Female Sexuality and Pop Music

Beyonce poses provocatively in the video for Partition.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a blog post about female sexuality in music videos and whether it was being celebrated or exploited.  I thought it was high time I wrote a follow-up to that post, as several songs have emerged in the past 12 months which have added something new and rather interesting to the discussion.  Specifically, the ones I want to talk about here are Partition and Drunk in Love by Beyoncé and Do What You Want and G.U.Y. by Lady Gaga.

I’ll start with Beyoncé.  Her self-titled surprise album Beyoncé arrived without warning in December last year and has since gone one to receive universal critical acclaim, and with good reason.  The songs it contains are some of the best she has ever released, illustrating her growing maturity as both an artist and a person.  They deal with probably the most complex emotions and relationships Beyoncé has ever put to music.  In particular, the two I want to talk about unashamedly explore her relationship with her husband, their sexual intimacy, and her own desire to please him sexually.

It is a testament to how rarely the sexual aspects of marital or long-term relationships are discussed in popular music that such a topic seems strange.  Yeah, we’re used to hearing about sex between strangers, but a married couple?  Unheard of!  Even in her own work, Beyoncé has never dealt with sex so frankly and honestly.

Lyrically, Partition (NSFW) is about a couple having rushed sex in the back of a chauffeur-driven ride (“Driver, roll up the partition please / I don’t need you seeing Yoncé on her knees”).  The crudely sexual verses are punctured by a breathily honest chorus which allows the true candidness of the song to shine through.  Beyoncé pleads:

 

Take all of me /
I just wanna be the girl you like /
The kind of girl you like.

 

Even in a strong marriage, this is how it feels to desperately want to be wanted.  We have probably never seen Beyoncé so openly: even one of the sexiest women in the world wants her man to desire her, and feels she must work for that privilege (in interviews she has explained taking Jay Z to see the Crazy Horse cabaret show and thinking “I wish I was up there, I wish I could perform that for my man”, which she went on to do in the song’s video).  Beyoncé paints a picture of a couple who must find time to keep the spark alive, but in the end are deeply attracted to one another and sometimes find themselves with their hands all over each other in the back of a car.  And in the end it is that sincerity which makes this song so masterful.

As I can feel it coming, I will answer the question before it gets asked: no, this is not disempowering to women.  In fact, this song paints women as human beings with real and complex human emotions, which makes it hugely empowering.  Yes, women are allowed to feel sexual and horny and desirable.  They are also allowed to feel insecure and dutiful and desperate for love.  None of this makes them any less of a woman or a human being.

Although Beyoncé has sung sexual songs in the past, some of the (sadly predictable) responses to Partition have been shock and disgust at the explicit nature of the lyrics and video – see here and here.  It’s hard to pin down what exactly some people have found so problematic: is it that Beyoncé, such an impressive role model to so many people young and old around the globe, could ever dare to be quite so blatantly sexual?  Is it that she is flaunting her sexuality for all to see?

Let’s backtrack.  In the music video for Partition, in which Beyoncé performs a string of burlesque dances, it is made clear that the routine is for the benefit of Jay Z – we see him watching his wife from the shadows, behind a veil of cigar smoke.  The two of them are also seen in the back of a car just like the lyrics tell, and the video begins and ends with them both sitting at a dining table having breakfast (where Jay Z is not seen but heavily hinted at: the camera is positioned over his shoulder as he reads the morning newspaper).  Nothing in the song could make it clearer what subject matter Beyoncé is dealing with.  She is singing about her marriage, and the sexual relationship between herself and her husband.

So what exactly is the problem here?  Beyoncé is playing by society’s own rules, and she still can’t win.  To be clear, it shouldn’t matter if an artist sings about sex with their long-term partner or with a string of one-night stands – but it seems that it still does to society as a whole, which is why I mention it here.  Beyoncé has played by the book, got married and been a faithful and dedicated wife and mother like a good woman should (please note my sarcasm), and still she is not at liberty to sing about her sexuality in relation to her husband, apparently.  She literally cannot please everyone.

Is it really that bad – yes, a woman is free to be sexual when married, but only as long as it is something she keeps to herself?  Is it really impossible to be a good role model without expressing all parts of yourself as a complete, and therefore sexual, human being?  This wonderful blog post puts it perfectly: when exactly is a woman allowed to be sexual?

The overall message is that society is still somewhat uncomfortable with the thought of women having control over female sexuality.

But the good news is that plenty of female artists are doing their best to change this state of affairs, and Beyoncé is only one of them.  Let’s take a moment to look at Lady Gaga’s most recent offerings, which are just as delightfully subversive as ever, although in slightly newer and more interesting ways.

Do What U Want (NSFW) is an ‘80s inspired synth-laden track, and as such something of a refreshing change for Gaga.  With P. Diddy’s inclusion, it’s bundled into a perfect pop package that, on the face of it, appears to be nothing more than a flirty love ballad. Gaga repeats the eponymous line “Do what you want with my body”, letting her suitor know what she wants from him – but the underlying meaning is that, ultimately, it remains her body, no matter what anyone may do with it. And as she makes explicitly clear in the chorus:

 

You can’t have my heart, and you won’t use my mind, but /
Do what you want with my body.

You can’t stop my voice ‘cause you don’t own my life, but /
Do what you want with my body.

 

But what’s this?  Why is Gaga speaking about the autonomy of her heart, mind and voice in a flirty love ballad?  Because it is of course more than just a flirty love ballad.  Gaga is also singing to her detractors and her critics, and telling them that despite what they may do to her superficially – whether through criticism of her physical appearance, or just more general disapproval – that they will never be able to silence her where it matters.

