With Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea the latest in a long line of pop stars to expose their derrières in the name of a few YouTube hits, we ask some of the music industry’s most popular women one thing: why?
Let’s just get one thing straight – we all have bottoms. It’s an established human body part that’s seen us through a few millennia, so as concepts go, not wildly new. It’s just that, of late, we can’t help but feel the humble bottom, or at least recent acts associated with it, have taken on a rather more seedy hue.
It was the video for Jennifer Lopez’s single Booty ft. Iggy Azalea (incidentally written by that charmer Chris Brown) that did it, that turned this underlying unease into a distress call. You will know if you’ve seen it, because it would have found a foothold in your brain, a tiny little crevice in your hippocampus marked ‘Bum Tetris with J-Lo and Iggy’. Searching? Found it? Yep, you’re there. Just to recall: here are two beautiful individuals, with talents that go far beyond their looks, oiled up, wearing thong one-pieces, and arranging their impressive behinds next to each other’s so that they fill the entire lens with their voluptuous glory. A whole screen of bum.
Coupled with the lyrics that include pearls such as: “Mesmerised by the size of it,” and, “It’s his birthday, give him what he ask for,” and it quickly dawns that this song is A: about bottoms and B: about attracting men through the size and the movement of said body part.
Now, we’re not saying that every pop song should tackle the gender pay gap, or the social struggles of disenfranchised women in the Chilean Highlands, but you would be forgiven for thinking that in 2014 our leading female pop stars might have associated themselves with a creative enterprise that’s a little more, well… worthy of them.
J-Lo herself has achieved $55 million (£33.7million) in record sales, an estimated wealth of $315 million (£193 million) and has survived almost 20 years’ in the music industry, so we imagine she has the power to be quite particular about which projects she takes on. Yet, whichever way you look at it – and Jen, Iggy, we’re talking to you here, you have presented yourselves as visual fodder, as cartoonish representations of male fantasy, and then you’ve sung about how you’re ready to go and ready to please. You’ve objectified yourselves. And we were thinking female objectification was the sole preserve of unreconstructed men.
To be honest, it just makes us a little sad. And we’re not the only ones. A quick glance at our social media feeds show that Stylist’s readers too feel let down. “I think Jennifer Lopez is actually very talented and it’s a shame she feels she has to resort to this lyrically stupid, dull, unoriginal attention-seeking.” “It’s not even a good song FGS!! Maybe since age ratings have been introduced for music videos, they’ve decided to push for this soft porn rubbish!” And perhaps most tellingly, “Until Pharrell feels the need to release something similar with all of One Direction, I won’t be watching.”
Grin and bare it
And yes, of course, there is a counter argument here. It’s about choice. The women’s movement since its inception has fought for choice. Above all, the freedom to choose is a basic human right, and we will continue to battle for our right to choose whether we want to become mothers, how we want to live, and how we want to portray ourselves; and if that is writhing around a floor, greased up, while giving come hither eyes to a 20-strong camera crew in stark air-conditioned studio, so be it.
But the question remains, if this is just the direction pop videos are going (estimates suggest that 85% of female music videos now feature some form of nudity) why are our male pop stars not stripping off? Because in the top 10 most watched music videos on Vevo last year, all of the men were fully clothed and only one of the women wasn’t in her underwear or equivalent (Katy Perry in Roar).
In fact, there is a full spectrum of female musicians who are removing their jeans to sell songs. And while it’s gratifying that popular culture now celebrates bottoms of all shapes and sizes – no doubt, in part, thanks to J-Lo herself – we’re not sure why those bottoms have to be bare. But bare they are. Bare and bouncing up and down on the back of a motorbike in Kanye West’s Bound 2 (that’s Kim, not Kanye by the way); bare and gyrating on a giant teddy bear in Miley Cyrus’s We Can’t Stop; bare and humping the floor in Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda; bare and rubbing up against Rihanna in Shakira’s I Can’t Remember To Forget You.
What this suggests, as always, is a power imbalance. Because it’s not the nudity that’s the problem, it’s the sexual associations attributed to female bottoms and the resulting objectification of the owners. We have no idea whether Pharrell, Sam Smith or Kanye West have a pert or flabby behind because they keep their pants on. Jay Z wears the equivalent of a leather ski suit while the mighty Beyoncé stands next to him in her pants. Where is the equality there?
