Front Page Reviews & AIR
The End of the Sexual Revolution
Come on, come on, come on
I like it-like it
Come on, come on, come on
I like it-like it
S-S-S & M-M-M
S-S-S & M-M-M
Oh, I love the feeling you bring to me, oh, you turn me on
It's exactly what I've been yearning for, give it to me strong
And meet me in my boudoir, make my body say ah ah ah
I like it-like it
Cause I may be bad, but I'm perfectly good at it
Sex in the air, I don't care, I love the smell of it
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But chains and whips excite me
- Rihanna, “S&M”
I think we can officially declare the Sexual Revolution over and done with. Sure, there are people who will keep on fighting it, but c’mon. Now that an ode to sadomasochism has become the #1 song in America, I think it’s safe to say that whatever repressive pop culture institutions the 60s radicals were rebelling against have been overthrown. At this point, even the usual suspects on the Religious Right can’t get any kind of an organized protest going; not even a good old Wal-Mart censorship campaign. Painting “sexual liberation” as counter-cultural just doesn’t ring true anymore, no matter how conditioned we are to do so. Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, etc. are as mainstream as it gets, and they’re not having any problem at all talking about sex. In fact, it’s hard to find them talking about anything else. Which isn’t necessarily surprising, given the longstanding relationship between music and sex. But sexual expression and experimentation are no longer relegated to the artistic fringes. They have become the pop culture machine itself; they are The Man; they are the status quo. And it’s not just any old brand of sex that the machine is cranking out:
Chains and whips excite me.
Infect me with your love and fill me with your poison.
Take me, take me.
Wanna be a victim.
Ready for abduction.
- Katy Perry
Gotta tie you up in case you bite.
Baby I'm a lock you in my cage.
And I won't stop until you behave.
- Lady Gaga
I want your ugly. I want your disease.
I want your everything as long as it’s free.
I want your love…
I want your psycho, your vertical stick
Want you in my rear window, baby you’re sick.
- Lady Gaga (again)
You're the kind of guy I'd stalk in school.
But now that I'm famous, you're up my anus.
Now I'm gonna eat you fool.
I eat boys up. Breakfast and lunch.
Then when I'm thirsty I drink their blood.
Be too sweet and you'll be a goner
Yep! I'll pull a Jeffrey Dahmer
I am a Cannibal.
And that’s just some of the female pop icons; I’m not even gonna get into all the male performers (though Eminem’s #1 Album Recovery hints at what’s out there):
Stick my dick in a circle.
But I'm not fucking around motherfucker.
I'll show you pussy footin’.
I'll kick a bitch in the cunt ‘til it makes her queef
And sounds like a fucking whoopee cushion.
Stay classy, Eminem.
What most current pop songs have in common – and the songs I’ve quoted are not anomalous – is that they are purveying a conspicuously dark and violent view of sex. It’s not a view that I share, but then again, this is not the kind of music I generally choose to listen to. I’m a rock listener. So a fair rejoinder to the fact that I’m bringing all this up would be, “Hello, why don’t you just change the radio station, or avoid the club, whatever you’ve gotta do, dude, and shut the hell up. No one is forcing you to listen to this music.” (If only this were true, but alas, I work at a nightclub, which is why I know all these songs…) But my purpose here isn’t to complain about my lot in life. I’m more concerned with the larger cultural implications of these attitudes and what it means that they are becoming the status quo. Besides, this music isn’t intended for me. It’s being marketed to teenagers. Specifically, teenage girls. And my question is this:
Are we OK with this?
I know there is widespread and genuine concern out there about violence among teens, about sexual predators, about date rape, etc. And given all that, are we really OK with the violent sexual attitudes in these songs becoming what teenagers (and younger) perceive as “normal?” If we as a society really are OK with this, I will indeed shut up…and take up the search for a place outside the reach of American pop culture (if such a place exists) where I can raise my kids. But I just don’t think we’re there. Not yet, anyway.
