It’s a given that in the pop music industry, sex will always sell. But when female artists decide to complement their music with a risqué look, it’s often to mixed reviews. Take Taylor Swift, for example, who revealed in the documentary Miss Americana that she developed an eating disorder after the media mercilessly criticized her appearance. Or the J.Lo and Shakira halftime show controversy, where they were dragged on social media for their suggestive outfits and choreography.
But what about artists who haven’t yet reached superstar status?
On Feb. 7, Fort Worth-based music producer MouseQuake wrote the following on Facebook:
“This post is a result of an artist meeting I had with a young lady and her team last week. The entire meeting made me angry, and I declined the opportunity. Because of their plans for her.
"You record a song and its not poppin’. Then all of a sudden the powers that be (and you) decide that doing sexy shit to get attention or ‘promote’ the song is what’s required. Seductive videos and pictures with your ass all tooted up.
"It gains traction, but that is the moment that the masses assume that is who you are. Then you are upset because the risk you took is now more detrimental than the reward.”
He went on to write that aspiring artists who reveal too much too soon could permanently sully their careers before they even begin.
The woman who inspired the post had a management team that looked at her like she was a “piece of meat,” MouseQuake tells the Observer. Plus, they didn’t have a solid strategy in place for their client’s career.
“The plan did not include anything about the music — all I heard was about how she looks,” MouseQuake says. “And excuse my French, but none of it was about music. It was about titties and ass.”
MouseQuake, who’s worked in the music industry for over three decades, says he’s seen this strategy play out before. He says 95% of women who choose to hail a cab on Salacious Street, so to speak, end up regretting it down the road.
While MouseQuake acknowledges that many female artists feel pressured to flaunt their bodies, he also says they should never forget their autonomy.
“Women have to realize they run the world,” he says. “Men do exactly what women want them to do.”
As of Wednesday, the Facebook post had attracted 280 reactions, with many female fans and musicians writing words of support and others expressing their dissent.
University of North Texas journalism professor Tracy Everbach, who is also a feminist scholar, says women are often caught in an impossible double bind. In the male-dominated music industry, female artists are encouraged to dress seductively. But they’re also frequently derided if they conform to those expectations.
“Society tells women that the most important thing about them is their appearance,” Everbach says. “It’s a pattern that’s repeated, over and over and over again.”
Still, some women wear sexy clothing simply because they want to, Everbach says. Madonna, for instance, has long embraced her sexuality as a form of empowerment. She shocked the public in ’84 with her white-hot “Like a Virgin” performance, and again in ’92 with the release of Sex, a coffee table book of erotic photographs.
But in America’s patriarchal society, many women report feeling endlessly scrutinized by the unblinking male gaze. While there are some notable exceptions, women’s stars typically won’t rise in the entertainment industry unless they bend to the will of misogynistic male executives, Everbach says.
“The music industry is known for telling women that this is what they have to do to be popular,” she says. “And if they defy that, then a lot of times they’re told, ‘We’re not going to promote you.’ So they’re kind of at the mercy of a male-dominated industry.”
Not all female artists would concur, of course. The singer/model Red January — who also operates her own brand, Scarlet Red Music — says she agrees with MouseQuake’s view.
January says many women in the entertainment industry willingly exploit themselves to attract publicity. Consequently, artists who pursue a music career because it’s their passion have to work that much harder to get their foot in the door.
“Rappers come a dime a dozen, singers come a dime a dozen. It’s like finding a needle in the haystack to find a genuine artist,” January says. “And you have to go through so much to prove you’re so much better than the rest.”
Others view the intersection of art and sexuality more neutrally.
Pearl Earl front woman Ariel Hartley says that, for the most part, she doesn’t feel pressured to look one way or another when she performs. Although one particularly cringeworthy moment does come to mind.
One day while they were on tour, Hartley says she and her bandmates were loading in their gear at a New Jersey club. Then, the venue’s owner approached.
“Wow, you guys looked better in your poster,” he told them.
The women were wearing their street clothes, having just driven in a cramped van for several hours, Hartley says.
“So, we went and we changed our outfits to look better,” she says. “It was kind of like, ‘Fuck you.’”
But, Hartley says she’s also gone au naturel for art’s sake. She and her bandmates posed nude for their first album’s back cover art. But she stresses they did it because they wanted to — not at some slime-ball executive’s behest.
MouseQuake says that in the era of social media, one doesn’t necessarily need to be talented to gain a massive following. But, he adds, wearing less isn’t always more.
“If that’s your only talent, it’s going to fade just like those looks are going to fade,” he says. “Remember: Elizabeth Taylor was gorgeous, too.”