Unglamour & Macho-Feminine

The Representation of Women in Rock & Pop Video Clips

published in Waves No.75, Melbourne, 1985
Sharon O'Neill - Maxine (1983); The Runaways - Cherry Bomb (1976)

In September this year a forum on Rock & Pop Video Clips (R&P VCs) was held in conjunction with the Women 150 Festival. The subject was the representation of women in R&P VCs. Not surprisingly, there was plenty of talk about Madonna. You know all about her: if she's not being idolized or scandalized in teen mags, she's being analyzed as a social phenomena or a radical manipulation of image in the likes of The Age, The National Times or Rolling Stone.

From Michael to Prince to Boy, the progrcssive journalists of the world have continually cited such megastars in a style of writing which could be tagged 'mass media anthropological'. The probable result of the oh-so-adult Rolling Stone school of journalism, these studies all too often verge on being parentally-ostricized from the very subjects they tackle. They regard the pop stars as enigmatic icons (more fearful than pleasurable); their messages as mysterious hieroglyphs, and their images as alien and ominous. But rarely do they address the actual music. Too much is written about the power and force of these stars in social terms, and not enough on the effect and meaning of their music and music-image.

In 1985, it is now common to assume, presume and consume all the social myths of megastars without attributing any real specific identity to them. Mention Madonna and people groan with familiarity and sigh with saturation. The result of over-exposure or too much journalism? It was therefore no surprise that Madonna had a Pavlovian effect on the audience at this particular forum. On came “Like A Virgin” and everyone giggled as she bared her belly beneath the bridges. Nervous laughter to disguise the confusion over what amounts to an over-load of signifiers, so common with the megastar. “Like A Virgin” is perhaps the world's most misinterpreted song next to Bruce Springsteen's “Born In The U.S.A.”. The effect of her simple useage of the word 'virgin' perhaps indicates how 'catholic' we all are.

A few videos later, on came Sharon O'Neil's “Maxine”. No laughter? The world's most all-time pathetic exploitative VC and no-one laughed!?! Oh, I'm sorry: I forgot that it's a song sung by a woman and written by a woman about a woman whose profession symbolically reflects our society's treatment of women. But intended statement aside, this VC is really laughable. Sharon O'Neil as an investigative journalist (there's that word again) in Kings Cross? Why should we separate this clip from hard core exploitation films like “Avenging Angel” and “Caged Virgins”? TV docu-dramas like “Little Ladies Of The Night”? Episodes of “Prisoner” and “Cagney & Lacey”?

Image is more condensed in VCs than any other medium at the mornent - and that's what makes it virtually futile to manipulate imagery in order to make a statement which paradoxically denies its status as image. “Maxine” is a series of images with no 'social reality' behind them, but just a mythological history of how those images have been used in similar and identical ways. The most laughable VCs are those which invest heavily in realism, authenticity and dramatization.

The representation of women in Rock is certainly a contentious issue - especially as America is about to introduce a rating system for LP covers and lyrics, plus censorship controls on sex and violence in VCs. Let's have a look then at some R&P VCs which were by and large ignored at the Women 150 forum.

The holy grail for many a strategic analyst is the presence of the feminine in something - a feminine voice, a feminine discourse, a feminine imagery. Decode an ad, a film, a VC, a record, and you may archeologically surface it one day. To date, most discoveries have been fool's gold. The major debate continues over what constitutes a feminine discourse, and how does it manifest itself. From botanical images of flowers to cinematic scenes of castration, everyone has their own version. Personally, I'm never that confident with strategic analysis, so all I can ever encounter are things that suggest possibilities to me.

I would like to believe that Kim Wilde has it under control. (I do believe that Joan Armatrading has it under control, but her music is too mundane and 'real' to interest me any further.) She started out with everything either going for her or against her, depending on your point of view: a Rock'n'Roll father who wrote and produced her music; a rough 'n' tough demeanour about her; and a bunch of hard rockin' guys behind her. In other words - surrounded by Men. Her first two VCs for “Kids Of America” and “Chequered Love” evidenced all of the above, but what shone through was her unglamourous identity. In those clips she looks like she just got out of bed - real New York style. This contradiction made the clips work by failing in their attempt to construct a stereotyped sex kitten with sharp claws. But as she got 'big' she signed to an English image-maker mogul (whose name escapes me now) who no doubt masterminded the VCs for “View From A Bridge” and “Cambodia”: soft lens/back lighting/pastel make-up/sexy costumes/slo-mo/etc. Her unglamourous identity was diffused by the Penthouse softness of these clips. Fortunately, she left him (with some choice words in a recent 60 Minutes interview) and hit back with “Dancing In The Dark”. A slick clip, but the glamour was gone and Kim Wilde was back.

