Commercial culture in the United States is schizophrenic towards young women. We buy and sell the myth that young women should be like “Miss America” -- paragons of virtue and walking advertisements for abstinence. Yet the culture teaches young women to present themselves as sex objects. Many celebrities are boozing, abusing drugs, and sleeping around. So it should not surprise us when our Miss Americas “go wild” and “do anything to climb the ladder of success.”
I didn’t have to look far for insight into the mixed messages bombarding gals today. I’m the single father of a pre-teen drama queen, Sela, who will soon turn 13, and who lives with me here in Jamaica. So when Sela proudly showed me the video of Beyoncé’s “Sexuality,” which she found on YouTube, or came home from a birthday party singing “I’m gonna get you drunk . . . on my love humps,” I tuned in.
It’s not far from Beyoncé’s ready-for-prime-time bump-and-grind on “Sexuality,” or the suggestive lyrics and dancing on Fergie’s “Humps,” to the sort of apparent promiscuity, drinking and substance abuse that almost cost Miss USA Tara Conner her crown, or the photographed displays of salacious (and bisexual) behavior that brought down Miss Nevada USA Katie Rees.
This schizophrenia has a history. Vanessa Williams, our first African American Miss America, was jettisoned after some nude photographs came to light during Reagan’s “Morning in America” in 1984. Twenty years late the nation had a nervous breakdown when Janet Jackson flashed a breast during the Super Bowl.
What has changed? Youthful indiscretions, as well as the mature calculations of women seeking the spotlight, are now instantly available on the internet. The amount of skin being shown to move product has certainly increased. While the pretence continues that American princesses should be chaste, there is hardly a female singer on the pop charts today who is not flashing flesh and singing about sex in order to sell a line of products including themselves.
Clearly North Americans still have issues with the female body. What other words besides schizophrenic could describe a nation that hyper-sexualizes its young ladies, yet demands a virtual if not actual chastity?
Disturbed, perhaps -- a word my children use for anything troubling, or un-cool. Only a still deeply Puritan nation could be so repressed about the female body, and yet so crass about using that body, “clothed” in attire once reserved for hookers, as the cornerstone of its entire commercial culture. Which is to say, the American way of life is something like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, watching a shadow show of semi-clad women moving suggestively on the walls, or screens, which surround us in both public and private spaces.
Seeing the commercial representations of female celebrities through my daughter’s eyes, while living in Jamaica, results in a distilled focus. “Jamaicans copy the worst of Americans,” my colleague Victor Chang once said to me, and I have yet to meet a Jamaican who does not instantly recognize that as true.
My students are almost all addicted to North American cable TV. The, um, disturbing thing about this is that they are in general unaware of anything else going on in the world. Over the last year, I have watched Sela become like most Jamaicans youths, which is to say like most young North Americans: she become an enthusiastic observer of celebrity culture. Indeed, a would-be participant with certain traits of addiction. Although this is not just an American phenomenon: a recent UK poll found that children believed the most important things in life were, in order, being famous, being beautiful, and being rich. I’m pretty sure Sela would agree.
Sela has had many advantages, among them: being raised bilingual, traveling widely, and reading with her father about a wide variety of world cultures. But all that preparation seemed to disappear overnight when she entered puberty. As Sela said to me: “Dad, what good does all that culture do me if none of my friends know about it?”
Now that she is in an elite Kingston high school (Campion), talking about anything besides America celebrities has become unthinkable. That is the lingua franca of Jamaican youths. When I ask other teenagers if they listen to any culture artists, or conscious music, it’s a foreign language. Young people here know little about Jamaica’s rich heritage of rebel music. With her friends, Sela listens to R&B and hip-hop, with some dancehall mixed in.
