I spent yesterday evening trawling through YouTube videos of old Blondie songs (I am not ashamed, an evening well spent), and I came across her 1999 comeback classic, “Maria.” The video opens with a cityscape followed by a close-up of Debbie Harry’s beautiful face, all lipstick and loveliness. Nothing unusual there. Any number of pop star videos might open similarly. Then the camera pans down from her face, towards her chest. Again, predictable. I await the visual arrival of boob. What happens next is an oddity. The footage does not show her cleavage, nor her bra, it doesn’t even show her t-shirt. Shockingly, her chest is entirely covered—by a microphone. Instead of her “assets” (that’s breasts to you and me), she chooses to display an object symbolising her profession, talent, and voice.
This part of the video only lasts a few seconds, but it stayed with me all evening, because the strangest, most shocking thing of all is that I was expecting to see her chest, and I was left somewhat confused when I didn’t. I realized that I have been conditioned by contemporary music videos to expect them to be pornographic. When a revealing shot was once considered shocking, it is now shocking when revealing shots are omitted.
Nicki Minaj said in an interview on Power 106 FM before the video release of “Anaconda”: “I really don’t know how I am going to release a ‘clean’ version of this video.” I understand your concerns, Nicki. The “clean” version of “Anaconda” would be nothing more than a montage of coconuts with the odd banana thrown in for good measure.
Sure, Anaconda is a “sexy” video. That is the point of it. In fact, Minaj delayed releasing it in order to release a behind-the-scenes still image, building more hype for one single than her album as a whole. It worked. Countless articles exist warning men not to watch it at work, and the video has amounted 202 million YouTube views already. And why not? Its free soft porn!
They key difference between Blondie’s “Maria” and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” is where the “sexiness” stems from. In “Maria”, Debbie Harry’s sex appeal originates from somewhere other than the physicality of the artist, namely in the microphone she sings into throughout the whole video. The microphone interrupts her position as sexualised object, and adds to it the role of artist, songwriter, and performer. In “Anaconda,” the sexiness comes almost entirely from Minaj’s body (as mimicked by the lyrics, “he loves this fat ass”) and the similarly displayed flesh of her backing dancers.
I understand what Minaj is attempting. She wants to change the definition of sexy for herself. As she explains in the Power 106 interview, she picked “ordinary” looking girls for her backing dancers (although I can’t see any, they all look extraordinarily beautiful to me). She wants to advertise the sexiness of girls who are not necessarily size zero. Great idea! But what she has done alongside this is add to the pornographic monopoly taking over modern popular music.
Minaj is clearly a talented, intelligent lady. But her talent as a hip-hop artist seems to have been forgotten recently, as her “fat ass” (her words) seems to make the papers more than she does. As Schroeder writes in his essay “The Logic of Pornography”: “it is not enough to assume that ‘sex sells’…we need to understand what images are considered sexy; what they represent about arousal […] and how advertising harnesses these concerns to create brand association.” Debbie Harry’s old-school sexiness hides more and relies on the sexiness inherent in her talent to sell records. But in today’s popular culture, which is dominated by the exposure of skin, is talent considered not enough? Is it a choice female musicians are having to make? Reveal skin, make money, and become an ass-implanted caricature, or stay covered up, sell less, but be taken seriously.
Title image source: spin.com