In addition to my moral qualms with this content being marketed to teens – which I’ll come back to shortly – most of the current pop music is just plain bad art, created for purely commercial purposes. The people in these songs aren’t the people I know, the people I meet in real life; they seem more like two-dimensional constructs. The world these songs create has very little to do with Reality – or Truth or Beauty or even Subversion (after all, this is the music of the status quo, the Empire, not the Rebellion) – any of the qualities traditionally associated with good art. In fact, coming as it does from the entrenched pop music power structure, it bears more of a resemblance to propaganda than art. And because it is targeting such a young audience, it is extremely powerful and persuasive propaganda. For this reason, an evaluation of the source, content, and potential effects of the current pop music is crucially important.
Gaga welcomes you to NYC!
And you, as well!
Have I missed anyone?
It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that pop music is created for commercial purposes. But what may be a shock to some is the extent to which the power of the institutions that churn out American pop music has been consolidated (and consolidated again) over the last 50 years, to the point where that power now rests in the hands of a remarkably small group of oligarchs. As things stand, pop music is the exclusive territory of major labels, and there are currently only four of them:
Warner Brothers Music Group has absorbed Reprise, Elektra, Asylum, Geffen, Atlantic, Sire, and Maverick, as well as countless smaller labels.
Universal Music Group (the largest group of record labels in the recording industry) has absorbed Motown, Island, Def Jam, and Polygram, which itself had previously absorbed Polydor, Mercury, A&M, Hollywood, Capricorn, and countless others.
Sony Music Entertainment has absorbed Columbia, Epic, RCA, Zomba, as well as BMG and all of its many subsidiaries.
EMI has absorbed Capitol and Apple, as well as Virgin and all of its subsidiaries.
That’s all that’s left. You want a song in the Billboard Hot 100, you’re dealing with one of these four labels (and it may be down to three soon – Warner Music Group is on the market, and guess who the three most likely buyers are?). The major labels are the only ones who can afford the millions of dollars – in advertising, in payola (paying radio stations to play your song), in chasing down royalties, etc. – it now takes to launch and monetize a hit song. Indie labels may have the wherewithal to launch albums, but they can’t afford to take the financial risks necessary to launch pop singles.
It’s also worth noting that the trend towards power consolidation in pop music is not limited to the labels. Think about Clear Channel Radio, Live Nation Concerts, and Ticketmaster. Seemingly all of the power structures in pop music are virtual monopolies.
And the pop culture power consolidation isn’t confined to music, either…
The major label consolidation has been compounded by the fact that most hit songs are written by a small insiders club of professional songwriters, whose services are shared by all four labels. It’s not like in the 60s when Motown had its own in-house songwriting team (the incomparable Holland-Dozier-Holland) that gave them a unique sound. Today’s uber-writers are free agents. And all four labels are hitting up the same songwriters over and over again, trying to capitalize on the winning formula as often as possible. The writing team that worked on Rihanna’s “S&M” (the song is credited to no less than five professional writers) included StarGate, a fancy pseudonym adopted by two 39-year-old Norwegian dudes who have become the hottest writer/producers in pop music. In addition to co-writing multiple hits for Rihanna (Universal), they are also credited with co-writing hits for Katy Perry (EMI), Britney Spears (Sony), Beyoncé (Sony), and Shakira (Sony). Fellow writer/producer Christopher “Tricky” Stewart has co-written hits for Rihanna, Katy Perry, Mariah Carey (Universal), Jennifer Lopez (Universal), Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg (EMI), and Justin Bieber (Universal). “Dr.” Luke Gottwald has co-written songs for Ke$ha (Sony), Britney Spears, Flo Rida (Warner), Katy Perry, Adam Lambert (Sony), Miley Cyrus (Universal), Pink (Sony), Kelly Clarkson (Sony), and Avril Lavigne (Sony). It’s no accident that many pop songs sound exactly the same and have similar lyrical themes; they’re all being written by the same small group of songwriters. Not only that, almost all the songs are written in collaboration – so much for the idea of individual artistic vision. Even Lady Gaga, whose (painstakingly crafted) public image is that of an individualistic free spirit, co-writes virtually all her songs with songwriting insiders Nadir “Red One” Khayat (Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez) and Fernando Garibay (Enrique Iglesias, Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears, Ricky Martin). And in case you haven’t noticed, almost all of these songwriting insiders writing the soundtrack for teen femininity are middle-aged men. Listen again to the prevailing pop lyrical themes and make of that what you will.
