Sex, body and appearance sells. This is true now more than ever within the music industry, generally renowned for a constant pushing of image and appearance as a way to sell songs. Naturally, some emerging artists will be caught up in this mentality- and as to be expected, this tends to affect female musicians more than men. For women with burgeoning musical careers, emphasis on body image is the ultimate form of objectification in every sense of the word- through music videos, album covers or tour performances, image is seemingly everything.
Countermovements are growing. Musical women are becoming sick and tired of having their appearance mean more than their music. There are women who utilise the obsession with image to their advantage, being absolutely conscious of every facet of their body and appearance and using it to make a statement beyond what record producers and audiences necessarily want. On one hand, image can be mocked, with plenty of female artists denouncing the industry’s emphasis on body through huge wigs or ludicrous fashion choices. On the other hand, image can be played to an artist’s advantage, with many female singers and musicians playing up their best assets to make a bigger statement about culture or female empowerment. All the while, these women are in deliberate control of their body and their actions – bucking the barriers that have been unexpectedly put up around them. Musical superwomen, if you will.
The music industry is a market- whatever audience demand wants out of a performer aesthetically, labels will provide by either dramatically or subtly altering the sound, style and most importantly appearance of their signee. Audiences are buying up more pop albums? Your favourite alternative singer-songwriter has now incorporated a slight pop-twinge into her writing. The market swings towards a more grunge-alternative style? That poppy sweetheart has started wearing darker clothes and claims a ‘lifestyle change’ is behind the new jet-black hair she’s sporting. The classic example of this is Katheryn Hudson, aka Katy Perry. Despite her roots in gospel songwriting, her appearance and image have changed constantly according to audience demand. From gospel songs, to an Alanis-Morissette grunge aesthetic, to kooky Warped-Tour girl, to full-blown pop superstar- Katy’s whole aesthetic changes according to what sells, and what doesn’t.
Industry objectification doesn’t just affect multi-million dollar performing artists- it trickles down to any female just starting their career, and even down to talent shows and national competitions. X Factor, American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent; each bracketed under the umbrella of ‘musically inclined talent programs’, in which industry-based panel members hunt for the ‘next big thing’. Image and marketability play a much larger role than raw talent for female contestants. Take American Idol contestant Mandisa for instance, who auditioned as part of the show’s fifth season. When walking onto the stage for the first time, judge Simon Cowell asked whether ‘[Idol] had a bigger stage this year?’, and promptly compared Mandisa’s size to ‘France itself.’ In order to advance, Cowell recommend that she lose weight fast- otherwise risk not being ‘marketable enough.’ This is obviously manifestation of the body-image obsession the music industry holds in regards to women. Even the lovely Susan Boyle was hardly an exception- she was almost voted out by all three Britain’s Got Talent judges before she sung a note, because of her age and appearance. These aren’t even professional artists that have been working in the industry for years – these are regular (yet talented) women who are from day one of competition already being conditioned into a frame of mind in which body objectification is normalised. In order to win your one chance at stardom, you need to alter your image according to your coach, your executives, producers and ultimately your TV and genre audience- your image and body is already property of the industry.
So what’s the big body image revolution that has been edging its way to the forefront of the music industry in recent years? Put simply, it exhibits itself in the form of two general camps. Firstly, there exist female artists who would rather defy the industry, and the high gender expectations of image that they exist within. Instead of bending to the wills of record execs and changing their aesthetic to suit a market or clientele, this breed of musical superwoman consciously critiques the system she works within, and very cleverly brings to light the objectification she ensures. Sia Furler is a current example of this. When releasing her previous five albums, Furler attended red carpet events, radio promotions and ARIA awards in full face. But, after her personal resignation from the music scene in 2010, she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease- a medical disorder in which a person’s eyes bulge and thyroid overworks. Naturally, this has detrimental effects on someone’s appearance- which, for a woman who has been constantly scrutinised by both the Australian and international media for over ten years, is a significant issue. If she was to ever return to music, Furler’s image and marketability to audiences would be tarnished- she would no longer be appealing based off skin-deep attractiveness alone, as the industry conditions females to believe.
Yet in 2014, return she did- with her entire face covered by humongous blonde wigs on red carpets, and with her back turned from the audience during performances so that her disorder (and gradual recovery) were shielded from the world. Her physical appearance was no longer the centre of attention- she focused her ‘image’ around a face that simply wasn’t there, as opposed to the ‘less-commercially appealing’ appearance that had befallen her. As she puts it, “I didn’t want to be… recognisable- I didn’t want to be critiqued about the way that I look on the internet,” as she knew she would. This was a leap into the void, particularly for a female performer- as the industry dictates, not to have a face was to lack personality; a tangible point for audiences to recognise you. However, with a smash-hit single and 762,000 worldwide sales of recent album 1000 Forms of Fear under her belt, it’s safe to say that this ‘leap’ paid off. All in all, Sia Furler proved to the world that female artists can carry their careers on their artistry and talent alone, without the unnecessary body control and objectification that currently accompanies it.
A second type of musical superwoman who has come to surface is the female artist who uses the music industry’s system of control to her advantage. She knows what audiences want, and will most likely give it to them- but without handing over complete control of her executive powers. She is the dictator of her own image and comfortable in her own body, and knows how to use her assets for something bigger than just appealing to a market. The perfect example of this is Beyonce- someone who is able to accept her appearance for what it is, and utilise it in order to spread messages about female empowerment and the stupidity of the very image-centric culture that she lives in. Her most recent self titled album is filled with body-positive, feminist messages about NOT valuing yourself based on body image and gender alone. At the end of 2014 she released a twelve minute short film about gender expectations in which she candidly explained that ‘[People] do not value [themselves] enough. Especially young people, [who] don’t really appreciate, how brilliant our bodies are. I’ve always been very, very specific… about what I do with my body, and who I want to share that with.’
Many critics seem to label Beyonce a walking contradiction. How can someone whose songs, dancing and performances are often sexually charged and ‘self-objectifying’, talk about using her body in a ‘specific way’ and preach about valuing themselves on more than their image? This is a defining feature of this second type of superwoman- choice. As opposed to acting a certain, forced-sexualised way to attract an audience, performers such as Beyonce and Nicki Minaj simply express their heritage, their views and themselves on stage without giving a second thought as to how they appear. Again, they are confident in their bodies and know that their image doesn’t define them. They have the choice to dance provocatively, or to sing about sexuality; if they have a vision they wish to express, they are able to follow through on that vision as an extension of themselves, and not of their record label and the ‘image’ they are meant to confine to.
Slowly but steadily, the music industry is becoming infused with these multiple talented superwomen, who reject the all-important pedestal of appearance and image that females are so often placed on during their careers. On the one hand, musicians like Sia mock the expectations they feel pressured by through exaggeration; on the other, performers such as Beyonce use the skin they feel comfortable in to put a stop to objectification and spread a wider message. This is not to say that the battle is won just yet. For every musical superwoman who bucks against their industry’s objectification culture, there are several more who change just to appease an audience, and not for their own personal benefit. In such a cut-throat world this will always remain a problem- women being criticised by men, and indeed other women, over their image is something that occurs in all forms of media. Yet the trail that these women are blazing is an important one- and hopefully a sign of a bigger change to come.
Words by Bridget Rumball