The marketization of pride is nothing new, but the music business has become especially effective at tapping into so-called “pink cash.” Pop divas have been propelled to fame and in part kept there by LGBT followings. What is new to the scene is Mykki Blanco.
It seems the music business has reached a “tipping point” where it has become acceptable and even desirable in the mainstream to market minority sexualities and exploit queer bodies. Throughout “Western” markets, across a variety of products, services, and communities, there has been a notable shift over the last decade towards targeting LGBTs in advertising and/or at least presenting as businesses to be in favor of equal rights. What is more malicious about the marketing of music is that it is coupled with the exploitation of stereotypical gay men, but also gender-bending and drag, and general sexual deviance, and the appropriation of, for lack of a better term, “LGBT culture.”
Kylie, long a gay scene staple, has used feminized and yet Adonis-like men in music videos. Madonna brought on Kazaky. And then, of course, there is the ever-present Lady Gaga. Before the release of the official music video “Applause,” the marketing team let loose the drag version to pave the way. The move from niche to mainstream in the images of these artists will be discussed in turn below.
This (long) blog concludes with a consideration of Mykki Blanco who, like other counterculture figures, is publicly condemning cultural exploitation by the music business. Following the apparent tipping point of a general mainstream “acceptance” of non-conforming sexualities and genders, I wonder if there will be a growing queer awareness of the nexus between popular media and our own exploitation.
Brittany Spanos writes in LA Weekly that Britney Spears has “reinforced her status as a gay icon. Move over Cher.” Spanos cites Robert Copsey from Digital Spy of speculation that the new Britney single would sample RuPaul’s earlier hit “Supermodel.” Copsey writes, “Singer and drag queen RuPaul released ‘Supermodel’ in 1992, with the track peaking at number 39 in the UK and topping the US dance chart.” While RuPaul’s one-time chart success is notable, the impact of RuPaul’s music has been largely limited to a sub-genre in addition to the self-proclaimed status of “drag superstar” on Logo TV. In taking up the “Work Bitch” signature from RuPaul, Spears will not be so limited. This is just one example in which an industry has capitalized on the LGBT community.
The popularity of Britney Spears and other divas is not threatened by cynical ploys. In fact, the music industry has practically been handed the tools to tap the market by LGBT clubs, media, and consumer preferences. However, queer consumers should be aware of the double edge of “acceptance” (or assimilation) in poplar culture.
While you might be interested in reading for yourself the lyrics to “Work Bitch” and “Supermodel,” there are significant similarities. The most obvious “You better work bitch” directly comes from RuPaul’s “You better work it, girl” and concluding “you better work, bitch.” For those that are unfamiliar with the program RuPaul’s Drag Race, this sentiment in various incantations has become Ru’s signature. I argue the similarities in the songs are not trivial but reflect a much broader, abusive trend.
In the end, the Spears single does not “sample” RuPaul, at least explicitly, as had been rumored before the release. In a very positive tone, Spanos observes some of the key points I would refer to more critically:
Britney does repeat the iconic parenthetical of Ru’s song throughout her track. And it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch for her to appropriate a little bit of drag history and culture into her song. She has a history of playing gay clubs and has become a well-known figure to emulate in drag. Even the VMA kiss with Madonna helped bind some ties for Brit and the LGBT community.
The new trend in pop music is moving away from merely nurturing a healthy “gay following” towards the actual cooption of LGBT culture for its newfound profitability. While it is easy to get sidetracked on offensive and ill-spoken sound bites more suited to tabloids, Empress Spears took off her clothes in an interview. When a San Francisco radio station asked about “her gay following” and whether she has a “group of gay people that [influence] her work,” Spears responded:
A lot of my hair stylists and my beauty team that I work with are gay so I hang out with gays a lot and I just think they’re adorable and hilarious.
I am sure the “gays” think they are adorable and hilarious too, Miss Spears, but probably not for the same reasons. At least, this makes the pop star’s LGBT authenticity questionable.
To some extent, the marketization of pride in music has been spotlighted in LGBT media. For example, under this headline, “Britney Spears Accused of Exploiting Gays For Her Big Comeback.” While this article discusses that Spears is obviously wanting to “get gay people on board” with the new album, the idea that Spears would be alienating gay fans by launching the album in San Francisco’s iconic Castro is summarily dismissed. At least it should be noted that in these culture circles there is an active discussion over whether Lady Gaga’s antics are part of another elaborate marketing ploy – which we will visit briefly below.
Before leaving Britney Spears for other artists I want to highlight the use of sexual deviance in the music video. I recently tweeted about the use of BDSM product placement at 2:08 in “Work Bitch.” The image is embedded below.
