Let's talk about...erm, you-know-what...
Huge hands on a fictional character will make those of a certain generation recall Kenny Everett’s Brother Lee Love, which is one of the reasons why, at the VMAs in September, Miley pretending to rub one out with a giant foam finger was initially more amusing than arousing. Had the Thicke-Cyrus routine been improvised, had either of them appeared genuinely turned-on, had there been the remotest frisson of “sexy” on that stage, I doubt there would have been quite the uproar that followed. Because it’s not actually sex that upsets people. Most of us seem to quite like it. (See “The Internet” circa 2000 onwards.) No, what pisses people off is being conned and manipulated.
Sex and rock ‘n’ roll have to go together. It’s the law; a part of growing up. It’s a rite of passage. Every generation believes it invented sex, drugs and rock n roll, and that’s good. It’s exciting. Feeling like you’re doing something you shouldn’t be and everyone around you is complicit in this brand new, shiny, tingling, mesmeric “Hope I die before I get old” pastime you’ve invented means that god is in his heaven and all is right with the world.
Sex sells, and in 2013 shares rocketed. This isn’t just any old sex, though. This is cleandirtysex. Cleandirtysex is manufactured, choreographed, rehearsed, polished, and then fired into our living rooms – all pubes removed - so that our little people know what they have to do to be a sexy thang. Cleandirtysex isn’t really sex at all. It’s money. And unless you’re Liza Minelli in Cabaret, it’s a concept that, as a standalone entity, doesn’t actually have that much sex appeal. Ask any wife of Donald Trump, or any Playboy bunny who’s been servicing Heff for more than half an hour.
Charlotte Church (who, let’s not forget rose to fame as an 11 year old child) spoke in October of her frustration and discomfort at the sexing-up of her image once she’d reached adulthood. (A website ran a countdown to her turning sixteen.) “I was often reminded by record label executives just whose money was being spent,” she recalled. This cancer has been evident since forever, but it feels somehow less benign than it used to: there’s a more sinister undercurrent. We don’t seem to have quite realised what to do with this new brand of dry, sterile, pre-planned, unsexy sex.
In 1989, Wendy James roared onto the Top of the Pops stage in hot-pants, a bikini top, and a crucifix. And she genuinely didn’t care. She was happy to sell records using her sexuality if it helped (it so did) and it was raw, and real, and rough around the edges. She was in control. Like Debbie Harry, Mick Jagger or David Bowie before her, she didn’t have to try to be sexy. It simply oozed from her. From all of them. They just were. And yeah – they all “wanted it”. They were all pretty explicit about their, “I’m sex-on-a-stick, let’s fuck” image. But they weren’t going to have sex “done to” them. It was all one steamy, sexy, consensual orgy of rock and roll. It wasn’t fake, scary or intimidating; it was exciting, arousing and naughty, with not a blurred line in sight…
Ah Robin. Robin, Robin, Robin. Many things rhyme with “hug me”. Sadly, not the phrase you’re looking for – unless it’s “please don’t drug me.” Which is doubtful, but frankly, apt. There was a time when Robert Palmer’s iconic ‘Addicted to Love’ video caused a furore because of the passivity of the beautiful models on guitars; pimpin’ Palmer or something, I guess. They are inarguably, intimidatingly, hot. The kind of women that would require a bloke to have to sink a few before having the courage to approach in a bar – because he knows he doesn’t stand a chance. Compare that with the girls in Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video. How old is the audience meant to think these girls are? Or is that part of the song’s brilliant irony? Especially the bit that T.I. raps (with a silent “e”, presumably) – the bit they’re not allowed to play on the radio, but all the kids seem to know anyway? Yeah. Genius.
The ‘Blurred Lines’ video isn’t sexy though. There may well be side boobs galore and suggestive licky-sucky stuff, but much like The Sun’s Page 3 – it ain’t sexy. It might be a bit titillating, silly, embarrassing to see with your mum and dad…like you might feel about Carry on Camping when you’re 12, although at least that makes you laugh. So what’s the point then?
The vacuous women on Page 3 and the girls in the Thicke video are not there so you can imagine having sex with them. They’re there so you can imagine “doing sex” to them. Pay the pimp’s price, do what you want to them, and leave the empty carcass behind. Where’s the rock ‘n’ roll gone? Where’s the aspiring Madonna, Debbie Harry, Courtney Love, PJ Harvey, Wendy James? Yeah, Pink’s great, to a degree, and Lady Gaga. But where’s their hook? Where’s the “woah…it could all kick off at any time!” edge? It’s not allowed. It’s all filed off. Perfected. Rock ‘n’ rollers brought to you directly from Stepford. Because that way the puppet masters are in full control at all times. Of everything. From what their acts wear to how they behave, what they say…and at what age they become (and are then no longer allowed to be) sexy.