From now on, we shall be called… StarGate
In addition to the consolidation of power that has taken place in pop music, the downturn in record sales over the last decade – which has been exacerbated by the general financial downturn – has made the major labels less likely than ever to take risks, in the name of art, morality, or anything else. They’re interested in survival, pure and simple. They need hits, and there just isn’t the margin for error there used to be. Given this climate, it’s no surprise the major label pop music machine is turning to the two most enduringly reliable marketing tools in human history: sex and violence. Moral considerations are a luxury they can’t afford. And once moral considerations are out of the picture, why not combine sex and violence into one package and market that package to teens? (It’s not unlike the ethical breakdown on Wall Street; if financial considerations are your only measuring stick, why not bilk the American public for billions?) It’s not personal. It’s business.
If the major labels can’t reverse the current trends, the day is coming soon when there aren’t going to be any major labels. They know this better than anyone. And their desperation has led to increased efforts to market music to teenagers. After all, they’re the future. How are the majors doing this? One example is the “Just Dance” Wii video game series (named after the Lady Gaga song of the same name), which introduces teens and pre-teens to most of the artists mentioned in this article: Ke$ha, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, etc. It’s no accident that Perry’s second album was called Teenage Dream. According to Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, “Perry set her sights on the teen-girl market as the key to making sure the follow-up lived up to sales expectations.” Kot’s criticisms of the album echo many of the ones I’ve been leveling here:
The Frankenstein-like productions – the latest gleaming assembly-line product by usual suspects Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Tricky Stewart and StarGate, among others – sap the music of personality, presence, surprise… There’s nothing subversive about Teenage Dream. Perry’s notion about how teenage girls behave – or what they want from their pop music – is pretty depressing. It shares a lot in common with the major-label executive who once said he signed Britney Spears so he could market her not just to the overdriven libidos of adolescents but to the dirty imaginations of older men. In Katy World, teens spend “Last Friday Night” this way: drinking shots, streaking, skinny-dipping, breaking unnamed laws, engaging in three-way sex and then passing out, determined to do it again next week. “Peacock” repurposes the beat from Tony Basil’s “Hey Mickey” into a naughty metaphor that barely qualifies as an off-color joke, let alone a song… With music as rigidly formulaic as this, no wonder the teens in her songs want to party until they blank out.
But Perry isn’t the only one gunning for the teenage girl demographic:
However, this squeaky-clean image isn’t exactly what curious teenage Ke$ha fans will find in the online pop culture or indie music blogs. It’s also quite a bit different from what they’ll see on her current concert tour in support of her new album Cannibal:
What’s more indicative of American pop culture than a young female singing songs written by middle-aged men to teens while covered in blood and glitter, draped in the American flag, and sporting a $ sign?
The current climate – what with the consolidation of power in the music industry, the financial desperation of the major labels, the need to reverse teen buying trends – has created a perfect storm for the proliferation of violent sexual imagery in pop music. But there’s still another crucially important factor: the fact that none of this would have been possible without the success of the Sexual Revolution, which I began this article by declaring over and done. And this brings me back to my central concern with the current pop music landscape: my moral qualms with its violent sexual imagery being marketed to teens.
When I began by declaring the Sexual Revolution over, I wasn’t intending to imply that its goal was the sexual violence we’re seeing today. But any way you look at it, the Sexual Revolution has fundamentally changed the way our society thinks about sex. One consequence of opening more and more doors and eliminating more and more taboos is that it has made it harder and harder to appear edgy. And when it comes to popular music, edginess has always been a key. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys once said that when The Beatles hit, he and his band felt about as edgy as “golf caddies.” Then when the Rolling Stones hit, The Beatles seemed squeaky-clean by comparison. And on and on. The fact that this reality has been pointed out before doesn’t make it any less true. At no point in the last 50 years has conservatism been “cool” in popular music. The necessity is always to push forward, to go further and further. To me, the question is: where do we as a society draw the line? My fear is that the success of the Sexual Revolution means we don’t believe in any lines anymore, and that the “elimination of lines” has itself become such a guiding cultural ideal that even when we have other ideals, like protecting teens from violence or rebelling against an institutionalized pop culture monopoly, these ideals are made subservient to the ruling ideal: the absolute freedom of sexual expression.