In the rush to be the most edgy, and sexy, production has gone beyond “sex sells” towards lesser-known fringes of sexual deviance. The BDSM image of the woman with a brand name stereo in her mouth demonstrates the deployment of deviant sexualities for profit. It is not about acceptance or awareness but instead a crude marketing ploy – 50 Shades of Stereos.
“Artpop” is the title of Lady Gaga’s forthcoming album, and we’ll get to that. This section attempts to draw together some themes from screenshots of music videos. First, I want to start with Kylie Minogue as the archetype of playing to a loyal gay male fan base.
The two images on the right are from Kylie Minogue’s “Get Outta My Way” (2010). While this is a tenuous way to put it at best, the video is full of stereotypically gay men. The dancers are feminized and flamboyant in their movements and dress. In my subjective opinion, in the picture of Kylie and the two dancers she treats them as objects in a condescending way. Knowing that Kylie is straight, the fact that she is not seen to be “lusting” after them makes them her “gays.”
The next screenshots, below, are from Madonna’s “Girl Gone Wild” (2012). Again, going on stereotypes but also actions, the video is highly homoerotic. More attention could be paid to the interplay of the lyrics and the images than I have space to give here. The dancers from LGBT-famous Kazaky (see “Love” from 2011) feature in this video – heels and all.
Because I do not find there are any defining images in the “Applause (Official Lyric Video)” to illustrate the point, I have posted it here. In short, it features some famous US drag queens performing for the VIP, Lady Gaga.
The drag queens and king as well as other people in the bar obviously appear to worship Lady Gaga in the music video. Of course, the performance includes mimicry of the “Applause” pop art look, which is carried forward into the actual, official music video. The video above was posted days before the “Official” one. I cannot help but think this is a sideshow paving the way for “the real deal.” Drag is used as a joke and advertising ploy, throwing a bone to loyal LGBT and allied fans while promoting the final product. Lady Gaga is trying to sell albums with clever “pop art” tricks, but the appropriation of drag in the process should not be condoned.
I suppose it is worth noting that I am not trying to (intentionally) invoke the works of queer theory that explore things such as why gay men prefer pop divas, drag, and other topics. In fact, I think the topics of this blog suggest the “camp” paradigm is being turned on its head. Whereas in the past “gay culture” might have gravitated towards camp performance and socially provocative female artists, here instead the divas are commoditizing deviant sexualities. Naturally, there must be some element of attraction and consent for sexual minorities to be actively consuming, promoting, and identifying with the media. However, it seems to me that the relationship is far more exploitative on the part of the music giants who have taken up the “gay” banner and packaged it for mass consumption.
Back to Blanco
Perhaps the single best piece I have read on Mykki Blanco is by Jenna Sauers of The Village Voice.
Mykki Blanco is the rap alias of Michael Quattlebaum, Jr. Quattlebaum should be identified by male pronouns while Mykki Blanco should have female pronouns, according to the rapper. The young Quattlebaum was influenced by queer theory including works by Audre Lorde, Judith Halberstam, and Leslie Feinberg. According to the story by Sauers this gave “Quattlebaum a vocabulary for his feelings just as he was trying…to define his place in the world.” Quattlebaum dressed as a woman on and off, and came to realize sexuality and gender were fluid. The rest of Sauers article is illuminating, including Quattlebaum’s ideas on “queer” and language. But to take up one more detail – “Quattlebaum is not, as some have described him, a “trans rapper,” he is a gay man who sometimes dresses as a woman.”
Mykki Blanco’s particular position in the music industry and challenging of cultural norms makes her criticisms all the more pertinent and cutting. Mykki recently went off on a short Twitter crusade against Britney Spears. While some tweets have since been taken down, here is a screenshot from OMG Blog:
Although it is obvious why some of the comments have since been retracted, I hope Mykki continues to challenge orthodoxy and that her fame continues to grow. She gets it. Mykki is authentic.
I should have first admitted in the introduction that I am one for pop divas. I have playlists full of top chart dance tunes that smack of the exploitation I bash here. So I am at least as much a part of the hypocrisy as the next person. Maybe the idealist in me has taken over, but I would like to think that at least an awareness of the issues highlighted above might contribute to a broader conversation and queer awareness of what are increasingly pervasive and perverse marketing trends.
To conclude with an excerpt from Mykki Blanco’s interview in The Village Voice:
There is a very safe gay attitude toward entertainment…Which is: Make noise! But not too much noise. Make waves! But don’t offend the wrong people. And if you want to really be accepted, you’re going to have to tailor your image a little bit to a homogenized, heterosexual mainstream. I am not willing to do any of those things…I’m not going to be some sort of gay political dress-up doll.