girls who buy your singles because they want to have CDs they can practice dancing sexy to, so the teenaged boys will look at them too…see where this is going? You can play the boys at their own game, don a gee-tar, play some rock ‘n roll, and say you do it just as good as they do. But the electric guitar being widely accepted as a phallic stand-in, place it in the hands of a girl, and what do you have? Symbolic male gratification. Oh, yes. That’s not to say that women are excluded as audiences from pop music, but that the pop music world is one created by men, and the only way for a woman to gain any real position of power in this world is play as a man. There are notable examples of this (Missy Elliot, Oprah, Bjork, all women who control their own artistic output) and to be fair, today’s female pop stars are making millions. But they’re playing on male terms: either conforming to male fantasies, or adopting male aggression to maintain control.

There’s that line from High Fidelity where Rob describes his customers as “young men, always young men, who spend a disproportionate amount of their time looking for deleted Smiths singles and ‘ORIGINAL NOT RERELEASED’ underlined Frank Zappa albums.” Bitingly funny social observation? Yeah, it’s funny, because it’s pretty much true. We all know those carefully constructed, painfully awkward Orange Juice-obsessed indie-boys. There’s no equivalent female stereotype. There’s no female music fan. Instead, there are groupies. Fucking fantastic. I am meant to be defending the statement that pop culture is a female domain, and I am talking myself more and more into the conclusion that, actually, it isn’t. I’m talking just within the realms of pop music because that’s what I know about, but I can’t really find any area within pop culture that belongs to women. The thinkers who thought up cultural and media studies were all, with very few exceptions, white, and all, with no exceptions, male.

So where do the girls fit in? What do we have within pop culture that is rightfully and totally ours, that doesn’t constitute submitting to a male ideal of who we are as pop culture practitioners or commentators? Girls are fighting a sneaky fight in the back blocks. It’s impossible to argue that pop isn’t a male realm, but there are these moments where we shove it right back at them… Joan Baez, Carol King, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass, Poly Styrene, PJ Harvey, Regina Spektor. Women who have all managed, at some point, to subvert the expectations of a male record industry, rise above sexualised notions of rock ‘n’ roll and take sniper’s potshots at the A&R men. In 1975 Patti Smith covers ‘Gloria’, kicks the shit out of the Van Morrison original, and claims the gasp-and-growl sexual predations for her own. Magic Dirt’s Adalita, interviewed for Australian Rolling Stone in 2002, tells a panting and adolescent interviewer that playing guitar in front of a mad crowd makes her come, making the boys redundant in one blow. The girls are guerillas in the pop culture game, and guerillas, even when they don’t win, have this way of grabbing popular consciousness…


About the Author ()

BORN WITH a cigarette in one hand and The Trial in other, Bea meant to go on as she started. Music wasn’t her first love, but her first love ended in a fight over rightful ownership of a Velvet Underground LP and the kitchen knife, so she chose the kinder option and stuck with it. In her spare time she enjoys casting aspersions, skulking, and making sweeping statements. She never checks her facts: figures it’s a way to live a little, to have arguments with people, then meet them. She’s currently writing a collection of short stories inspired by Schopenhauer’s manifesto of suffering and the Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster. When it gets published, she’s pretty sure that boy will want to hold her hand.

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