What’s most galling is that it really doesn’t have to be like this. Meghan Trainor who reached No.1 in the US charts, and gained international recognition this year with her single All About The Bass, very definitely keeps her clothes on in her video. She too sings about her bum, but alas lets herself down a little by saying that male validation alone gives her body confidence, but at least she doesn’t feel the need to whip off her pants. Last year, Adele won a Grammy, a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her music. Up to now she has never sung about bums and she has never resorted to frolicking naked for our entertainment. Taylor Swift who amassed 10 million downloads for her 2013 album Red and who earned $39m (£24m) last year: Bums songs – 0, Bums on show – 0. Alicia Keys, she of swift fingers and cavernous lungs, who has sold an incredible 35 million albums worldwide, does not sit naked at her piano (in public at any rate). Katy Perry may wear clothes with cream buns sewn onto her chest, but naked, oily bum cheeks? No. None of that. Not here. So some of our most beloved, favourite, gifted female artists feel the need to disrobe to ensure a hit.
Fourteen years ago, we sang along to Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women soaking up every word of the anthem that told us we were responsible for buying our own homes and clothes; that we were responsible for our futures; that we could determine our happiness. Then came Bootylicious, a dancefloor classic, that celebrated the female body with such feel-good passion that a generation of women stopped tying cardigans around their waists and embraced their body shapes.
And it was Beyoncé at the helm, of course. And she could do no wrong. Powerful and ambitious, kind and nurturing, outspoken and fierce, and a self-proclaimed feminist. She has a talent that smashes every male artist out of the park – particularly a big one in Somerset, when she became the first female solo artist to perform on Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage. Hell, last year she even penned an article on equal pay for women.
And then came her latest (self-titled) album and accompanying videos. Drunk In Love saw her wearing a black bikini while her husband stood next to her rapping about (and arguably glorifying) domestic violence. Each video got progressively more pornographic – performing oral sex in the back of a limo, pole dancing in a thong. And yet this was the album that also contained Flawless which samples a feminist speech by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Pretty Hurts which warns about the dangers of plastic surgery. We know which Beyoncé we prefer.
The most depressing part of the current bottom myopia is that it negates the talent each one of these women possesses. Rihanna, Miley, Jennifer Lopez, Gaga, Nicki Minaj – they are so much more important, so much more valuable than what’s in their pants.
So here’s an appeal, an entreaty if you will. Can we just take a minute to remember the days when Kylie’s gold hot pants were seen as risqué, when Madonna’s Jean Paul Gaultier bustier was shocking, when the Spice Girls embracing feminism was a talking point, not a 21-year-old licking a mallet. And look, we know it’s not necessarily the artists who are responsible for sexism in the music industry, who decide how they are marketed and, on a wider scale the global success of these women sets a brilliant example – they can reach the top, so can we. It’s just we shouldn’t have to take our clothes off to get there.
Naturally, and rightly, there will always be opposition to this point of view. Perhaps Jennifer Lopez might say that feminism equals complete ownership of her body and she can do exactly as she pleases, without comment. Fair point. Miley could say she’s just celebrating the female form. Fine. Shakira might conclude that embracing our sexuality is progress – why should we pretend women don’t like and enjoy sex? Iggy might shun all responsibility as a role model, she’s just a musician after all.
But let’s not be naïve and think these videos don’t feed a worrying appetite for sexualised images, teach young girls that it’s their bodies that are their most important asset and teach young boys to objectify females. Songs with lyrics such as, “I just wanna be the kind of girl you like” are clearly not supporting the feminist cause. And when female artists reach millions of fans through social media (Rihanna has 1.422 million followers on Instagram), front campaigns for teenage products and accept brand sponsorship then yes, whether they like it or not, they are role models. It comes with the pay packet.
Fundamentally, the bum obsession is depressing because it feels regressive. Women should be controlling the music industry. After decades of lower sales than men, female artists now dominate the US and UK charts and the biggest-selling albums of 2011, 2012 and 2013 were created by women. These are the women who write and perform the songs we dance to on Friday nights. We still love their voices, their brains and their music. It’s just their writhing behinds and increasing resistance to clothes that makes us shudder. You metaphorically wear the trousers now ladies, so please, please, please, would you mind putting them back on?