Mick Jagger’s still allowed. And Bowie. And Rod Stewart. “Rock gods”, “legends”, still virile and allowed to be so. Madonna needs to give up, apparently. Netmums and The Daily Mail debate whether she’s “too old to flash the flesh”. The Mail (again) tells us Courtney’s too skinny, and delightedly report that she herself has declared she’s “too old for grunge” now. The comments under an article about Harry and Love in the Mail (again) debate who’s had/needs the best surgery and it frames a depressing landscape.
Live performances are where all boundaries are broken, though, and it’s the music that rules, regardless of gender – right?
At this year’s Reading Festival, 27 acts played the main stage. Two women appeared. Seven per cent of the main stage acts. Okay, let’s try another one. Glastonbury. Twenty per cent of the acts appearing on The Pyramid Stage included women. Clearly they were positively taking over on that one. Almost staging a coup. The women who appeared are ballsy, spirited, sincere musicians, like their male counterparts. But their YouTube hits don’t hit the gazillions that their male counterparts and the Minajes and Cyruses do. Male musicians are quite rightly adored for being just that. The thing is, auto-tuned to the max in a studio with carefully angled close-up shots, flattering lighting and clever editing, a girl fake-fingering her vagina might appear shocking and “out there”. On a big stage in front of thousands when the crowd wants hard core, full on, genuinely passionate rock ‘n’ roll; when it really counts, it just comes across as a bit, well, dull. The side-boob and its ilk just ain’t gonna cut it.
And therein lies the rub (ahem). Sex is big business; the shock factor is worth megabucks. That’s never going to change…and that’s okay. Sex is great! More sex please! But what seems to be happening – what’s become a running theme – is a conspiratorial scythe viciously cutting out the genuine female talent that comes with the raunchy, dirty, powerful, attitude-y, gorgeous, sexy rock chick talent and replaces it with vapid, cold, empty, unsexy sex that seems safe on the surface yet is so, so insidiously dangerous.
The generations following us deserve rock gods and goddesses to idolise. Not vapid, grotesque Barbie dolls to emulate. In July, Amanda Palmer performed a brilliant response to the Daily Mail’s article about one of her breasts accidentally becoming visible during her performance at Glastonbury. She addressed the issue of “planned sex-on-a-cleandirtysex-basis-only” perfectly. Palmer wrote and sang:
“Dear daily mail,
You misogynist pile of twats
I’m tired of these baby bumps, vadge flashes, muffintops
Where are the newsworthy COCKS?
If Iggy or Jagger or Bowie go topless the news barely causes a ripple.
Blah blah blah feminist blah blah blah gender shit blah blah blah
OH MY GOD NIPPLE!”
She did it starkers, with pinpoint precision, and the subtlety of a bulldozer. No mainstream press coverage. Why? Because she’d written it, she masterminded the performance, she had control, she used her body to achieve her own ends. She called the shots. Where’s the fun in reporting that then? Who’d benefit? (Financially, obviously. What other way really matters?)
In October, Robin Thicke performed on the second of The X Factor’s live shows. The X Factor. The biggest family show in the UK. He performed the radio edit of ‘Blurred Lines’ (presumably “I’ll give you something to tear your ass in two” was deemed too explicit for Sunday supper time). Thicke’s “I know you want it”, was beautifully followed in week three by Lady Gaga’s, “Do what you want with my body.” In context, clearly her lyrics have a “sticks and stones” message. But come on. Who are we trying to kid here? That’s the line you’re left singing to yourself after the first listen. Gaga snarling those words into camera dressed in nude coloured underwear is hardly striking a blow for women’s sexual liberation. Same message as Palmer, but with a style of delivery manipulated and contrived to achieve the “do sex to me but I’m in control. No really I am. You have to look at this in context,” with an innocently tilted to the side head that signals, “what?” She achieved the Holy Grail – complaints (which were rejected), and enough of them to warrant press coverage. Thing is, the performance itself wasn’t even offensive. It was boring, rehearsed pap. But dangerous, boring, rehearsed pap because this is what we’re telling our kids is rebellious and sexy. What a pile of confusing, oxymoronic shit.
So what’s next? Where do we go from here? A re-write of Madonna’s Sex starring Miley – but this time pubeless; nice and tidy, like? Or maybe Harry Styles could dress as Jesus and be fellated by Little Mix at the next Brits. Just a thought. He’s certainly got the hair.
I think it’s time to remind people about Rockbitch. Get them on The X Factor next year. They could mentor the bands, Courtney could mentor the girls, Wendy the boys, and Debbie Harry the overs. Sound crazy? It’s what dreams should be made of.