Kim Wilde - Kids Of America (1981); Joan Jett & The Blackhearts - I Love Rock’n’Roll (1981)

At this point it is worth remembering The Runaways. They had a hit with “Cherie Bomb” in 1976 and eventually broke up in a tortured and melodramatic fashion similar to the Sex Pistols. Guitarist Joan Jett went on to bigger and better things, as did lead guitarist Lita Ford (more about them later). Lead singer Cherie Currie tried some soft Rock duets with her look-alike sister Marie, and made a few movies like “Little Foxes” and “Parasite”. The Runaways were masterminded by the Roger Corman of Rock’n’Roll – Kim Fowley. The concept was to have a band made up of girl brats; real switchblade sisters who could rock the balls off guys too busy with male rock star pin-ups in their bedrooms. They were a contemporary slant on the 'girl group' who ended up being too much of a bundle even for Kim Fowley to handle. Fowley may have instigated their formation, but their raw naive energy was all their own. Girl groups, female singers or women in rock haven't matched their unglamour yet.

Girls School was the nearest the U.K. could get to The Runaways. They all had real working-class haircuts (grown-out perms) and leopard skin-print T-shirts with leather boots and jackets. There was always something vaguely authentic in their mundane image because they looked too uncomfortable in such Rock’n’Roll finery. The juxtaposition between their modern Heavy Metal gear and their total lack of stage presence fixed them as being not just ordinary, but hyper-average. The Slits were too extreme to have any lasting effect. Whereas Girls School were unglamourous, The Slits were anti-glamour, with their matted hair, dirty macs and, of course, their name. In 1977/78 their theatrical polemic was lost in the whole punk anti-rhetoric, and when things died down into 1979, they discovered the earth and spoke like rastas. Their confrontational address (and dress) was internalized and left to throb within the reggae rhythms of the latter Slits and the New Age Steppers. Whilst Girls School were too weak and the Slits too anarchistic to make anything other than superficial statements with imagery, Joan Jett and (later still) Lita Ford went on to provide some lasting problematics in feminine discourse.

Joan Jett's comeback was with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. Around the same age as Joan, they always looked like dumb slaves to her every command. Their first anthemic power-rocker was “I Love Rock’n’Roll”. The universal statement of this song had the uncanny effect of not controversialising the raunchy image of leather-clad Joan with a low slung guitar thumping her fist up at us from a crowded rough neck bar. The message “we're all one with Rock'n’Roll” distracted one from noticing too much that Joan Jett was definitely not 'one of the boys'. Then things became confusing. Her VC for her cover version of “Crimson & Clover” is a highly erotic manipulation of feminine imagery by a symbolically castrating woman (to use the appropriate jargon). This VC is a mixture of Jane Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Suzi Quatro, Marlon Brando, Judy Chicago and Penthouse magazine. It might be a liberated statement but I really wouldn't know. I can only ponder whether or not the presented image is over-coded. Her next VC for the Gary Glitter chant “Do You Wanna Touch?” was more conventional and less ambiguous: gestural innuendos, visual associations and lyric gags all directed to the desirous gaze of the (male?) viewer. But still one is left to wonder exactly how someone like Joan Jett can be accused of constructing sexist imagery. It's like saying that Jim Morrison was macho. (Think about it.)

The commandeering of macho imagery continues with Lita Ford, he oldest member of the Runaways at 17. Her VC for “Out For Blood” is a biting comment on the whole process of image manufacture in VCs. The first full quarter of the clip features an American couple a la B52s neo-trash. Tres retro. Enough design material for two Twisties ads and three Big M ads. Suddenly, Lita Ford and her male band burst through the loungeroom door and tie the couple up on their stylish TV couch, bringing to mind the 1955 film “The Desperate Hours” where escaped convicts terrorize a middle-class suburban family in their dream home. Up until this point in the clip, you think it's going to be one of these Style VCs, desperate to be New Wave, Modern and Japanese all at once. This VC clearly presents the battle between real/macho/raw imagery and arty/ stylish/hi-visual imagery as the tied up couple are forced to listen to Lita Ford, and her band play their 'wild' Rock'n’Roll with wreckless abandon, smashing up the whole new wave set. Perhaps even more clearly than Joan Jett, Lita Ford appears to be placing the issue of what is the image for 'real' Rock over and above the issue of what sex its performers are.

