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The Music Industry: Is The Game Rigged?

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This essay will touch on a few issues such as gender, branding, personal emotion and the music industry from a range of perspectives in hope to shed some light on a gender problem we have in the music industry and the fear it has among young artist of today.

The foundation of the music industry is run by gender, sexuality and race with the bottom line being profit motivation while still having the ability to distort one’s analysis of the industry.

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I will be using high profile female popular music stars who rose to the top between 1981 and 2018.

In 1981 MTV debuted with the first music video “killed the radio star” that should have been and instant warning and glimpse into how things were going to go in the future. MTV created a new way for audiences to enjoy their artist. You would their song on the radio, wait for the single to come out and actually buy a ticket to see them perform live or watch a tv appearance they made. MTV created a way for the audience to visually see the artist as they heard the music creating a link of the artist imagine to the sound.

In the near future this would create a problem for female artist to come.

For some female artist the new introduced rule created some quick ascents such as Madonna and Tina Turner allowing them to capitalize their success across various media platforms. For the women of the 1970’s who did not possess their TV look or charisma had to go back to the drawing board and reimage their brand.

In I want my MTV Ann Wilson from Heart reported her sister Nancy was objectified while she herself was looked down upon because she “didn’t look like a porn star”.

New artist who were not camera ready created bold and sometimes bizarre looks for themselves in videos and appearance to gain attention and exposure (Cyndi Lauper, Cher, Lady Gaga).

While MTV changed the course of success for different types of artist including black men and women who already had been objectified in popular culture, it seems like a great time for woman in the music industry. In the 1990s there was a sore rise in female artist who were outshining the male artist on Billboard’s Top 20. The music Industry announced a new feminist revolution. With Shania Twain, Toni Braxton. Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul staying on top of the sales side, by the end of the decade the rise of female pop stars was to become a trend.

Some female critics had their doubts of such a claim. As Susan McClary wrote:

“Despite the increasing prominence of woman in contemporary popular music, periodicals such a Rolling Stone still tend to write about them in “gee whiz” articled that marvel at the sheer existence of such creatures, rather like the proverbial dancing dog.”

Beyonce, Fergie and Nicki Minaj are among a few female artist who have used a certain formula for their ongoing success, by making rebellious music that is visually directed at men and express the male fantasies about women yet still carry a powerful message that is directed to women and only would be understood by women. Female artist at the highest level of the industry are able to adapt this formula to reflect the cultural norms.

However even the artist who achieve great things seem to still rely on sex appeal. Music is a tertiary concern, behind their body’s is there a man?, the ability to use the full effect in music videos to showcase what they have instead of reflect the music we are hearing. Magazine covers, blogs websites, endorsement deals, being on tour have proliferated so much that these stars are on display 24 hours a day. With female artist who have stayed the “same” in the post-MTV era grow stale quickly and from the limelight and get pushed into the background of the industry.

With all this pressure what is the emotional toll that takes hold of a woman in this industry and is it worth it?

Female artist who have sold or streamed gold (500,000 units) or platinum (1 million units) across at least several releases who have the potential to extend her brand successfully into other entertainment lanes (TV, cloths etc.) regardless of their genre origin are labeled as “pop stars”

For example we do not typically see platinum selling female rock stars and in a rare case where we do such as Melissa Etheridge, At the 2005 Grammy awards Etheridge returned to the stage after undergoing chemotherapy and although bald performed tribute to Janis Joplin with the song “Piece of my heart”. This performance was widely lauded it inspired Soul Female artist India. Arie into writing “I am not my hair” about Etheridge. Two contrasting female artist and they can be both labeled as pop stars once they achieve “crossover” or release a mainstream single.

Femints music scholar Norma Coates explain why, even if woman are rock artist they are ultimately positions as a pop artist:

“In this schema rock is metonymic with “authenticity” while “pop” is metonymic with artifice. Sliding even further down the metonymic slope, authentic because masculine, while artificial becomes feminine. Rock, therefore is “masculine” pop is “feminine” and the two are set up in a binary relation to each other, with the masculine of course on top. The common- sense meaning of rock become “male” while “pop” is naturalized as “female”. Real men are not pop and woman, real or otherwise don’t rock.”

According to Coastes there is no point for a woman to focus on her individuality since no matter what genre origin you come from and even if you do it well, eventually you will be labeled and become a “pop star”. I will take a look into why we spend so much time fighting this inevitability if this is how the industry has been and still is. Have they been exceptions if so who, how and why?

Gender still construes the types of musical roles available to female artist, further compromising their own meaning and narrative they want to express directly. The gender constraints imposed upon female pop stars by society, industry handles, audience and even the pop stars themselves will all be briefly considered in this essay. After decades of female artist rising and disappearing we are still in a cycle that seems to have cracks not yet broken.

Wendy Griswold’s The Cultural Diamond (2012) offers a useful framework that considers the sociological forces that are behind the construction and reception of a female pop star. There are four pints of interaction: the social world, cultural object, creator and receivers.

These four points are used to gain some understanding of any sociological process as they are linked and mutually reinforcing.

The social world covers all social interactions such as families and school, it represents all parts of our constructs social reality. The cultural object is the pop star. The creator represents the people who create and distribute the messages and symbols that will circulate through society in the music industry these are the artist managers, publicist, radio programs etc. This leaves with the receiver which is the music and the audience.

I will be using the cultural diamond as an umbrella while looking into the female pop stars. Since society is constantly changing it enables us to look at the individuals living within them and gives us a sense about the pop stars individual behavior.

Lady Gaga made an impression in the music charts in 2008 selling millions of CDs and used dramatic and provocative costumes that made her a head turner and personally made me scared. Gaga had a signature rally cry “I’M A FREE BITCH!” however looking at her career you can see that she was far from free and the beginning of her career.

Artist can play the “music game” as they want but have to have status and go through hurdles and phases in order to get there.

In 2011 Gaga attended the MTV Video Music Awards in drag dubbing herself “Jo Calderone”.

Critics were scratching their head, some thought it was just part of an act since we had seen the meat suit, and the Kermit the frog dress. For those watching closely this was a lesson in the making. Some questioned and asked had Lady Gaga burned through so many provocative female poses in such a little time that all she had left was to turn herself into a man? She was able to put a spotlight back on to what mattered which was back on to her music performing as “Jo Calderone” singing her heart out on “You & I “ demanding the audience’s attention and to really listen to her voice for a change. This move demonstrated Gaga’s awareness with respect to gender norms in the music industry.

Female pop stars are held to rigid standards of appearance and beauty that they are boxed into a small number of types. These types scream synthetic but have become unavoidable. Gaga played the “game” her transformation into “Jo Calderone” simply acknowledged that sometimes it might be easier to perform as a man than as a woman. This performance was refreshing since there was no theatrical element or twenty dancers on stage, just a baggy t-shirt with jeans which shifted the camera and audience attention on her vocal and musical performance.

One could say that Gaga found her real “free bitch” while wearing men’s clothes. If we were to use this situation to be framed in the cultural diamond terms. Gaga and her creators (producers) offered a reverse gender display and Gaga acted it out in her role as a cultural object. Gaga shocked her audience (receivers) who had a different idea about what her act meant and how effective it was, and the talk af that act and the event sent ripple effect throughout the greater social world.

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