How bums became the new cleavage
The focus of attention might have shifted, but public scrutiny of women’s bodies refuses to go away, says Stylist’s Joanna McGarry
While it’s highly plausible we’ll look back on this time in contemporary culture as The Era When Everyone Got Their Bum Out (A Lot), the fetishising of a body part is nothing new. Before MTV and pop culture, there was art. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Baroque painters depicted their female subjects as full-figured – plump even – all corpulent tummies and round buttocks. Texts dating back to the 1700s mention the ‘cul de Paris’, a pad which fixed under a dress to boost the silhouette of a bottom to almost cartoonish proportions.
By the 1890s, the creation of a tiny waist via a debilitating corset – giving the impression of larger hips, a rotund bottom and a more generous bust – became the shape du jour. Almost a century later, the pendulum swung and an Eighties gym-honed body (Elle Macpherson raise your hand) became the pinnacle. In fact, the subjugation of female body types – just as skirt lengths rise and fall – has evolved with the generations. The Nineties saw a shift towards an unattainably lithe, androgynous figure, helmed by a waif-like Kate Moss.
Then, propelled somewhat by the boob-shaped legacy left by Baywatch and pop culture totem Pamela Anderson, the public gaze shifted unequivocally to the bust. A Barbie-like, pneumatic body shape, one carved not from genetics but a surgeon’s knife, took hold, propelled by an explosion in cosmetic surgery. Building on the foundations laid by the 1994 Wonderbra Hello Boys campaign, Page 3 breakout stars Jordan and Jodie Marsh became torchbearers for the cause, each contributing to the normalisation of female nudity and the proclivity for balloon-like augmented breasts
Not long after, the Millennium washed over us, carrying with it the dreams of a new generation, and a pair of tiny gold hotpants. In her 2000 single Spinning Around, Kylie Minogue frolicked around in a swatch of Lurex that fell just short of covering her bottom and the first page of a new chapter of body worship was turned. The curve and swell of the bottom abruptly replaced breasts as the anatomical area of obsession in pop culture. The seeds Kylie sowed have since bloomed into something bigger than anyone could have foreseen.
Bootylicious, a paean to the ‘booty’ by Destiny’s Child, came swiftly after in 2001. Playful, suggestive and a bit comedic – like a pop/R’n’B Benny Hill sketch – Beyoncé, Michelle and Kelly posed the question: “Baby, can you handle this?” – ‘this’ being ‘jelly’, of course. The inference of bum fetish was lyrical rather than overtly visual. It was novelty, all girls together and distinctly light-hearted. It lacked any of the base sexual aggression that was yet to come.
And then Kim Kardashian arrived. This is a woman who has built an entire career upon the arc and tilt of her behind; a career crystallised in her post-partum selfie (cloyingly dubbed the ‘belfie’), in which her generous bottom was restrained by a scant white swimsuit. It’s impossible to overestimate the part social media has had to play in modern forms of body hype. Who could have predicted a decade ago that taking a photo of your bum and sharing it online would be a totally normal way to spend your Tuesday evening?
Ever more concerned with the bend and thrust of the bottom, pop culture has since had to find new – and ever-extreme ways – to fulfil its bum agenda. With their duet Booty, Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea are merely the latest in a slew of pop titans – Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus (who seems to take a post-ironic stance) – to hone in on the bottom as the apex of their own (sexual or otherwise) appeal at some point.
And, where the zeitgeist goes, commercial opportunities follow. Cellulite creams, scrubs, weight- loss bandages, cycling shorts and padded knickers have all hoisted themselves onto the bum bandwagon, while the number of Britons having buttock augmentation surgery has risen by 484% in the past two years.
In the gym, there’s been a shift towards workouts that serve not to drop pounds from the bum area, but expand and enhance its shape. As Khloe Kardashian instagrammed alongside a photo of her doing squats in the gym last week, “because no-one ever wrote a song about a small ass”. As the fetishisation of bums reaches critical mass, one thing is certain: even in 2014, women’s bodies are laid bare for celebration and scrutiny in a way men’s are not. And where Iggy Azalea and J-Lo have left off, it’s likely others will follow.
What do you think? Is it time for the women of pop to put their bottoms away? Or is it completely up to them how they showcase their bodies, objectification or no? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @stylistmagazine with the hashtag #badass.