Listening Between the Lines: Gaga, Swift and the Chords They’ve Struck With Feminism

By Randi Saunders 

It sometimes seems that the Madonna/whore dichotomy most likes to rear its ugly head in the music industry. If you’re unfamiliar with this particular (false) dichotomy, it refers to the dyadic opposition of a “pure” woman and a, for lack of a better term, unholy skank (as if there are no shades of gray)—and of course, it vilifies the latter while glorifying the former. A claim to purity tends to be an important PR move for female entertainers (especially those with younger audiences), because of America’s insistent cling to the purity myth… and it presents a fine line that entertainers walk.


For an example of a juxtaposition that epitomizes this clash, look no further than Taylor Swift and Ke$ha. I chose those two artists because of their extremity, although in reality, Ke$ha is more of an exception, because she fully embraces her image, while artists such as Lady Gaga claim their utilization of sexualized performance to be an “entertainment strategy”.

Unfortunately, while people are busy blithering on about these women’s images—their clothes, hair, makeup, and video choreography—they sometimes forget about the artist and her actual art.

There has been some discussion of both Swift and Gaga, and what they stand for. A lot of that has been about image—Taylor Swift’s good girl rep and Lady Gaga’s daring style—but some has been about the music. So I’ll just put it out there: what kind of messages DO Taylor Swift and Lady Gag send girls?

Let’s start with Taylor Swift. Some of her critics have pointed to her music as having “antifeminist undertones” but, with few exceptions, this is a generally weak argument. One critic even went so far as to zero in on the colors of the prom dresses in the music video for “You Belong With Me” (as if your average teenage girl watching that music video is thinking “Oh! White dress means pure virgin!”…not). But critics will always find something to pick on, and fans will always find something to defend. In the interest of not being overly biased here, I’ll give you both sides of the conversation on Taylor Swift and what her songs tell teenage girls.

Taylor Swift

I’m not here to laud Taylor Swift as a feminist musical icon—that would be over the top. And to be frank, there are some songs that are deserving of criticism. Swift is way too reliant on the male subject in “Superman”. “Your Anything” (for those who actually know this one) also presents a problem, as it describes a willingness to mold oneself to a guy’s desires or expectations—but worse, it’s still relatable, because so many girls have considered sculpting themselves into what they guy they like is looking for. But of all of her songs, the one I most want to call attention to is “Dear John”. The problem isn’t so much that the guy in “Dear John” walks all over Swift—it’s that she lets him, and proceeds to blame her entire situation on the guy. You may be reading this and thinking that the guy was obviously a tool, and I am not here to defend whatever he did; but women cannot afford to let men treat them poorly without fighting back and then cry about it later. We may not cause the messes we find ourselves in, but we are responsible for trying to get out of them.

In contrast, Swift’s “Tell Me Why” describes a similarly abusive relationship that she does confront and eventually remove herself from, which sets a much better example. And a lot of her songs do have positive messages for girls. “Tied Together With A Smile” is about overcoming self-esteem and body image issues. In “Mean”, Swift talks about rising above the people who put you down and tell you you’re not worth it. Even love songs like “Fearless” give the sense that a relationship should be exciting and empowering. But I think one of her most under-appreciated songs, especially on this front, is “White Horse”, in which Swift describes a guy who took her for granted and ruined their relationship, only to turn around and beg for forgiveness—to which Swift responds that it’s too late. She sings about walking away from a bad relationship and holding out for what she truly deserves (“I’m going to find someone someday who might actually treat me well…”), and that’s a message that every girl should hear.

Then we have Lady Gaga, who has probably gotten more praise than glares, especially from those looking for empowering music.

Lady Gaga

She has been lauded for her willingness to experiment and sing about experiences from a different angle. But before I talk about the good that Gaga brings to the table, let me just ask: is she really such a better role model for girls? Can one criticize Ke$ha but spare Gaga’s “Just Dance”, which has a very similar premise as much of Ke$ha’s music? Then you’ve got “Love Game”, which calls attention to a focus on sex and the utilization of relationships to achieve ulterior agendas, a subversion of relationships that one could cite as problematic. And that’s just discussing Gaga’s actual music, divorced from her music videos and other performance imagery, which in Gaga’s case is even more entwined with who she is as an artist than it is in the case of Taylor Swift. My point here is that Gaga’s songs may also have flaws, that she may not be as superior as her biggest fans may wish to claim.