Lita Ford - Out For Blood (1983); Prince - Raspberry Beret (1985)

On a musical level, the forte of Lita Ford is that she is a lead guitarist - occupying that hallowed place where the pulsating cock of male Rock music rears its ugly head. Women playing lead guitar may be dismissed as a novelty or a 'turn-on', but their performance as such within the power structures of Rock music should not be dismissed. Heart's international come-back song "What About Love” recalls their first international hit “Magic Man” from 1976. Whereas often the female singer will be criticized for singing a man's song (speaking his words) Heart's “Magic Man” turned the tables. Anne Wilson's swooning and idolatry lyrics ("But mamma, ooh he’s a magic man”) could be powerlessly in awe of male command if it were not for the unique (dare I say feminine?) guitar work of Anne's sister Nancy. In effect, it reverts the eroticism of man-giving-woman pleasure to just woman-experiencing-pleasure. Cock Rock is transformed into Dildo rock, if you get my gist. The only lamentable thing is that Heart have not yet found a way to translate this into visual imagery as they generally insist on the 'live onstage' narrative format. Heart may be accused of having the two pretty/sexy sisters up front as show pieces for men, but they also happen to be the most important mysical aspects of the group.

Kate Bush, I place somewhere near Joan Armatrading - though I prefer Kate's music much more. Like Joan Armatrading, she generally appears to have things under control. Except for “Hammer Horror” and “Babushka” which are fairly ambiguous in intention. The VC to “Hammer Horror”, through dance, portrays the monster movie as a rape of women - at least that's how I would explain what others have termed an unknowing usage of the rapist character in her dance. In “Babushka”, where Kate dresses up in a very revealing Nordic-Egypto costume similar to how Cher and Arni Stewart did around the same time, I thought everything was understandable enough until I heard her say in an interview that the double bass cello represented the husband in this Russian folk tale. I was always under the impression that the body of the stringed instruments (in true patriachal fashion) represented the woman's body, giving fuel to the subtextual reading of 'the man mastering this instrument' as a symbolic male possession of the female body. If we then take Kate's word, the clip is a real mess, undercutting the potential it would have had the other way around. Even image manipulators can get it wrong.

Macho-feminine and feminine-macho imagery is undoubtedly a perplexing problem for those who want their meanings in music clear-cut. Gender bending is, for sure, a trite term - unless we take it to represent the bending of sexual imagery and not sexuality per se. Many groups appear to bend gender in such a way that one wonders if they really know what they're doing. In publicity photos, Duran Duran look like golden pretty boys, but caught off-guard by the camera they resemble tarts on a bad night. Heavy Metal groups hke Motley Cru and Dekkon are so close to transvestism (of the closest version, not the queen version) one wonders why their heavy image has not been damaged. Twisted Sister go for the grotesque and outrageous form of transvestism, but end up implicating themselves as psychotic misogynists, suitable for portraying crazed women killers in their slut-monster make-up. At the lighter end of the spectrum, Eric Carmen found out that by teasing his hair and pouting a lot even he could make a come-back.

And what about androgeny? Boy George always handled it well because he treated it as a style - nothing more and nothing less. Annic Lennox caricatured it into having ‘meaning' with the pissy scenarios of “Sweet Dreams” and “Who's That Girl” VCs. Continuing on with the VCs for “Would You Lie To Me” and “Must Be Talking To An Angel”, she always made a point of sex where Boy George would dismiss its importance. Queen's “I Want To Break Free” is, ironically, impotent. I don't know exactly where the satire is (if it's there at all) but that VC is woefully out of synch with contemporary sexuality. Nina Hagen is perhaps the only performer to have successfully combined punk and androgeny. As the monstrous antiwoman, she is a sexual gorgon, turning the male gaze stonily back onto itself. It's only unfortunate that her music never carried such a powerful effect as well.

But in the end, it is VCs like Stanley Clarke's “Born In The U.S.A.”, Aretha Franklin's “Freeway Of Love” and Prince & The Revolution's “Raspberry Beret” that remain in my mind when I think of the image of sexuality in Rock. Look carefully at each band as a whole in these clips. Sex, race and age appear to be of no consequnce. The bands' identities are definitely heterogeneous and not homogenous. (A similar effect is generated by Australia bands like I'm Talking and Do Re Mi.) Indeed, in a time when image is so condensed and consolidated, the integrated band sticks out most because of its multiplicity, which works in stark opposition to the visual demarcations of most R&P VCs. (Away from image, it should be pointed out that the all-girl band is capable of unique sounds, eg. The Raincoats, E.S.G., The Bangles, etc.) Dogmatic statement short-circuits any musical form, and whilst some may complain of the lack of radical feminine/feminist imagery in most R&P VCs, there are women in Rock who manipulate imagery better than many men.

Text © Philip Brophy 1985. Images © respective copyright holders