Lindsay hopes you’re happy, zeitgeist.
Sometimes (ok: very often) there comes a pop cultural phenomenon that I wish I didn’t even have to give the benefit of acknowledgement, one that seems so blatantly stupid that I wish it would just sort of see itself out of the cultural conversation. But, like the fictional Motaba virus from the film Outbreak or — worse! — stinkbugs, I foresee a dystopian near-future in which misguidedly ironic use of the term “slutwave” multiplies with an alarming speed. So let me explain (but I mean, do I really even have to?) why we need to nip this in the bud.
First, a bit of exposition: the term “slutwave” was first used by the blog Hipster Runoff to describe a contemporary musical “genre” that encompasses all female pop stars who show skin and/or sing about sex: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, et al. It was, as is nearly everything HR does, a shameless attempt to get our attention by yelling Please Please Come Over Here and See How Ironical We Are. Whether their coverage of the “slutwave” was more offensive for its blatant, pseudo-hip misogyny or its lazy witlessness — who could say. But when it was used exclusively in Hipster Runoff’s domain (which contains such newsworthy items as a post about how one particular slutwave artist has “rolls of fat” when she’s sitting down) it felt almost as though to be offended was to give it too much credence. What did our mothers teach us about Internet trolls? Often best to just turn around and walk the other way.
But then, unfortunately, some more established publications have recently begun to “ride the slutwave.” Rolling Stone, in an increasingly desperate and vaguely embarrassing ploy to remain relevant, wrote a year-end blurb that name-checked Hipster Runoff and declared slutwave the “Best Fake Genre” of 2010. And shortly thereafter Complex Magazine unleashed their “25 Greatest Slutwave Songs of All Time” countdown. VH1, if you’re reading this: is there anything we can do to prevent I Love the Slutwave and its requisite sequels from happening? Don’t make me beg.
Paul Cantor’s top 25 list at Complex is particularly emblematic of what’s so troubling about the talk surrounding “slutwave.” His language is full of what Susan Douglas calls “enlightened sexism” — the all-too-prevalent idea that feminism’s work is done and therefore it’s okay to embrace ironic, retrograde stereotypes and one-dimensional interpretations of femininity. In his introduction, Cantor explains why he thinks he’s doing us all a favor:
For years critics have been railing on overly sexual pop music…[but] just like in 1983, girls in the modern era just wanna have fun. That means embracing their sexuality, dancing, having a good time…and maybe taking a dude home, banging him and sending him for his very own walk of shame the next morning. A whole new set of starlets are empowering women to live out their own alpha-male fantasies. The attitude isn’t new, it just never had a name.
Oh, so that’s it! This list is totally necessary because it finally gives a name to this trend — one so amorphous, chronologically disparate (and, some would venture, NOT EVEN REAL) that its musical highlights range from Beyonce to a 1986 Samantha Fox song to an Apollonia 6 cut off the Purple Rain soundtrack to a minor Jessica Simpson hit. Ladies, doesn’t it feel so empowering knowing there’s finally a name for a genre in which women can sing about sex? Because up until now it’s felt so unfair that only men have their very own genre in which they can sing about sex! Wait, what’s it called, again? Oh yeah: “MUSIC.”
So let me just lay it out straight, to Complex, Rolling Stone, and the rest of the music press: you’re not doing us any favors here. Calling this music “slutwave” isn’t empowering, it’s offensive. It’s a patriarchal voice selling back to women a term that’s historically been used to condemn and police our sexuality, but this time you’re just dressing up sexism in feminism’s clothing. The faux-empowerment of “slutwave” is a way to contain and neatly define the sexualities and messages exhibited by a lot of very unique female performers under one flat epithet. And it’s a reminder — as if we needed one — of how even patriarchal language’s celebrations of female sexuality are almost always also bound up in condemnation. Calling female artists “sluts” is not ironic, it’s not funny — it simply bespeaks the inability of much of the music press to talk about them in a more nuanced or even half-way intelligent manner.
Now, certainly there are people out there who might be saying, “Yeah, but look at this video of Ke$ha humping Santa Claus! If that’s not slutty, I don’t know what is!” And to them I’d say: look at the bigger picture. Instead of condemning female performers for being “sluts,” look at the way in which much of the industry sends the mixed message that “sluttiness” is what’s demanded of them. Lash out against the music industry’s inequality, not its victims (or, if you must lash out at Ke$ha, at least pick a non-gendered reason, like the fact that she can’t sing).
There are also people out there who might be saying, “Yeah, but can’t women reappropriate words like ‘slut’? Can’t they turn it into something empowering?” To that I’d say: maybe. While I don’t personally agree that women can fully reclaim words like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ (I think it’s too easy for them to then get regurgitated into the patriarchal lexicon), I know plenty of women who would soundly argue the opposite. The word “slut” has been used in subversive ways that challenge its traditional definition (in terms of music, think of Kathleen Hanna scrawling it across her stomach at Bikini Kill shows: a move that Sara Marcus describes as “confronting audiences with what they might want to see (a topless woman) and what they might think of such a woman, all in one fell semiotic swoop”). Either way, though, I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s being used subversively or challengingly in the context of “slutwave.”
As we’ve already discussed here, women have plenty of reasons to feel as though they’ve been shut out of the language of music criticism; let’s not give them another. Let’s instead create ways of talking about female musicians that are actually empowering to women — ways that celebrate and analyze the multiple, varied statements about the sexualities that female performers express. Let’s not talk about women in music as though they’re some kind of novel, niche genre. Let’s kill the “slutwave,” once and for all.