If you needed more proof that this song is deeper than it first seems, Gaga peppers hints throughout.  In the first verse she explains being infuriated when “you print some shit that makes me wanna scream”, and shortly after dares her critics to “Write what you want, say what you want ‘bout me”.

So on one hand Do What U Want is about two people enjoying sexy time together, and on the other it’s about Gaga sticking it to those who have tried to bring her down.  Through these dual readings, the song conflates female sexual empowerment with wider female independence as a whole.  As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, this perfectly complements the underlying message of Partition – that a woman does not lose her strength, independence or worth by expressing her sexuality.

The second Gaga song I want to mention is G.U.Y.   Past all the surface wackiness that we have come to expect, this song is interesting because of the way it plays with gender roles and dominance/submission within a relationship.  First of all, the song is called G.U.Y., but in this context that’s just an acronym for Girl Under You.  So from the beginning Gaga is crossing and confusing traditional gender boundaries, especially when it comes to sexuality:

 

Let me be the girl under you that makes you cry /
I wanna be that guy.

 

Throughout, conventional gendered activities and signifiers are switched.  Gaga says that she’s going to “wear the tie”, while she knows that her lover will “wear my makeup well”.  And in the bridge she fleshes out the submissive subtext behind the song:

 

I don’t need to be on top /
To know I’m worth it, ‘cause I’m strong enough to know the truth.

 

Basically, she doesn’t need to be dominant in the bedroom to know that she’s a strong independent woman.  Or put another way, a strong independent woman can still enjoy being submissive at times.  The song makes it clear that the very same sexual fluidity holds for men: “You’ll be my G.I.R.L.”  The takeaway message seems to be that it is up to each individual to decide for themselves what they find sexually exciting, and which areas of traditional gender roles they identify with most.  As Gaga says, “Our sexes tell us no lies”, because when everybody is free to choose their own sex there can be no falsity.

Both the Gaga songs, then, support empowered sexuality as a natural and undeniable part of every person’s life, whether man or woman, and not something worthy of shame or concealment.

With that in mind, let me finish off by looking at another Beyoncé song, Drunk in Love (NSFW).  Referencing her breakthrough hit Crazy in Love, the song serves as a response from a more mature, more adult Beyoncé, who is connected to her past self through her enduring love for the same man.  As the title suggests, this is a hazy, lazy, intoxicated affair, as Bey rap-stutters about her drunkenness and her relentless sexual desire for her lover.

Like Partition, the song makes it clear who Beyoncé is singing about: Jay Z has his own verse, and the music video features the couple frolicking on the beach.  And like Partition, the song refers repeatedly to sexual acts between the two of them.  Beyoncé’s now-famous “surfboard” comes as she sings not so cryptically about “graining on that wood”.  But Jay Z gets the raciest lines, finishing his verse with, “We sex again in the morning / Your breasteses are my breakfast”.  Although it is overtly sexual, it’s also charming to see frankly the glue behind their relationship.  The A.V. Club review of Beyoncé offers the best explanation for the unique sexiness of the album’s songs:

 

… they’re not sexy like a glamour shot or a steamy video. They’re sexy like an overeager, pre-shower quickie, or a hushed morning make-out session before the baby wakes up. These are the most unapologetically raunchy songs she’s ever sung, and in many ways also the most romantic.

 

Through an honest expression of her sexuality, Beyoncé has opened up a side of herself that she has never quite allowed to be seen before, and in so doing she has become a better artist, more capable of showing all sides of herself – from love to joy to sadness.  This is female sexuality done right.  This is not exploitation or manipulation; this is what it feels like to be a woman who is also a sexual being.

Take a look at Self-Titled Part 5, the final instalment of a behind-the-scenes video series explaining the production of Beyoncé.  It’s all interesting, but the first minute is the part you really want.  Here’s what Beyoncé says:

 

I always felt like it was my responsibility to be aware of kids and their parents and all these generations, and I felt like it stifled me.  I felt like, in a sense, I could not express everything.  I’ve done so many things in my life, in my career, that at this point I feel like I’ve earned the right to be me and to express any and every side of myself.

 

Being a happy and whole person means embracing all of yourself.  You when you feel ecstatic.  You when you feel angry.  And you when you feel sexy.  No part of you should make you feel ashamed, and a good artist should be able to share every aspect of their self without being made to feel like they are less of a person for doing so.  There is no use in being a role model if you cannot truthfully show those who look up to you what it feels like to be in your position.  Why do we reserve such deep disdain for female artists who bare all of themselves to the world?  Why should Beyoncé feel that as a wife, a mother, a role model and a feminist icon, she cannot also be sexual?

I honestly feel there is a profound problem in society that we haven’t been able to have this conversation properly yet.  Female sexuality has some ground to cover before it is universally accepted as just another natural and everyday part of human life.  When is a woman allowed to be sexual?  Until we answer that question, we still have a long way to go.

However, I don’t want to end this post on a gloomy note.  Progress is being made every day as long as songs like this continue to normalise and proliferate female sexuality.  It is artists like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé who make me feel optimistic about the future of popular music and the good it can bring about in the world.  And with the recent appearance of songs featuring a version of female sexuality that is powerful, enticing and dangerous, like Katy Perry’s Dark Horse or Iggy Azalea’s Black Widow, it seems pop music has come some way in making increasingly interesting statements about women and their sexuality in the past year.  As long as we keep doing that, this issue will become easier to tackle, and one day female sexuality will not be an oddity, a threat, or simply a vehicle for male pleasure – it will be just another part of what it means to be a woman.

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