Even though we don’t watch TV at home, I have found it difficult to interest Sela in any alternative images of femininity. Recently we had dinner at a friend’s house and then watched an hour of videos. I was struck by how many female artists who used to sing intelligent lyrics, even rebellious songs, had gotten the sex kitten makeovers and were singing vapid superficialities now. The Gwen Stefani of No Doubt had morphed into a sort of glam post-dominatrix, who on “Wind It Up” sings about that eternal mystery, “the girls want to know why boys like us so much.” The Fergie who first came to [my] attention with the Black Eyed Peas’ inspiring remake of “Where is the Love?” is now trading entirely on her sexual appeal. The message of how girls should use their sexuality comes across clearly in “My Humps” -- a power which bewitches young men into “Spendin' all your money on me.” And to make sure the cash flow continues, Fergie the solo artist has become “Fergalicious”:
My body stay vicious
I be up in the gym just working on my fitness
Fergie has figured out the secret to life: “Boys just come and go like seasons,” but clearly, since they are “lining down the block just to watch what I got,” they should be put to good use.
Fergie’s new moniker is of course a bite off of, or a tribute to Beyoncé’s “Bootylicious.” Beyoncé is the brightest star of Sela’s imagination, and not incidentally, a primary reason why she feels inadequate, since she can’t acquire Beyoncé’s highly processed look. A Jamaican professional told me I shouldn’t worry, because Beyoncé was, after all, a Christian. Maybe she’d heard that line from “Survivor”: “I’m not gon compromise my Christianity.” And maybe Beyoncé still believed that when she found her ticket to superstardom with lines like these:
Watch my booty shake
like a fat ladies' belly
My style so stank I better bank u gon' smell me
I shake my jelly at every chance
When I whip with my hips you slip into a trance
What Beyoncé is doing with her great looks and thrilling voice is rather lame, when I compare it to popular music in Latin America and Europe. She is showing as much skin as possible, and singing, rather unconvincingly, “I'm trying hard to fight your sexual appeal.” But at the least, she has contributed to a new genre of female payback/empowerment songs. You done me wrong but you made me strong. Thanks for making me a fighter.
I could hardly find a sign of intelligent life in the videos I watched with Sela. Not a single video was located outside the fake lights of a studio. Not a single image of the “real world,” or any reference to any social reality outside that fantasy world. All of the women -- Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, etc., were dressed strictly in glam; clearly, this was the only look that appealed to my daughter.
Well Sela is a beauty with a rich imagination, and I love her with all my soul and all my might. And discipline is the structure that provides freedom. And so I pray for her:
Ah, children get your culture.
Wake the town and tell the people.*
The lyrical and visual poverty of US diva music is striking when compared to the innovation, political resistance, and at times spirituality in “mestizo music.” This is popular music of Latin America and Spain -- the latter now integrating Arabic/North African influences, as well the rich diversity of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean cultures. Take for example the group Chambao, both musically hip (flamenco chill) and spiritually inspirational. This lyric from “Dibujo en el Aire” was written before singer Lamari’s battle with cancer:
Y sí un día me siento transformado
Sela also loves this music. The problem is, none of her peers can validate it. So it exists in a vacuum. But this also is pop music. I think about the implications of Lamari singing lines like these when she is on tour with Ricky Martin in 2007. And the reasons why such truly revolutionary musical expressions cannot be found in US commercial music.
I came of age at a time when youths were rebelling against their parents, and against religious and political authorities. Sexual freedom was a part of our rebellion. So I think twice about my shock when I hear Sela singing lines from Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous Girl” (“I can see you with my t-shirt on / I can see you with nothin' on”) or “Buttons” by The Pussycat Dolls: “I'm a sexy mama / Who knows just how to get what I want . . . I'm about to blow [and] I'm telling you loosen up my buttons baby”
This relentless visual and lyrical focus on the sexuality of young women got me to wondering: where is the love? So I went back to the Black Eyed Peas song, made just after Will.i.am (a Jamaican American) had recruited Fergie out of rehab:
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that’ll bring you trauma
When you hate then you’re bound to get irate . . .
Man, you gotta have love just to set it straight . . .
How did we get from there to “My Humps”? It's all about wanting to get paid . . . and wanting to get laid. And as Sela recognizes, when young women make commercial success their #1 priority, they often have to check their intelligence at the gate.
Hence Fergie, a confessed former drug addict, now is so defined by her sex symbol status that, at the very time she advertises her ability to use her sex appeal for material gain, she also feels compelled to discredit the “fictitious” rumors that she is “promiscuous.”
