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Sexualisation in music: liberation or objectification?

Many have argued that it is the nature of music, as a form of artistic expression, to be related to human emotions and sexualities. Art and creative expression have always made up our social and sensitive nature, from telling stories, to performing primal dances, to painting scenes of human experience on cave walls. Pablo Picasso claimed that ‘sex and art are the same thing’ while Sigmund Freud’s Sublimation theory suggested that ‘true’ artists made artwork out of an excess of sexual energy.

Charles Darwin highlighted the link between music and sex, arguing in The Descent of Man, that ‘musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male and female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex’. Along the same lines as the male peacock’s colourful feather tail, the male songbird develops a large repertoire of (technically useless but attention-catching) songs in order to best attract a mate.

Interestingly, Benjamin D. Charlton released a study in 2014 with evidence which suggested that women’s sexual preferences for composers changed during their menstrual cycle, depending on the complexity of the music; when the women were at their most fertile, they were attracted to the composers of more complex music.

Historically, music has not always been explicitly sexual, in fact most Western music in the Middle Ages was practiced by monks. However, as a natural part of being human, it can and very often is, especially in modern times, associated with sex and sexuality. Brian McNair’s essay ‘Striptease Culture’ highlights the paradox between the intimate and private nature of sex and how it has increasingly become part of the public domain, and this is largely due to mass and social medias, such as music videos.

At the same time, music alongside other mediums such as film and visual art have huge cultural and psychological effects on society. Elizabeth Wollman illuminates that in the 1970s, adult musicals portrayed the “country’s rapidly changing, often contradictory, attitudes about gender and sexuality at a time when the sexual revolution had given way to the gay and women’s liberation movements”. Music and performance are a space where gender and sexuality have been debated. As such it is important that the music industry is constantly aware of how they present sexuality, especially since music videos are so accessible to those who are young and easily influenced.

In 2011, Jennifer Stevens Aubrey and Cynthia M. Frisby published a study analysing sexual objectification in music videos, which they defined as the process of valuing a body, or body parts, primarily for its use and consumption by others. Looking at 147 music videos, they found that female artists revealed significantly more body parts on average and played primarily decorative (rather than instrumental, or useful) roles.

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 concept of the ‘gazer’ and the ‘gazed’ is important here as it shifts the power dynamics of the sexual situation. In music videos, as in TV and film, the viewer is in the position of ‘gazer’ while those performing are being ‘gazed’ at, but within the videos, characters can take on these ‘gazer’ and ‘gazed’ roles as well.

While Aubrey and Frisby proved there was no significant difference in the amount of times male and female singers were subjected to the gaze, they did reveal that men were much more likely to be the perpetrator of it than females. This means that men generally take on more voyeuristic roles where women take on more performative ones.

The study went on to discuss the negative implications of female over-sexualisation, including self-sexualisation which can lead to lower body confidence and even mental illness such as depression and eating disorders.

Music videos generally tend to sexually objectify women more explicitly and to depict them as objects to be consumed. When female artists, however, decide to sexualize themselves they have more autonomy over their role as the ‘gazed’ or the ‘gazer’. While sexual objectification can be harmful whether it be orchestrated by men or women, when a woman is performing, and is in the ‘instrumental’ role, explicitly controlling her own sexual image, it sends a more positive image to young girls than the sight of women as adding to a purely male hareem or ‘collection’.

Take the two most watched music videos on YouTube by a male artist and a female artist respectively. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Despacito comes first with over 5 billion views and features two men explicitly watching and appreciating the body of one woman in particular. She is objectified most directly by the cinematic division of her body into parts with the camera focusing at intervals on her legs, bum and chest, next to the men who mainly have their faces videoed.

Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off is the ninth most viewed and while it does feature sexual dancing and objectification, it incorporates more varied forms of performance and more often displays women dancing alongside men on the same level.

Sexuality is inextricably linked to music and performance, especially in our consumeristic and commercial society. With the ever-increasing sexualisation of these mass forms of media, it becomes imperative that we pay attention to the way all genders are portrayed and call out when the power dynamic is unbalanced and could fuel the fire, or be even more damaging, to cultural and social perceptions of gender roles. As a dynamic and evolving art-form, music has the great opportunity to spark debates about sexuality, relationships and gender dynamics; while sexuality in mainstream music is presently one-sided, it is not the sexual nature of music that is damaging but the way this is often manipulated and made to reinforce male-female stereotypes.



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