“Take Back the Night”: More Thoughts on Music and Gender
I went on to youtube last night and saw the newest Justin Timberlake advertised on the main page. Unable to resist anything to do with JT, I watched it. Bear with me; this post isn’t really about him. He’s the starting point for discussion.
When you have seven minutes, watch this:
It’s been a controversial year for music and gender, mainly thanks to Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus, unlikely characters for inspiring serious debates on the representation of women in pop culture given their not-always-articulate thoughts on the matter; nevertheless, the spectacle created by their handlers (to mask bad music? I don’t know) is worthy of discussion. What I like about JT’s video is the much more realistic (murder aside) depiction of how complicated gender dynamics are right now.
I was merrily watching until the point where I realized she’s the one dragging him behind the truck and suddenly focused on the power struggle between the two. She’s also exhibiting typical male behaviours: cheating, acting distant, being aggressive. If you’re not really thinking about it, this video could come across as quite unproblematic, because it’s largely the woman delivering the violence. That’s okay, right? because JT could retaliate any time he wants. He’s stronger; he’s the one with agency in the traditional relationship scenario. He’s also the one with agency in the mess of music industry decisions that end with putting forth videos like this.
The power does oscillate, mainly indicated by grabbing hair and pulling the head back. I was more troubled by the scene in which conventional hysteria on the woman’s part is resolved by sexual aggression from the man (on the kitchen counter) than I was by any act of violence from the girl.
Still, there’s something hot about these interactions, yes? If nothing else, JT knows how to tap into the things we desire and want to see, and to carefully tread the lines between edgy, seductive, and controversial.
Of course, it’s all very well to say that it’s hot and ignore the fact that a video like this is normalizing violence between partners. The source of that violence is irrelevant when the video is suggesting it is either normal or okay. That said, to what extent is violence behind closed doors normal? How much is this video reflecting reality? We don’t really know, and without solid data (many people don’t talk about it) and with the movement of texts like this through pop culture, we can’t ascertain what is chicken and what is egg.
Last year, I came out defending Taylor Swift when she was lambasted in the media for not being feminist. I said that her youth and life of privilege made feminism seem an unnecessary point of alignment for her (notwithstanding the fact that feminism got her where she is). Um, I take it back. Here’s why: I just listened to her debut album for the first time, and all I can think is, like, just shut up about the boys already. Who cares if that guy is looking at you? Do something else with your time (perhaps an odd reaction, because she did start a whole singing-songwriting career for herself).
But my smartypants students brought up an interesting point in class this week. I played them a track by an amateur rapper from Newfoundland, and asked them to comment on the content and quality. Someone suggested that if I had introduced the track as a Drake song, would they have found the same fault in it? Or would they have celebrated its grinding repetition and awkwardly delivered lyrics as a charmingly simple example of artistic achievement by someone they respect? Good question – and please forgive the comparison I’m about to make, because it’s maybe not an entirely fair one, but is based in the same sentiment.
Kathleen Edwards’s Voyageur from last year is all about relationships. Men. The trouble they cause; conversely, the joy that they bring. The whole album, except maybe for “Chameleon/Comedian” and “For the Record” deals with her personal relationships, the pain after divorce, the excitement of a new partner. How is this any different from what Taylor Swift does? (I know; you’re raging inside. Don’t worry, I am too.) But really, how different? I’d offer this: Edwards is pretty clear about the conflicting feelings that arise in the aftermath of divorce: fear of being alone; anticipation of moving forward; the thrill of the taboo and newfound pleasure; the humiliation of having made terrible mistakes; the irreversible sadness of hurting someone you love. In short, it encapsulates the wide spectrum of emotion that emerges from one of life’s most damaging experiences. Swift, at 15, experiences all the same things, in all the same ways as a 15-year-old. But because Edwards is in her 30s and an established songwriter, we give more credence to her experience and allow for her to use an entire album to explore relationships. We can relate, in other words. But fans of Edwards are not likely fans of Swift, and cannot generate the same sympathy for Swift’s complaining about teenage boyfriend angst. That’s not really fair.
Still, I go into my classes and see young women who think about things unrelated to boys, who work hard to become leaders in their communities, who challenge issues raised in class, who see beyond the simplistic gender relations portrayed in most pop culture offerings, and think Taylor Swift might not be doing much for them either. Or she’s one of many options for them; a musical shoulder to cry on when boys do disappoint, but not in any way the singular representation of their experience and thoughts. I get worried that the 12-year-olds listening to Swift will think that life ahead of them is just about floundering around with your makeup, trying to get a boy to pay attention to you instead of your best friend. At least when I was that age, singers like Debbie Gibson were singing slightly more empowering songs like “Electric Youth”, and the generation before her included powerful women like The Bangles, Pat Benatar, and Joan Jett. It didn’t occur to me to spend all my free time mooning over first kisses and curling my hair (granted, I did do some of that) while growing up and watching those women drum their asses off.
For those who take issue with me posting on Justin Timberlake, I’m going to finish with him. Going back to the question: if you didn’t know it was him, and you thought this track was by, say, The Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Parliament, would you think it was artistically sound? ’Cause it’s a good song (troubling title aside).