The Politics of Pop

I love Rihanna, Beyonce and Gaga. I wait enthusiastically for every new single release and the exciting cycle that comes with the campaign: the build up, the inevitable leak, the furious Googling for the ripped mp3 file, the first radio play, video release and TV performances that follow. But it’s not just their bass lines and beats that have attracted so many loyal fans like me. It’s also their bodies.

It seems cruelly reductive to suggest that these globally successful women can thank their physiques for their fame. But, as I’ll explain, I don’t mean to conform to the usual critique of these women. We often hear that their sole talent is for taking their clothes off. They’re bad dancers and average singers, puppets of a male-dominated music industry that perpetuates harmful stereotypes of femininity, providing young women with terrible role models and encouraging them to think that stripping off is the key to success. Or so the story goes. This kind of assessment is one we’re used to hearing all the time. It’s the sort of thinking that saw Ofcom deluged with thousands of complaints after Rihanna’s racy X Factor performance.

Similarly, other feminists may have watched Rihanna’s X Factor performance, or her recent video, and seen just another pop video produced for the heterosexual male gaze. Scantily clad woman? Check. Provocative dance moves? Check. Lyrics that suggest she’s totally up for it? Check.

We’ve heard all this before. But what interests me is the fact that Rihanna’s fan base, like Lady Gaga’s and Beyonce’s, largely seems to consist of young women aged 18-30. Women like me, who appreciate their performances as much as their pop tracks. Indeed, a colleague at work said to me the other day that she only became a fan of Rihanna after that X Factor performance. So, why do we enjoy watching these women so much?

Perhaps we’re all gluttons for punishment. We watch pop stars parading their perfect bodies on stage and then love to revel in the misery of how unattainable it all is. Perhaps we’re pawns of the patriarchy, duped into buying into the whole enterprise. So, we buy their albums with their supposedly empowering anthems that suggest we’re all sexually liberated, independent women… but we then go and buy a ton of new make up, numerous Weight Watchers products and a wardrobe of Topshop clothes in the hope that we can capture a little of our favourite pop star’s shine.

Of course, all this could be true. But it doesn’t feel like the whole truth to me. It’s such a joyless way of explaining the influence of these remarkable women in our lives. As a newly converted Rihanna fan, my colleague can perhaps shed some light on this confusing situation. When I asked her what’d made her change her mind about Rihanna, she explained that she found the pop star’s performance ‘just incredible. She looked fantastic and she seemed to be loving it’ And this, I think, gets to the heart of why we love to love these women.

They’re simultaneously real and unreal. They’re living incredible lives defined by glamour, fashion and performance. And it’s the idea of performance that’s key here. Most young women know the difference between an act, a show, a charade- and real life. We know that pop stars live an extraordinary existence and that their seven minute videos and five minute stage performances are far removed from the grind our daily lives. But we admire these women for embracing the joy of dressing up, getting in character and putting on a show all the same. I will never have Rihanna’s fantastic body, but it’s wonderful to see her exploring the potential of just what she can do with it on stage and watching her having the time of her life in the process. We idolise these women because they’re leading an alternative version of our own lives: if we’d only had a better voice, a more innate sense of style, the opportunity to get ahead in showbusiness. However, whilst we can’t and won’t be the next Beyonce, we can still get pleasure from pretending we’re her every time Crazy in Love comes on in a club and we attempt to shaky our booty (however misguidedly) on the dance floor. And for most of us that’s fun enough. We can do without the preening that comes with proper popstardom.

As a feminist, I think there’s a simpler, less anxious, case to be made for the success of these singers. It’s just about joy, about celebrating womanhood and the role of performance in our lives… what it means to get out, go dancing and embrace life.