So last night I'm sitting down watching digital cable at about 3 a.m. In hopes of catching a rerun of Behind the Music's profile of Vanilla Ice, I flip to VH1, only to find an early-a.m. montage of pop videos. Just before I head over to MTV to check up on the incessant, inescapable reruns of The Real World, a new video from Mariah Carey appears on the screen, and it's like a big, bloody car accident. You know, the kind you can't bear to watch, yet can't bear not to.
In truth, the thing that first motivates me to actually watch the entire video is the opening sequence, which is a series of home-video recordings of young girls talking about their experiences with depression and isolation. Hmmm. Then, in the bottom left corner of my screen, I observe the title: "Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)." The parenthetical addition makes the whole experience even more morbidly intriguing, since I assume that it indicates the song will be about getting a divorce, leaving the adult-contemporary scene behind to become little more than an eye-candy booty-ho with no self-respect or integrity.
True to form, I find Mariah reclining on her couch in shorts that dip just below her torso (almost puritanical, for her at least) and a T-shirt tied up just below...well, you know. Suddenly, I'm outraged. I mean, the whole idea of this song is a tribute to struggling young people, ones who face isolation and depression and low self-esteem, particularly young girls. And Carey's bounding around the screen lip-synching her vocal acrobatics in incredibly revealing clothing, not to mention that this cut comes from her Rainbow album, the disc with that cover that more people recognize than the songs. Building the self-esteem of young girls? Not bloody likely.
We all know the statistics: 80 percent of 10-year-old girls report being on a diet, anorexia and bulimia are slowly killing an entire generation of young women, and all that other disheartening information. And we all know that Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera would barely weigh in at 205 if you tied them together and drenched them with a fire hose. But too few critics and commentators are making the connection between the epidemic self-loathing of American girls and the pop icons that reinforce and regulate all of this negativity.
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Then there are Christina and Britney and the Orlando-based talent agencies making a pretty penny off of child exploitation (keep in mind that Britney wasn't even legal when she made that "Baby One More Time" video). Larry Rudolph, Britney's entertainment attorney in New York, and Jive Records also score some fundage off of stuff like her sexed-up Rolling Stone cover and schoolgirl fantasy attire. As for Christina, it's RCA that pinches her profits, mainly by wearing her thin with endless appearances, interviews, and photo shoots, which are sometimes interrupted by recording sessions. (By the way, look for a Christina-sings-in-Spanish album out soon.)
But let's not forget the songwriters who get fat royalty checks from songs like "Baby One More Time" or "What a Girl Wants." Hey, it must be tough to come through with that resoundingly subtle and esoteric double entendre, which is about as elusive as my sarcasm here. And we can blame every teeny-bopper magazine, every KISS station in every city, every talent scout, modeling contest, beauty pageant, diet product, fashion mag, music CEO, television producer, the patriarchy, capitalism...
So why am I, complete with my don't-blame-the-victim feminist consciousness, screaming through my television at Mariah Carey as the most unbelievably fake tear in the history of moving pictures edges away from her eye and streams down her cheek, leaving a perfect glistening streak in its pathetic path? Because she's there, that's why. She's the all-too-accessible representation of everything that's wrong with American popular culture and all that reinforces impossible images of women and validates their exploitation. And when she does all of this under the lyrical guise of promoting self-esteem and overcoming hardship, I completely lose my ability to simply roll my eyes and change the channel. I have to rant and rave and throw things and wake up my cat.
When I look at the actual footage of young girls in this video, who talk about feeling alone and sad, I can't help but think of the chubby-girl phenomenon. You know, those pudgy little 8-year-olds in some videos, like Mariah's "Fantasy" or Jennifer Lopez's "If You Had My Love." These girls dance with confidence, and they look up to the artists in the video at the same time. Although this is supposed to be some kind of validation, the device usually resonates for me as more of a cruel joke. The girls are at that critical age where they are still ultimately unconscious of their bodies, but the way they gaze with awe upon the ultra-thin women in the video seems to indicate that the inevitable days of starving themselves and being depressed are almost upon them.
It all makes me feel pretty damn helpless, much like the girls who introduce the "Can't Take That Away" video, only the opposite, because Mariah inspires my frustration instead of quelling it. Here's hoping the little girls from the videos get some large doses of Kathleen Hannah or Queen Latifah or Margaret Cho before the total image obsession of the new pop-music revolution sinks in too deep.
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