Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What It Feels Like for a Girl

Music is the universal language no matter the country we are born in or the color of our skin. Brings us all together.

--Justin Bieber, via Twitter, May 19, 2010, as quoted by James Parker in "Daydream Believer", The Atlantic, March 2011

Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel come together.

--Madonna, "Music"

Every few years, I decide to put the KISS station in heavy rotation on my playlist. The last time I did this was 2008 or so; Akon, T-Pain and Ne-Yo ruled. Before that was 2006, and my favorite jam of the summer was "It's Goin' Down" by Yung Joc.

At the moment, in the spring of 2011, Katy Perry's dark fantasy "E.T." (with a slightly horrifying verse by Kanye - "I'ma disrobe you, then I'ma probe you, see I abducted you, so I tell ya what to do, I tell you what to do, what to do, what to do") is sharing airtime with "Love the Way You Lie", in which Rihanna continues to bolster the kink cred of her public persona by engaging in some edgy power play with Eminem - "just gonna stand there and watch me burn, but that's alright because I like the way it hurts". (The extent to which Rihanna's play could really be considered "play", I guess, depends on your viewpoint. If Rihanna's in charge, it's play, maybe. If Mr. Mathers, or your basic hive-mind internet commenter's in charge, women lose the game. One gets the sense from listening to the shouting that Em's not necessarily "playing" from the same deck. "If she ever tries to fucking leave again, I'ma tie her to the bed and set the house on fire.")

Music makes the people come together. In our current hive, "coming together" seems to involve an awful lot of guys telling women what to do, and women expressing their enthusiastic consent. Have you heard the new Enrique Iglesias track? You should.

I'm a lover of the pop hook and the pop production. They have it down to a science these days, manipulating the ether of sound to directly release the dopamine. Too bad it's so often deployed in the service of such a reprehensible rape culture as the one we all inhabit. It's not all bad, though. I didn't like Ke$ha's breakout hit, "Tik Tok", but her recent jams, "Blow" (amazing video - it's no "Telephone" but a good effort) and "We R Who We R" raise the roof. They are bratty to a fault but they let me feel the power and freedom of being teenaged. Ke$ha and Rihanna (who's definitely come out on top in the wake of that ugly stuff a couple years back, and whose "S&M" strikes me as a sex-positive step in the right direction) are taking some power for the ladies - but I think the industry's stacked against them. A quick look at the jiggling flesh on exploit in that "We R Who We R" video should be enough to disprove anyone who wants to hold Ke$ha up as the next feminist icon.

This is the context in which I listen to Music, Madonna's eighth album, from 2000. Madonna's great. I like her voice and I like the songs she chooses to sing. It's great too how you get the feeling from watching her career that she has final say on most of the decisions. She's smart and she's got femdom's back. You don't see too many popular music artists, male or female, where you can really tell that they're calling the shots. "Borderline" was one of the first top 40 songs I really loved. Even as I went all classic rock in the late 80s and all underground hipster in the 90s, I was able to pay attention to her cause she kept on doing sorta interesting stuff like "Vogue" and "Justify My Love" and even that weird Dick Tracy thing that wasn't any good but at least it was bad in a weird, refreshing way, not all depressing like the misogy-racist crap that floods the rest of pop music. She lost me with Evita and Ray of Light but when the new decade came and I heard this record it was like renewing an old friendship. Same girl-posi message, same kinda dopey lyrics that consistently fail to bum me out, same consistently catchy and non-boring dance production. Awesome.

I sell it short with this faint praise. Music is a remarkable album. Tiny flourishes bubble to the surface to shimmer and sparkle: the way the pretty acoustic guitar in the intro to "Don't Tell Me" has random silent dropouts that mimic a CD defect; the little Cher effect warbles in "Nobody's Perfect"; the throbbing sheen and electro-stutters of "Impressive Instant". The choice to close with a double shot of intense spiritual longing in "Paradise (Not for Me)" ("I can't remember / When I was young / I can't explain / If it was wrong...") and "Gone" ("Dream away your life / Someone else's dream / Nothing equals nothing..."). The effortless, natural flow from beginning to end that renders irrelevant the critical tools of dissection: highs and lows, ebbs and flows, over and out.

But back to the sexes. "What It Feels Like for a Girl" issues a challenge to us guys: "Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots cause it's ok to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, cause you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly you'd love to know what it's like wouldn't you?" The great video ups the challenge to a salvo: Madonna and her octogenarian lady friend go on a man-rage spree, tasing vulnerable dudes at lonely ATMs, mowing down hockey players and straight up murdering this one guy she steals a car from. Commenter "bperry28" says about it:

This is a video of what goes on in my brain every time some idiot makes a remark about my butt/boobs, some guy tells me I'm too emotional or asks if I'm PMSing, says women aren't funny or can't drive or play guitar . It's lucky for the world that most women have control of themselves.

I wish there were more women and men using a platform like Madonna's to spread an anti-rape message.

Or an anti-racist message, for that matter. Or any message that wasn't "Buy all this crap and get fucked and like it."

I use music to experience the world in ways my body won't let me. Your experience is your only possession. Empathy is the ability to borrow experience from others. Music has the power to create empathy - that's why Madonna and the Biebz can talk about it making people come together and we want to agree with them. It's why I can hear "We R Who We R" and feel young. (Wait - I'm still young! What's my age, again?) That united experience, the shared space, the common distortion of the fabric of reality, the lens through which you can modulate yourself into the body of another, it can create the world, and it does.

Our choice reinforces our sense of self; our fractured, diffuse choice in this era of hyper-availability has been widely criticized as over-stimulation and loss of individuality. But what of the mainstream?

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