What models might American princesses like Tara and Katie have had in mind? How does a female star behave once she has access to the perks of fame? Maybe like Paris Hilton? But Paris now says she’s been celibate for 6-7 months and that sex is sacred. I would agree, but again one sees celebrity culture in the US context veering between extremes that don’t connect.
Because I am tuned into the innovations and lyrical vision of various world musics, I am struck by the poverty of US celebrity culture and its self-satisfied materialism. And yet even participants in that culture have been influenced by world music’s rebellious icons. They want to believe, in some way, that they themselves are a part of that culture of liberation. So when Rees wanted to defend herself, she quoted Bob Marley:
are you to judge the life I live?
That quote may be apocryphal, but it is the Biblically inspired message of his first single, “Judge Not,” and an expression of the Gong’s attitudes about his often-flawed personal life.
My students here in Jamaica mostly do not know Marley’s music, which was and remains the soundtrack of collective resistance and consciousness raising. They are blinded by the bright lights of modernity, mostly pouring in from the United States. And so I still find myself asking: “Who can resist the American Dream?”
If we are talking about those who are spellbound by US celebrity culture, and don’t know where else to look, the answer may be no one. But there is more than one America, and hence, more than one American dream. So in questioning whether my children will find peers who will legitimate their exploration of alternatives, I must repeat that “America” is not the same as the United States. America is a continent, and a hemisphere, in which most people speak Spanish. So I find myself increasingly listening to voices from nuestra América, and the broader Spanish-speaking world, which is emerging as a legitimate alternative to the worst excesses of “the American way of life.”
And the music of that world exhibits a degree of innovation, political resistance, and a more relaxed attitude towards sexuality that is absent in U.S. commercial culture. Let me cite again the powerful voice and words of Lamari of Chambao. As Malagueños, i.e. from Málaga in the south Spain, Chambao has absorbed Arabic influences (especially flamenco) in a way that I see as a model for “integration” in multi-ethnic societies. They also express a high level of consciousness, as in this lyric from “Camino Interior” (Inner Path):
Pensamientos malos que me envenenan
But I don’t have to limit myself to the Spanish-speaking world to find a wealth of conscious, musically innovative music to share with my children, my students, my friends, and readers. These alternatives also exist throughout the English-speaking world. Much of what I consider to be the best Jamaican-inspired music (what I call the dub revolution) is coming out of Germany, Austria, and England. This music also is strongly influenced by African American music, as in the song “Father, Father”, voiced by Oezlem Çetin on Karma’s “Latenight Daydreaming.” Here one finds the very best of socially conscious gospel over a striding groove, and a lyric that reinforces the above messages by Lamari:
Father father show me the way
to get rid of the darkness inside of me
Let me drink out of the rivers of life
This music won’t teach Sela directly how to negotiate her entry into adolescence and sexual awakening, or give her father tools to guide her along the way. But it is part of the soundtrack I provide to point her towards alternatives to the dysfunctional culture of celebrity worship.
Oh Sela, let us drink from the rivers of life.
Gregory Stephens is Lecturer of Cultural Studies & Film in the Department of Literatures in English, University of West Indies-Mona (Kingston, Jamaica), and the author of On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison and Bob Marley (Cambridge UP, 1999). He has taught at the University of California and was a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of North Carolina. Formerly an award-winning songwriter in Austin, Texas, his journalism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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* “Ladder of success,” a line from “Bop to the Top,” theme song from the Disney Channel movie High School Musical.
* "Miss USA Contestant Katie Rees Nude Flashing 'Nothing New,'" Post-Chronicle, 12-23-2006.
* “children get your culture” is a line from Bob Marley’s “Natty Dread.”
* “Wake the Town and Tell the People” is a song with music by Jerry Livingston and words by Sammy Gallop. It has been sung by, among others, Johnny Mathis; a 1955 version by Les Baxter with his Orchestra; and Mindy Carson. The line is also a fragment of sound that has been heard on Jamaican records and in the dance for decades, often as a sample introducing a song. It this context, although the title was originally a love song, it acquires the significance of political awakening. This is also an excellent book by Norman Stolzoff, Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica (Duke UP).
* On the role
of women in perpetuating their own sexual objectification, see Ariel Levy,
Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Free