Women, sexuality and the music industry

Last year, I was asked to write a series of articles on sexuality and female musicians. It never happened in the end, and so I saved my first piece and promptly forgot all about it. However, I was reminded about the subject of that first article at the weekend and so I thought it was about time I shared it with you all. As far as I’m concerned, there was only one way I could begin when writing a series on sexuality and female musicians. I immediately thought of a person who helped me to discover and shape my own sexuality in the 1980s and 90s, and has inspired numerous female performers in the years since she first appeared on our radios and television screens. Bold, brash and constantly reinventing herself – of course, I’m talking about Madonna.

The album cover for Madonna's "Like a Virgin"Her early career pushed boundaries and paved the way for many to follow. Madonna first strutted into the UK chart in 1983 with cheerful pop hit Holiday, and a steely determination to make it in the music business on her own terms. She dressed, sang and danced in an accessible way, and millions of young girls like me became obsessed with her.

In her early years, Madonna was exploring her own sexuality as well as working out just how much of it she could put into her music and visuals. As lyrics were subtle rather than blatant, young girls happily sang along with them, only realising their deeper meaning in later years. Like A Virgin was released when I was 9-years-old and my sister was 4. We had no idea what a virgin was at the time, and never thought to ask. Of course, the song isn’t actually about sex at all – it’s about the first exciting touch of new love. All perfectly innocent really.

Writing about Madonna’s early ‘Boy Toy’ years in his paper Madonna, Fashion and Identity*, Douglas Keller said that she “legitimated unconventional fashion and sexual behaviour, endearing her to an audience that felt empowered by Madonna’s flouting of traditional standards and codes.” She certainly inspired a generation to embrace their sexuality and look at all the possibilities.

Even back when the only people who played her love interests in videos were male, they were not always white. Later on, she got close to women, and the men got close to other men. Madonna showed the mainstream that there were other sexualities out there and, for the most part, appeared to be doing it to have fun rather than simply to attract attention. The fun was always on her own terms though. In 1989 Madonna released the extremely un-traditional love song Express Yourself, which is a blatant rejection of the way women had been encouraged alter their behaviour in order to find and keep a man.

Rather than suggesting that her fans do anything for their lovers, Madonna sings “you deserve the best in life, so if the time isn’t right then move on. Second best is never enough, you’ll do much better baby on your own.” The video was a glorious reversal of gender power. Kellner describes the point where Madonna emerges in a suit and grabs her crotch as “signifying her assumption of the male position of power and control. At one point, she rips open her jacket to disclose her breasts and to reveal that the male image is just a construction, a subject position that anyone can occupy.”

However, when she released her photo book SEX in 1992, the real difference between the genders in the music industry was revealed. The images it contained were of an adult nature – featuring nudity and/or simulated sex acts – and the book rather fittingly accompanied her album Erotica. Madonna said at the time that she created the book “to liberate America – free us all of our hang ups.” Many thought she’d gone too far. Despite the controversy, SEX has received much praise and shows a greater sexual diversity and honesty than most performers would dare to connect with even now.

In 1994, Madonna released the track Human Nature as the fourth single from her album Bedtime Stories. The lyrics are a response to the public backlash around the sexual content of her previous album and the now infamous book. Madonna jokes that she didn’t know she wasn’t allowed to talk about sex, saying “you’re the one with the problem, just deal with it.” The lyrics of this song speak volumes about society’s attitude to female performers’ sexuality. You have to be sexy… but not that sexy! It’s a fine line and so it was refreshing to see that such a public figure had a massive issue with these double standards too.

*Published in On Fashion (1994) by Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss (eds), p159-182.

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