Pop songs from any era are infectious little bastards, I think. There’s a rotation on the local radio station, Clear Channel’s iron grip wearing the same few songs into the three tiny bones of our ears like barbed wire into an oak at the fence line. The 80’s station by me kind of ranges around and plays stuff from other decades. Tonight I was treated to a pair of tunes that make me twitch: “She’s So High,” by Tal Bachman, and “Jessie’s Girl,” by Rick Springfield. They’re catchy, yes, but the “girl” so crooningly sung about in each has no name, no personality– only an appearance and a status. An accessory for desire. I became a little bit frustrated and annoyed, and so went home and played through some of my own music– The Magnetic Fields came up, and I fared no better. And such things wouldn’t be a problem–everyone is the subject of their own story, and everyone else is merely an incidental actor in each other’s tale–except that women are consistently portrayed as faceless objects of desire in so many pop songs, rock songs, hip hop songs sung by men…
And men in women’s songs? They are actors. Often, they are the cause of the pain that many female artists express in song. Listen to Sheryl Crow’s music for many examples. Louise Post’s pains on Veruca Salt’s album “Resolver.” Ani DiFranco sings of strong women, but never that I’ve heard of a faceless sexualized man in her music, though she portrays many an asshole who is distinctly male. Others are perhaps a little more ambiguous.
I realized that this is something that sits uneasily in my mind. I have to shift its weight every now and again, think on it once more. Objectification, when it exists alongside other presentations, when it is shown as one portrayal of many, doesn’t strike me as terrible, because the expectation changes: the objectified party is not bound by that sole image of themselves– there are other models to emulate, other modes in which to exist. In isolation? It becomes the sole example. One is supposed to be like this narrowly defined image, and only this image– there is no other model, no other option to hold up and say, “See? We have all this at our fingertips from which to draw ideas about ourselves and our world’s interaction with those selves.” I think that what is damaging is the way such limited portrayals assign roles. I think perhaps the cure is a proliferation of alternative images.
So I decided to make a list. Lists are nice comforting things, at times. They give a sense of where things stand. This list is a list of all the songs I knew wherein a man was objectified for the female “gaze” (ear?) in a similar way to the literally thousands of songs that pose the reverse. I can only think of four, and three are by the same artist– the third only gains that status by the fact that the covering vocalist is a woman: “State Fair,” “The Olde Headboard,” and “High of Life,” all by Rasputina, and Bow Wow Wow’s recording of “I Want Candy,” by The Strangeloves. This troubles me more. There is a lot of music with which I am familiar, and this is all that comes immediately to mind. There is undoubtedly more out there– do you know any of it? Help me compile this list. Help me take apart these notions and hold them up to the light to see where the holes are. Help me lovingly dissect these notions of portrayal.