When Shakira performed her latest hit "Empires" at the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday, it sounded as if she was returning to her rock-esque sound of years past—taking a break from her more clubby tunes of late to a sound that's been compared to Jewel, Alanis Morisette, and Tori Amos. If you find that hard to believe, try listening to the song without watching the video . . . you'll hear what I'm talking about.
Videos and live performances come with the risk of taking away from the song, right? I would go so far as to say they've hurt music and the prospects of budding musicians breaking into the field altogether. It's as if you can't be a pop star today without becoming a visual phenomenon—a face seen on TV, in films, and on magazine covers constantly. To be successful in the music industry now, you have to play by the rules of being in the spotlight. Unfortunately for women, this usually means you have to dress like a sex object or be a hot mess.
It's something Shakira herself has admitted in the past. In an early interview for TheEllen Degeneres Show, Shakira described how she submitted to adjusting herself in order to be famous. She walked on set wearing pants and a T-shirt, causing Ellen to remark on her unusual-for-Shakira attire. Shakira responded that in reality she's really shy about exposing her body. For instance, on the beach, Shakira prefers to "wear a sarong to cover myself up." Ellen was baffled. "But on TV you wear a bikini?" Shakira ultimately exclaims why she dresses outside her comfort zone for audiences: "I have to pay the bills!"
Come again? Did Shakira just make an excuse for why she has to wear less than she's comfortable wearing, with a defense that makes just as much sense as the same words coming from a stripper?
The sad part is, I think she's right. It's hard to make it in the music industry today without buying into the hyper-sexualized script. There are some exceptions of course—Adele and Taylor Swift topping the charts for instance—but by and large their talent has to be much more extraordinary to get noticed without using the tool of sex appeal. You can't just be talented; you also have to be sexy. That, or a hot mess, like Amy Winehouse. You basically have to do things that will keep you talked about in the media, grow your "brand."
This plays out in experience. Consider the story of girl in my community who auditioned to compete on NBC's The Voice—a show which has its season finale today and incidentally features Shakira as one of the judges. The contestant was talented enough to pass preliminary auditions (which, unlike the TV show, are not blind auditions), but in the end she was told she wouldn't qualify for the show. The reason was because "you're going to need to be even more talented to make it through on your current looks." In other words, she looked average, not sexualized, and for women in the music world, talent isn't enough to cut it. She would have to be even more talented than others if she's not playing the sexy game.
But do pop artists like Shakira really have to sex up their image to sell albums? Let's be honest; their fans are mostly girls and women—people less likely than men to be influenced by sexual propaganda. No, I don't think they need to do it to sell albums. That's where it comes back to the videos, the live performances, and the publicity stunts; they do it to be famous. Men too watch TV shows and Super Bowl games, buy film tickets and magazines, and so on. Ask any young man if Shakira is a celebrity on his radar and I bet you he'll say yes. If her producers and agents were just marketing her as a musician toward an all-female album market, she'd probably be OK wearing pants and a T-shirt. Instead, she's marketed as a mainstream pop icon and that's something different.
The problem is that the young girls watching Shakira, buying her albums, and admiring her for her musical talent think she is wearing what she wants. They missed the Ellen interview, and they think she's expressing herself in her clothing. Instead, all she's expressing is what sells.
As the mother of a musically talented teenage daughter with high hopes of a future in show business, I cringe at the idea of her cheapening herself to "pay the bills." Shakira's performance at Sunday's BBMAs not only reflected a return to her old style of music, but it didn't employ any gyrating or cloth-removing gimmicks common of female pop stars today. (Rolling Stone called the performance boring, saying "all Shakira had was some pyro," as opposed to Katy Perry's performance which included undressing to reveal a body suit complete with balloon-drawn boobs.)
Let's hope strong musicians like Shakira can return to showcasing their talent and beauty as women while being themselves. Changing who they are may gain them more press and a couple extra million dollars, but I'm not convinced it's worth it.
Photo via Tumblr