Our Pop Stars, Ourselves

by Kel Campbell

Swift, Perry, Minaj, Gaga, Madonna, Beyoncé, Spears, Cyrus and Rihanna: women who are only allowed to be one thing.

People are strange. If Madonna kicked a puppy’s head off, her die-hard fans would emphatically exclaim that the puppy had it coming. At the same time, if Beyoncé creates a song about what is happening in America, a million white people lose their minds. We develop instant and sometimes vehement opinions about pop stars, but how do we establish which of these ladies to “like” or “dislike” in the first place? It’s quite easy, actually. Simply take a complex human person who has a past, a family, hopes, dreams and fears and boil her down into one word.

Taylor Swift: Clean

Rihanna: Badass

Beyoncé: Queen (Or that meanie who hurt your feelings, if you’re a coward.)

Britney: Crazy (in a mental health way)

Miley: Crazy (in a slash-your-tires way)

Madonna: Icon

Katy Perry: Boobs

Lady Gaga: Eccentric

Nicki Minaj: Boss

Unlike actors, who become a different person depending on the role, or personalities like those of the Kardashian Klan, whose pervasive presence forces us to see their shades of person-ness, pop stars represent straightforward personas that we appropriate to identify ourselves. They are shorthand projections of which kind of woman we’d like to be or date and conversely what type of woman doesn’t tickle the ol’ fancy.

Let me use myself to show you what a true dickwad looks like. If you asked me who my favorite pop star is, there is no way in hell I would say Taylor Swift, despite the fact that I have practically memorized her latest album. I don’t claim her as one of “my” pop stars, because Taylor Swift is the patron saint of Basic Bitches who, as my coworker puts it, Is cool if all you care about as a grown woman is boys and red lipstick.” She is traditional, I am not. She is wholesome, I am not. She is plain, I am not. She likes hanging with her squad, I like people cancelling plans so I can stay home and continue watching Forensic Files. In short, the Taylor Swift I’ve created is not a reflection of me. But then again, it’s not a reflection of her, either.

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Pop stars have (probably unwillingly if not unknowingly) taken on the responsibility of defining modern day woman-ness, but are restricted within the confines of the personas we’ve attributed them. Think of it like foot-binding, bras, girdles and waist-training, but for the soul and not for the body. We just keep boxing in women whether we hate them or adore them. Which is a problem for everyone with a veejay.

A&E aired a special called Shining A Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America, and featured Nicki Minaj recited the Maya Angelou poem Still I Rise. Can you guess what happened? If you can’t, you haven’t been internet-ing enough. Social media erupted with people complaining that she wasn’t dressed modestly enough to read a poem by a learned scholar.

Minaj aptly pointed out that the poem itself, about triumphing over the travails attendant with black womanhood, discusses sexual power and freedom, but no one listened to her because that’s not the Nicki we’ve made in our image. She can be sexy, powerful and outspoken … as long as it’s in a music video. Those are the characteristics that Nicki Minaj is granted in the spaces she’s allowed. If she wants to demonstrate that she, too, can be inspired and influenced by the words of Maya Angelou and also be sexy, powerful and outspoken in that arena, people’s brains implode. In fact, a woman (especially a black woman*) doesn’t even have to actually participate in academia — should her presence come anywhere near it, people will claim her very being trivializes study.

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Even within the boundaries of the music, viewers often cannot look past their blunted views of pop stars. How many times have you seen a video of Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus with commentary along the lines of “She might be crazy, but shit, she’s a good singer,” or “People forget that she is a classically trained pianist,” as if it’s astounding that a person at the top of their game has somehow pulled talent out of their vagina like a rabbit from a top hat. Miley Cyrus, hammered down into a one-dimensional character, can only be a wagging tongue, naked on a wrecking ball. Lady Gaga can only be a meat dress, which is superfun ironic.

And don’t get me started on the hypocritical feminists, and of course I’m including myself in that game. In one of the more serious runs about women during 30 Rock, Liz Lemon tells Jenna Maroney, “You can be like Madonna and cling to youth with your Gollum arms, or be like Meryl Streep and embrace your age with elegance.” People give Madonna a lot of shit about her age, but can you name three American pop stars over 40? Can you name five? If you can name ten I’ll buy a plane ticket to where you live and lick your boots. Madonna has maintained her youthful, devil-may-care image and probably not because she is some shameless, delusional crone who thinks she’s eighteen, but perhaps because she’s an adept businesswoman who understands that as soon as she veers out of her lane, we’ll send an eighteen-wheeler to crush her.

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I think this is the female version of the “nice guy” syndrome. You know the nice guy? The one who aggressively complains that women won’t bang him despite the fact that he’s not a jerk like all those other jerks? Let’s call this variation Smart Girl Syndrome. Women who think, “Gosh, I’m brilliant and talk about the right things in the right way and am otherwise an exemplar of liberal female-dom; I’m not like these other dumb women who say dumb things and are dumb.”

But dudes are at it, too. Can we talk about how fucking fragile men are when Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance causes the entire police union to vote on whether or not to boycott her? I assure you that this would not have happened if Beyoncé hadn’t gone outside the confines of their expectations of her. Men tend to demonstrate more seething rage at these women, and the reasons are usually one of three things. The first is “They deserve it,” which basically boils down to the fact that pop singers wear leotards and gyrate. Hence, they have opened themselves up for whatever opinion that we throw at them. Another opinion is, “They don’t deserve success,” which is why people say Nicki Minaj only got somewhere because of her ass, Miley only happened because of her dad, Swifty’s success is due to her rich background, etc., etc., etc. But if you reach below into the muck and pull out the underlying reasons that men dislike certain women at particular times, it can be summed up thusly: “I don’t like her like this.”

Just recently, Kesha asked to be freed from a contract in order to not have to work with the dude who abused her. (It should be noted that when men get out of contracts they’re treated like rebels or outlaws.) Amidst all of the celebrity support, men all over the internet were siding with Sony. In January of 2016, Sony announced profits of one billion. That poor billion dollar corporation, suffering at the hands of Kesha’s lying ass! It would be funny if it didn’t make me want to cry. But that’s where we are. Even women who are in peril attract ire if they leave the confines of their one word descriptor. If a chain is judged by its weakest link, modern day feminism can be judged by how we treat entertainers and pop stars. I have to say, we aren’t doing great.

*As a white lady I don’t feel qualified or confident enough to talk about race in the same way that I do about gender, which is why you see that kind of commentary largely missing from these thoughts. I would like to acknowledge the distinct and severe prejudice women of color experience in every arena, including and especially in popular culture, and there are awesome publications like Those People who speak to it brilliantly.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

All images via Facebook

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