That said, Gaga does of course tend to produces songs that have very strong messages. She also tackles issues that others might shy away from—“Dance in the Dark”, for example, is a very different take on the body image issue than Swift’s “Tied Together With a Smile”, as Gaga sets the stage in a much more intimate context. “Hair” is laced with lines about taking people as they are (“I just want to be myself and I want you to love me for who I am…”), which is the central theme of the justly praised “Born This Way”. On the whole, that self-love message is definitely positive, and Gaga’s willingness to base an image around being different and even being weird is probably for the best.

At the end of the day, neither artist—well, no artist—has a perfect lineup, but a strong case can be made for both Gaga and Swift. Of course, when girls listen to Taylor Swift and think how well they relate to her songs, they may want to also consider how they handle their situations, and how their romantic relationships fit into their concepts of who they are. When girls listen to Lady Gaga, they may want to think about their own comfort zones and how far they’re willing to push the limits. But part of the trick is to look at the actual music, not just the image the musician is trying to project—especially since, music videos, concerts and merchandise aside, the average fan’s primary contact with the musician is the actual music, and that is what is going to leave the biggest impression.

The Bearded-Boys’ Club

By Whitney Kenerly

During my senior year of college I bought a crappy single speaker CD player for $22, just to play a dance mix I had made for a house party that night. I already owned a nice set of speakers for my iPod, and only wanted the CD player for one solitary reason: I was fucking tired of boys compulsively switching out of my playlist and taking over as the house DJ.

Never mind that it was my house and my iPod; it wasn’t about that. It was about the way that even some of my closest guy friends seemed to completely disregard my ability to put together something as straightforward as a dance mix for drunk people. And I had to ask myself, was it because I’m a girl?

Female music journalists are used to being overlooked. We are also used to being the “only girl in the room”.

It’s hard to find your voice when you’re surrounded by guys with tendencies to discuss music by rattling off entire catalogs of album release dates and sub-genres of sub-genres as though they are baseball statisticians. And even if you do manage to find your voice, it’s hard to make them listen.

Women have an industry reputation as being predisposed to discuss music from a personal perspective, with criticism regarding emotional responses rather than the mechanical aspect behind the types of pedals or amplifiers or synthesizers that went into creating the actual sound. Whether or not this is true, I don’t think that an interpretation of music must be technical in order to be valid. In a 2010 interview with NPR, James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem discussed his preoccupation with the pure physicality of rhythm in dance music and punk. Regardless of lyrical composition and instrumental arrangements, he understood that a critical part of describing music entails understanding how it feels.

Therefore, it seems only fitting that female artists appear most prominently and attain the most success in pop music. The physicality of infectiously repetitive melodies and melodramatic choruses seem appropriate for such overtly sexualized bombshell songstresses. But in spite of the marketable success (and the subsequent gender discourse surrounding their ultra-vixen portrayals) of power pop princesses like Rihanna, Katy Perry, and the ubiquitous Lady Gaga, it is contradictory to regard their celebrity as any sort of triumph for feminism. These women, thrusting around in various hues of lycra and moaning out the lyrics to songs often written by other men, are all in their mid-20s, strikingly beautiful, and ultimately sexual props.

Ostensibly, the culture of indie music would be different. Hipsters take pride in their androgynous style and self-proclaimed enlightened sensitivity. But when you look at the artists with the most credibility in the indie scene, they (and the journalists praising them) are still mostly white men – just skinnier and with facial hair.

I’ve often wondered if the indie-male artistic and compassionate persona is a subtle visage to quietly disguise real sexism. Even the most progressively literate guys become disengaged when contemporary sexism is brought up, and especially within the sacred confines of their own alternative culture. If you are a guy and still reading this editorial right now, I can probably assume that you are either defensively dissecting every aspect of my argument that annoys you, or you are only skimming this as you simultaneously watch porn.

So are female indie musicians doomed to an identity-purgatory of “edgy” pin-up versions of themselves and restricted to cooing back-up lyrics while playing bass guitar behind the guys?

For me, the alarming proof of sexism in indie rock was revealed after a simple Google search of “Women in Indie Rock”. I was jolted to see that most of the results were from articles listing the “hottest” or most “strangely attractive” women in indie music. Even our own local WKNC 88.1FM college radio station in Raleigh appeared at the top with a “Hottest” list.

I can’t help but to feel like women are just as objectified in indie rock and that the pop music’s seductive siren aesthetic has been exchanged for fringe bangs and loose-fitting tank tops exposing side-boob.

Female musicians and music journalists are forced to overcompensate and strive to establish authenticity based on their creative work apart from appearances and gender stereotypes. Still, our contributions to music and music journalism are utterly invaluable. Where would the world be without Karen O or Ann Powers?

Maybe we can’t control our own feminine visibility, but our abilities and opinions matter, and demand equal respect by men. We know what we’re doing, and we can in fact make a damn good dance mix.


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