My Paper for PopCon 2018: Gender & Private Property in 21st c Pop

Here’s the text of my talk for PopCon next Saturday. For those of you who have been following along my write-ups for my feminist theory grad class this semester, some of this will be drawn from and/or resonant with that material. Here are my slides, complete with Drake, distracted boyfriend, and exploding brain memes to explain my argument. 

Here’s the introduction:

[SLIDE 2] In January 2018, Hazel Cills wrote a piece for Jezebel on changing expectations around teen pop stars and sex. A decade ago, there was a “voyeuristic obsession with [pop stars’] chastity” (Cills), but now “the mainstream sentiment that the sexual choices for teenagers are either “pure virgin” or “slut,” seems absolutely ancient in 2018, when words like “slut-shaming” and “girl hate” have infiltrated the common vernacular” (Cills). The virgin/whore dichotomy is out and pussy hats are in. Cills notes that even “Disney’s next class of teen artists like Zendaya, Bella Thorne, and Rowan Blanchard…have progressive, liberal views on sex” (Cills). Cills attributes this shift to changes in federal funding for abstinence education: Dubbya (GWB) funded it, Obama didn’t.

Both the changing attitudes about teen pop stars’ sexuality and federal spending on sex education are symptoms of a more fundamental evolution in gender and sexual norms. The virgin/whore dichotomy isn’t gone. It–and all its patriarchal, white supremacist, classist, and homo/heteronormativity–is still here, but in a different form. Traditionally, the virgin/whore dichotomy is about purity. Nowadays, it’s about ownership: good women own their bodies as sexual property and make responsible cost/benefit decisions about sex, bad women lack both self-ownership and responsible self-management.

For example, unlike Madonna, who used femme sexuality to create a transgressive bad-girl persona, Arianna Grande uses it to demonstrate her own good-girl empowerment. Kelly Dunlap says that “there’s a lot to love about this ode to sexual agency from pop superstars Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande [titled “Get On Your Knees”]…but, mostly, it’s refreshing to hear two women reject objectification and assert their status as sexual subjects.” Two of the biggest tracks of late 2017/early 2018 by solo women artists–Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” and Halsey’s “Bad at Love”–feature BBHMM & Anaconda-inspired videos that are about girl gangs leaving men behind in the dust and ignoring calls from former hetero romantic partners.

[SLIDE 3] As the Kesha-led all-women #MeToo performance at the 2018 Grammys shows, there’s an appetite for women pop stars to make a spectacle of their reclaimed sexual subjectivity. But as Maura Johnston and others noted, this spectacle accompanied an awards ceremony that awarded almost exclusively men. What Johnston calls “the disconnect between the message of female empowerment and the reality of male dominance” can be explained by this new gender and sexual norm. Empowerment, especially empowerment with respect to heterosexual sex, is a new gender norm patriarchy uses to police and oppress women.

[SLIDE 4] Ownership of one’s body as sexual property is a key component of what Angela McRobbie calls “post-feminism’s new sexual contract.” The OG sexual contract is like a shadow contract behind the social contract. It framed “political right as patriarchal right or sex-right” (Pateman 1)–It grants men “right of sexual access to women’s bodies” and “right of command over the use of women’s bodies” (Pateman 17), and uses this right of access and command as the basic criterion for who has rights and what rights mean. The post-feminist sexual contract grants that ownership back to some women, while reframing the terms the of ownership and command it has over other women’s bodies. Today I want to talk about the impact of this reframing of the terms of women’s/femininity’s subordination on pop music aesthetics–that is, on how pop sounds and what people find pleasurable or artistically valuable about it. After explaining this reframing in some detail, I focus on two aspects of contemporary pop music aesthetics: the recent absence of big tension/release structures in the US and UK charts, and concepts of avant-garde, underground, and futuristic music.