Real Girls, Race, and Relevance: The Worth of a Music Video Today

VMA

 

So I should probably start by admitting that I don’t watch music videos.  I think this year I’d seen a couple of Gambino’s and ‘Uptown Funk’ solely because of the fact that Donald Glover and Bruno Mars are both wicked enjoyable to watch, and ‘Bad Blood’ because I wanted to hear Kendrick’s part since they don’t play it on the radio and the song isn’t on Spotify (don’t get me started on Taylor Swift starting beef with one of my favorite companies).  Maybe one or two more videos here and there.  But once everything exploded the other day over nominations, I decided to sit down and take a look.  I was both horrified and impressed by what I found.  Again, I have to state an opinion that will perhaps discredit myself: I kinda think music videos are a fading medium.  However I also think that they can be a powerful medium and, especially given the proliferation of popular ones, can give a solid gauge on where we stand as a society on a lot of matters.  Final disqualifier: I’m not sure, as a fairly average white woman, how well I can speak on any of these matters or even that I’m saying anything new, but dialogue is key, right?  So—now that I’ve properly discredited myself—here are my musings, yours to take, leave, criticize, add to, or altogether ignore.

 

Nicki Minaj was impressively concise in addressing the issues of the VMA nominations so we’re gonna go straight to citing that and work from there: “If I was a different ‘kind’ of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well. When the ‘other’ girls drop a video that breaks records and impacts culture they get that nomination. If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.”  With that, Minaj pinpoints what’s so problematic with the VMA nominations; for the most part they A.) are white/whitewashed, B.) represent one acceptable body type for women, and C.) objectify women.

The things is, sadly, none of this terribly surprising.  American media is known for this type of slanted-demographic representation.  Turn on the TV; you see thin, white women.  Flip through a magazine; you see thin, white women.  Look around you; (shocker!) there are more than thin, white women.

Part of what is so surprising about Minaj getting snubbed for the Video of the Year category is, as she pointed out, that her video for ‘Anaconda’ broke records.  No video had ever received as many views in a single day as this one did.  As I said, I don’t watch music videos, when it comes to pop culture I may as well live under a rock, and—I know I’m not supposed to say this right now, but—I’m not a fan of Minaj’s music (nothing against it, just not exactly my taste) and still even I had seen it.  This video was huge.  It was huge on views and it was huge on the history of the way women’s bodies are portrayed in the media.

The ‘Anaconda’ video has been praised for its use of women with bodies we don’t see in mainstream media.  In say The Weeknd’s Best Male Video nominated ‘Earned It’ video, despite the fact that the song seems to be about a (as in singular) girl, we see multiple, identical-looking, extremely-exposed, thin girls.  Plus there’s the one, also thin, so-‘perfectly’-white-her-nude-underwear-blends-practically-flawlessly-with-her-skin girl.  Then, on the other hand, on a different person, with a different body, we have Nicki Minaj’s video, which features curvy women of color.  Somewhere in the middle, we have Beyoncé’s Video of the Year nominated ‘7/11’ with a fairly diverse cast and that’s really cool.  But for every completely white and thin-centric, or even decently mixed video out there, there are sososoSO few all curvy and/or all women of color videos.  And none of them got the attention ‘Anaconda’ did, plain and simple.  The VMA judges, clearly, don’t place much value on that.

And yes, last year we had Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”, which theoretically supported a movement towards accepting and including heavier body types in media.  But ‘Anaconda’ isn’t about these nice, little PC terms ‘accepting’ or ‘including’.  ‘Anaconda’ isn’t, as Trainor’s song is, about the types of bodies men (because, ya know, only straight people matter) want.  ‘Anaconda’ is about owning your body and your sexuality, whatever those may look like or be.  Nicki Minaj is fairly exposed in many parts of her video—though still not even as much as the women in ‘Earned It’—however her body is not being flaunted as a sex object.  Instead it is her owning it, because she in fact does own it.  Even when she is seemingly putting on a show for Drake towards the end, she doesn’t allow him to touch her.  Because, guess what, just because her body is big or black or out there does not mean it is any unsolicited person’s—man or woman—to touch or talk about.  And, man, is that something we as a society, man/woman/gay/straight/black/white, need to get through our head.  So yeah, when Nicki Minaj defied and broke ground with racial and body standards in her ‘Anaconda’ video, she deserved that nomination.

