On Sunday night, a number of women wore white roses to the Grammys in solidarity with the Time’s Up campaign. Janelle Monae introduced Kesha’s powerful performance of “Praying,” a song about fighting her abuser, Dr Luke, saying, “I am proud to stand in solidarity as not just an artist but a young woman with my fellow sisters in this room who make up the music industry.” Monae added:
“We come in peace, but we mean business. And to those who would dare try to silence us, we offer two words: ‘Time’s up.’ We say ‘Time’s up’ for pay inequality; time’s up for discrimination; time’s up for harassment of any kind. And time’s up for the abuse of power — because, you see, it’s not just going on in Hollywood; it’s not just going on in Washington. It’s right here in our industry, as well.”
The night was not totally void of messages challenging sexism, but in light of the thing that still dominates pop music, those messages sadly don’t hold much weight. That thing, of course, is objectification.
Monae’s words and Kesha’s “Praying” stood in sharp contrast to the objectifying imagery presented in Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s performance of “Despacito.” Seeing two fully clothed men flanked by barely clothed women gyrating and shaking their backsides is par for the course in the music industry. But if we really do want to end the sexist treatment of women in music, the objectification of women needs to stop.
The subtlety of the white roses mean little in an industry that has amped up its focus on sexualized female bodies in recent decades. From Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” to Beyonce’s celebration of the strip club in “Partition,” the problem of sexism in the music industry extends beyond unequal representation (indeed, women won only 11 of the total 84 Grammys given out this year) and the sexual harassment and abuse that plagues women everywhere, including in music.
The great irony of the music industry is that women’s bodies are used for profit — to sell women and men’s music, alike — but the actual females who inhabit those bodies are still incredibly marginalized in the industry. Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Lana Del Rey were nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album this year, but the Grammy went to the most boring man alive, Ed Sheeran. To be fair, I think most pop music is painfully dull, but somehow men still dominate, despite their lack of gold bikinis and pole dancing abilities.
A study led by Stacey L. Smith, an associate professor at the University of Southern California and the founder of its Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, looked at the top 600 songs from 2012 to 2017, and found that only 22.4 per cent of the 1,239 performing artists were women. Beyond that, only 12.3 per cent of the 2,767 songwriters credited on those songs were women, and Ben Sisiro at The New York Times notes that female producers make up only two percent in a subset of 300 songs across this same period. Out of the 899 people who have been nominated for the last six Grammy ceremonies, 9.3 per cent were women.
That we are watching practically naked women “enhance” men’s performances at what already is a celebration of male supremacy only goes to show how far we have to go. What is the purpose of all of this, really, if we continue to accept women as props and commodities — worthless unless they are turning men on?
If we get back to the root of this all, we must understand that women are treated as less than in large part because they have been reduced to tools for men. They exist to reproduce for men, to care for men as wives, to provide sexual pleasure for men, and to sell products for men. When we pose naked or near-naked women alongside men, it is to enforce the powerful status of those men. Those men profit from those women’s bodies (which are interchangeable — just bodies, after all) and status as sex objects. Transfer this idea to the #MeToo movement, which has been calling out men almost daily and holding them to account for treating women exactly as they have been told to by pop culture, the sex trade, and of course the music industry.
It’s not just representation that we need. It’s not just the naming and shaming of abusive men. It’s not just powerful performances. So long as arenas like the music industry continue to represent women as sexualized objects, our culture will never succeed in confronting issues like sexual harassment and rape. So long as we glorify strip clubs — places that men go so they don’t have to treat women as full human beings, places where they are told, “Yes, these women are here for you” — we will continue to replicate the same dynamics that led women to experience their many #MeToo moments. This imagery doesn’t just sell music, it sells misogyny. Real accountability therefore demands we move beyond individual men, and towards a cultural shift.