Can you feel the freedom?
I can already see the rejoinders, the comparisons to stuffed shirts like Dan Quayle and his objections to TV character Murphy Brown having a child outside of wedlock on network TV. Was that only 20 years ago? Given the changes since then in what pop culture accepts as “normal” (and therefore what is necessary to be perceived as edgy), it feels like an eternity. And was it only ten years ago that fellow old-guarder Tom Wolfe bemoaned the fact that “sadomasochism had achieved not merely respectability but high chic,” pointing out how Rene Russo had consulted a dominatrix in preparation for her role in The Thomas Crown Affair? I’m curious what his thoughts are on Rihanna’s latest video – to which Russo’s performance pales in comparison – and the fact that “S&M” is no longer limited to “high chic,” but is now a part of teenage bubble-gum pop.
Again, Rihanna’s concert persona is a bit different from her Seventeen cover shoots:
My counter to the Dan Quayle comparison is this: when Dan Quayle was Vice President he was speaking for the “Establishment,” “The Man,” the “Powers that Be.” Back in 1992, his criticisms of Murphy Brown were representative of the same conservative establishment that the Sexual Revolution was rebelling against in the first place: a bunch of middle-aged white guys telling us we shouldn’t talk about sex. And his comments were emblematic of the WWII generation moguls who still roamed the corridors of the pop culture establishment. But somewhere in the 90s a changing of the guard took place – symbolized by Bill Clinton’s defeat of the elder Bush – and all of a sudden the Baby Boomers, the generation most responsible for starting the Sexual Revolution, were in control of the pop culture machinery. Quayle’s Murphy Brown criticisms were suddenly rendered hopelessly passé as society quickly began to accept pop culture content that made Murphy Brown herself seem conservative by comparison, so much so that today’s generation has a hard time understanding what all the fuss was about. Such criticisms just aren’t made in pop culture anymore outside the world of Fox News, which – as far as today’s generation is concerned – has been relegated to the role of counter-cultural carnival barker. But guess what, the new pop culture power structure is still mostly a bunch of middle-aged white guys.
They’re just better dressers…
Please keep in mind, I’m not here criticizing the merits of the Sexual Revolution, or its valid criticisms of hypocrisy, etc. What I am saying is that its victory has led to some (largely) unintended consequences, namely an entirely new power structure with an entirely different set of problems, which include the unchecked marketing of sexual violence to teens. And this is an issue that needs to be addressed. Not by our parents or grandparents. Not by the conservative zealots. But by us. You and me. It is our responsibility to be aware of what is happening in our midst. And it is our responsibility to help raise awareness. Parents – who are the ones ultimately responsible for their kids – are being duped by the industry with innocuous Seventeen covers and Wii video games and are often clueless about what is happening at the concerts they are sending their kids to. The pop culture machine has no incentive to alert them to what is happening, so it is our responsibility to raise awareness on a grassroots level. And I don’t think government regulation is the answer either. Wouldn’t a grassroots-level campaign be more desirable than the posturing and grandstanding of a Congressional Oversight Committee anyway? If people simply stop buying what the pop culture machine is selling, the machine will be forced to sell something else.
Finally, let me be clear. I am not calling for an attempt to limit the sexual activity of consenting adults. And the prevention of marketing sexual violence to teens is something that most of us should be able to agree on. There are even philosophical precedents for similar distinctions, like the way we limit the marketing of tobacco to teenagers while allowing adults to make their own decisions about whether or not to smoke. Not that that philosophy is keeping each and every teen from smoking, but real progress has been made, and at least we’re doing something other than sitting idly by while the commercial powerhouses that market to teenagers go unchecked. Calling for warning labels may not be the right approach, but fostering a similar shift in what we as a society choose to condone and accept is at least part of the answer. And, I would argue, the societal cancers of teenage violence, sexual predators, and date rape that are the natural result of normalizing sexual violence are every bit as dangerous as the results of smoking. And if we don’t start seeing it that way, The Man is going to keep on shoving those cancers down teenagers’ throats, whether we like it or not.