 

Luckily, for the possibility of our society’s future improvement, Minaj didn’t just let this fly.  She spoke up.  I find that so admirable and inspirational, which is why I want to address the other thing that surprised me when I began taking a look at these videos.  I’ll start with the nice part of the surprise.  My heart was genuinely warmed when I watched Jennifer Hudson’s ‘I Still Love You’, Fall Out Boy’s ‘Uma Thurman’ and appropriately saddened by Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church’ videos.  Gay marriage and LGBTQIA equality were major this year and each of these videos had a strong, supportive take on this issue.

And it was encouraging seeing a solid number videos on another massive movement of this year.  One that has been going on for a very, very long time, but has gained some serious momentum and attention relatively recently.  You know, that phrase that’s been floating around, that’s taken over social media, that’s been chanted, screamed, and cried out: Black Lives Matter.  But there’s a difference between the gay-right-supportive videos and the ones bringing attention to police brutality or racial profiling or any of the many issues America has surrounding racial inequality and blatant racism.

First off, there’s the popularity factor.  Let’s take a look at the numbers, all straight from YouTube.  We’ve got:

Jennifer Hudson’s ‘I Still Love You’: 1,579,764 views

Fall Out Boy’s ‘Uma Thurman’: 10,657,158 views

Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church’: 236,354,363 view

Then you have:

Wale’s ‘White Shoes’: 1,380,462 views

Big Sean’s ‘One Man Can Change the World’: 5,414,442

Kendrick’s ‘Alright’: 10,830,468.

So, where with videos that support gay rights you have insanely popular artists, who create insanely popular songs, in a range of genres, the same can’t be said for videos advocating racial equality.  These videos, created under one genre, have reached a significantly smaller audience.  Problematic.

Then there’s the issue of the artists themselves.  All the gay rights videos were created by allies or artists who’s sexulaity is ambiguous—which no doubt speaks to how straight the music industry is, but then again reference Sam Smith’s not-nominated ‘Lay Me Down’ video with 87,569,062 views.  All the racial equality videos were created by artists of color.  I think this speaks very sadly and very clearly to the difference in these movements for equal rights; as of now, the LGBTQIA fight is one fought by a diverse demographic of people while the race fight is fought almost exclusively by those directly affected.  There are a bounty of white artists, yet a serious shortage of white artists bringing their artistic attention to this national issue.

 

I’m not saying the videos on this list aren’t poignant and powerful, and—seeing as I don’t tend to watch music videos—I’m not even positive that there aren’t white artists putting out videos fighting for racial equality (though, let’s be real, don’t you think a white artist’s video would go viral pretty quick if it were out there).  I’m also not belittling in any way gay rights.  I fully respect how monumental the legalization of gay marriage is.  And, finally, no, not every video can or necessarily even should be about a social issue and there are some truly excellent ones nominated.  But, fuck, man.  People are being killed because of the color of their skin and people are not being held accountable.  Not only that, but people are in the streets protesting it.  People, black and white, are stopping traffic.   People, black and white, are shooting films.  And people, black and white, are writing music-blog posts about it.  However, in this medium that is so easily and so heavily shared, not only across our country, but also around the world, we only have a small number of videos in a single genre created by a single demographic.  That troubles me.

And so, now that I’ve deviated from and far beyond the VMA’s, when I—sorry, but I work near 60 hrs/week so let’s be real—don’t watch the awards, I’ll be rooting for Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ to take it all home.  The video essentially sums up his last verse; people of color are coming together to channel their anger about discrimination because they’re ‘looking for answers’ and ‘don’t want to self-destruct’ and the fact that despite that unjust, unnecessary police brutality still occurs.  Not only is it a sick video and beautifully shot and crazy powerful, but at this moment in time, it’s our best bet.  Kendrick is someone who appeals to a fairly vast variety of people, has something to say, and isn’t afraid to say it.  The video is clear and courageous.  It’s what we need, on a larger scale and from every citizen of this society.  How much will an award do for the cause?  It’s hard to say.  But, if my Facebook feed was any sign, the judges fucking up the nominations did push the dialogue further along and I hope this will too.

 

-Mairead

 

Also, huge shout out of appreciation to our fav boy Nathaniel NattyCLite Charles for editing this piece while Lauren is Spain-ing.

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