She Pop-Edward Cullen, Face of Girl Power: On The Girliness of Pop, And Why It Matters
You know what's fun about this New York Times article about how the Twilight soundtrack might save the money-hemorrhaging record industry? That it has only one mention of who is most likely to buy tie-in Twilight products.
You know: girls.
Now: it is not my intent, here, to start another discussion about how creepy Twilight is. I know women who love Twlight dearly! And who do not in any way fit the sad-scary-Goth-lady stereotypes! These are reasonable, smart, cool women, and they like themselves some sparkly vampires. And I recently watched Twilight myself, just to see what the fuss was about, and came to three very important realizations:
- Oh, my God, Robert Pattinson is the worst actor who has ever lived.
- Oh, my God, Edward Cullen is a stalker.
- Oh, my God, when I was fourteen years old, I would have eaten this up with a spoon. And licked the spoon.
I mean, it has everything! Star-crossed lovers, outcasts with magical powers (which make them superior to the cool kids! Take THAT, Anonymous Cheerleader Who Made My Life Hell At That Age), the thrill of sexy times without the actual responsibility or potential for complications and scariness that comes with actually having sex, Very Dangerous Boys who are actually mushy gesture-prone romantics... sadly, it all started to make sense to me around the Vampire Softball scene, in which we learn that dating a vampire is not a terrifying dance with the devil, but an opportunity to go with some nice boy over to his Mom's house so that she can cook you pasta and you can take part in wholesome group activities and not lose your virginity at any point in the proceedings. These girls aren't looking for danger; they're looking for safety. The point of Edward isn't that he might hurt you, but that other boys might, and that he will protect you. (Yes, this is fucked up. On SO MANY LEVELS. But it is what it is.) The girls want to belong, they want normalcy, they want to be safe, but they also want "belonging" and "normalcy" and "safety" to be somehow special and dramatic and rebellious. And you know what? THAT IS WHAT FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLDS ARE LIKE. So, you know: Twilight. It's not as offensive to me as it should be. Sorry.
What is offensive to me, however, is that unlike other tweener sensations like Harry Potter, which are less gender specific in their appeal, people are flat-out uncomfortable with the emergence of a large, relatively important (market-wise, anyway) phenomenon that is specifically and intentionally girly. People were initially a bit uncomfortable and dismissive of Harry Potter, and the whole adults-reading-kids'-books thing, but once they got to understanding that it was a part of the cultural landscape that was not going to go away, they started to deal with it on its own terms. That has not been the case for Twilight. Aside from the many worthwhile feminist analyses of Twilight that have been done - some on this very site - there has been a lot of mainstream press coverage that is mocking and dismissive, not just of the lousy craft on display in, say, the Twilight movie (and believe me: it is LOUSY) but of how female it all is. Sparkles! Kisses! Cute boys with no shirts on! EWWWW, says the culture.
WARNING: Image may be offensive to adult males.
Which is odd, considering that girls are central to the success of the entertainment industry at large and the music industry specifically. Recently, in conversation, a friend of mine argued that pop was a female-dominated form, and that women in pop were more powerful than men. After looking around for data, I can't say she's all that wrong: the charts aren't strictly or even mostly female-dominated, but the female presence there is telling. So far this year, the only person who is in a position to out-sell Taylor Swift is Michael Jackson, who is one of the more well-known celebrities of all time, and who recently died. The Hannah Montana soundtrack is outselling Eminem's new alum. And then there's the new Twilight soundtrack, which, although it doesn't sound female-dominated (or all that poppy: Thom Yorke, Bon Iver, Ben Gibbard and Grizzly Bear are named as contributors) stands to be a powerful seller. The previous iteration apparently moved 2.2 million copies - more than Cyrus or Eminem have thus far done, if you're curious. And here's the interesting bit: Cyrus, Swift, and Twilight primarily appeal to girls. Girls may or may not be dominating the pop music industry as performers, but as customers they're apparently pretty damn crucial.
Charts are tricky, because they don't show what music people are listening to so much as they show the music that people are buying. Therefore, artists with a base that is not hip to downloading, or that has lots of spare money, will show up even if they aren't necessarily the most culturally relevant or widely heard artists out there. The Hannah Montana soundtrack and the Twilight soundtrack are both tie-in products for multi-media empires, for example; it's not so much about the music as about wanting to be a part of the experience, about proving your fandom through your purchasing power. Still: Eminem and Michael Jackson are established artists - and Eminem, I would argue, is an established artist who couldn't care less about whether girls listen to him - and they're making less bank than albums by and for teenage girls.
Albums which, I would argue, are given significantly less respect than those of Michael Jackson or Eminem. (Here is another thing I would argue: Jackson, whether you liked the man or not, deserves respect for his music. Eminem, whether you like the man or not, released an album with a terrible first single in which he all-too-often utilized an accent that sounded vaguely like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.) Girls fuel the industry. The industry profits off girls. And the industry even markets toward girls. Yet people who are Serious Thinkers about Pop Culture And Music often don't honestly reckon with the influence of those girls on the culture, don't paint a picture of a music industry that is bleeding money and could shore itself up by appealing even more to the young women who are proven buyers, don't seem to take this seriously as a factor in what our pop culture currently looks like. If they mention the girl appeal of something at all, it is all too often with disdain and mockery. I mean, I'm no Hannah Montana fan - and I also don't think that all girls who make or listen to music listen to or sound like Miley Cyrus - but if you want to talk about the culture, you might as well take a look at it every now and again. And, you know, not just recoil in pure horror at what you see because it's got a vagina.
As Noel Murray recently pointed out in a fairly boffo essay in the AV Club, people who lament the death of "monoculture" are often only lamenting that the stuff they like isn't more popular. There are acts with mass appeal; it's just that they're not the acts that critics are covering or praising most highly. And then there is the fairly classic essay on rockism by Kalefeh Sanneh, published a few years ago in the New York Times:
Like rock 'n' roll itself, rockism is full of contradictions: it could
mean loving the Strokes (a scruffy guitar band!) or hating them
(image-conscious poseurs!) or ignoring them entirely (since everyone
knows that music isn't as good as it used to be). But it almost
certainly means disdaining not just [Ashlee] Simpson but also Christina
Aguilera and Usher and most of the rest of them, grousing about a pop
landscape dominated by big-budget spectacles and high-concept photo
shoots, reminiscing about a time when the charts were packed with
people who had something to say, and meant it, even if that time never
Rockism isn't unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices - that's
part of why it's so powerful, and so worth arguing about. The pop star,
the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the "awesomely bad" hit maker: could
it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight
white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash
of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not
just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who
should be making it... in The New York Times Book Review, Sarah Vowell approvingly recalled
Nirvana's rise: "a group with loud guitars and louder drums knocking
the whimpering Mariah Carey off the top of the charts." Why did the
changing of the guard sound so much like a sexual assault?
Look: I am not here to argue that Taylor Swift is a better musician than Michael Jackson. What I'm arguing is that, when it comes time to decide where to put one's extra money, there are as many people who decide that owning a Taylor Swift album is important as there are people who decide the same thing about Michael Jackson. And there are apparently more people who want to buy her albums and consider them important than there are people who to buy Eminem's. Charts aren't an indication of quality; they're an indication of popularity. But, because of that, they're one indication of what the culture looks like. And, if we want to deal with that honestly, that means not just joking something away or ignoring it because it's for girls.
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