Sunday, 24 November 2013

Music Video Controversy

Every so often, music video becomes the object of a bit of a moral panic, where various writers and groups offer their opinion on how dangerous the form might be for young people, usually citing a particular example as having 'gone too far' and suggesting that the boundaries have been pushed just that bit further. Often, this leads to calls for new regulations, usually in the form of age restrictions.

Recently, there has been a lot of controversy about two videos in particular:  Miley Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' and Lily Allen's 'Hard out Here'. In this week's blog, I'll point you to a bit of context and some of the evidence, so that you can decide for yourself.

History of Controversy

As I have indicated, this controversy is nothing new. Given that music videos are aimed at a youthful audience, it is no surprise that they frequently depict things that older generations might be likely to disapprove of; the format also allows quite a lot of freedom in terms of structure- music videos don't have to tell a story or even 'make sense' and work as an 'interpretation' of the song. Back in 1966, the BBC banned this promo film for The Kinks' 'Dead End Street' because it didn't like them making fun of funerals; Duran Duran made a series of high budget  videos in the early 80s featuring scatily clad models in raunchy poses, one of which, featuring the girls mud wrestling, was banned by the BBC: 'Girls on Film'. And in 1984 Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax was banned both as a song and as a video, because of its explicitly sexual theme, especially gay sex. In 1989 there was huge controversy over Madonna's 'Like A Prayer', which was described by the Pope as blasphemous, as it appeared to show Madonna kissing a black Christ-like figure and even had overtones of oral sex between them. It also showed burning crucifixes, which always guarantees controversy. Several Madonna videos have created controversy over the years, another notable one being 'Justify My Love' which features simulated sado-masochistic sex.

Eminem's Stan, (violence against women) Marilyn Manson's Coma White (for recreating the Kennedy assassination) and The Prodigy's Smack My Bitch Up (drug-taking, vomiting and sex) all similarly stirred up controversy, outright bans or cuts to their videos before the watershed. And just about everything on MTV Base at some time or another has earned disapproval, particularly on the grounds of explicit sexuality and the representation of gender. So controversy and attempts to ban or censor music videos are nothing new. 

Arguments against music video

It is too easy to simply dismiss anyone who complains about a music video as a killjoy. The arguments are often much more complex than they might appear to be at first sight. Undoubtedly,  music videos do exploit controversial themes in order to sell more product and it is all too easy to stir up interest with some questionable sexual material and particularly women on display for male pleasure. Some recent articles about the Miley Cyrus video are here: The Mail Online asks if she has 'finally gone too far' in an article which has almost as many screengrabs from the video as it does words! Typically, The Daily Mail loves to condemn something by simultaneously showing the reader to titillate them. The Guardian adopts a more critical approach, arguing that the message of Miley's video is that young women should be sexually available. Miley herself offers an argument which suggests that the message of the song is expressed more in the opening than in the scantily-clad parts of the video:

"I think the video is much more, if people get past the point that I'm naked and you actually look at me you can tell that I actually look more broken then even the song sounds," Cyrus said. "The song is a pop ballad. It's one of these songs that everyone is going to relate to, everyone has felt that feeling at one point."

The video is directed by fashion photographer, Terry Richardson; a number of commentators have raised concerns about the exploitation of young models in his photos, slipping into pornography at times, making him a dubious choice as director for Miley's video. The video, and Miley's appearance 'twerking' at the MTV awards, has been a focus of the backlash against music video recently, leading to calls in the Uk for legislation and the involvement of politicians. The debate hotted up when Sinead O'Connor, whose famous video for 'Nothing Compares to U' is clearly the inspiration for the opening of Wrecking Ball, sent an open letter to Miley saying she was being 'pimped' by the music industry. Annie Lennox also weighed in with some views, posting them on her facebook page. 

Whatever you think about it, it is hard to deny that it's a hit! The video broke all records for the number of views on Vevo in the first 24 hours and became the fastest ever to 100 million views on the channel. Given that streaming views count towards chart positions in the USA, that helped it to reach the top, in a way that the song itself probably would not have done.

In the past, of course, pre-internet, it might have been possible to age restrict the audience for a music video, either by banning it from TV or not playing it till late at night, or even by cutting bits of it out to play a 'safe' version. With the online age, that is not really feasible, as any kind of age restriction can be by-passed relatively easily.

A key assumption of much of the coverage is that the video has a particular 'meaning' that the young audience will take from it. This is problematic, and it is rare to find, in any moral panic around the media, any evidence of how audiences actually respond to particular texts. This is particularly interesting in the case of Lily Allen's video, which is clearly designed to be a parody of mainstream videos' treatment of women, which immediately won quite a lot of praise from people pleased with her mockery of sexism, but quickly faced a backlash as many people started to question the representation of race in the video, as the black dancers appeared to be objectified by it. So while Lily Allen was arguing that the industry objectified and demeaned women in the interests of men, her video appeared to be doing the same to black women in the interests of white.

Here are the articles by Suzanne Moore, in the Guardian, Lily Allen defending the video, and Ellie Mae O'Hagan discussing it in relation to debates about feminism. 

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