“I don’t care if she has the voice of an angel and is self-made, feisty, and confident,” the Daily Mail’s Liz Jones recently wrote about Rihanna. “All these qualities pale to nothing when we know she went back to her abusive boyfriend, Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to assaulting her in 2009; that she promotes drug-taking, drinking, and the sort of fashion sense onstage that surely invites rape at worst, disrespect at least.”
Oh boy. Nope. No, thank you, Liz Jones. But unfortunately, she’s far from alone in her thinking.
We have a lot to say about the way female musicians dress. We condemn the length of their shorts and skirts, their absence of pants, their bare midriffs, their plunging necklines, then we shame them for their casual wear, their designer preferences, and in some cases, not showing enough.
When it comes to style, women in music are almost set up to fail. Whether it’s via tweets condemning Miley Cyrus, or the Lana Del Rey backlash of 2012, a female musician’s worth is weighed heavily on her fashion sense — which is ironic, considering art is supposed to be objective.
With artists like Cyrus, digs at her music are justified by a condemnation of her short-shorts, while someone like Rihanna endures sexually charged insults as a means of discrediting her music and making her an example of what happens when you don’t abide by a particular dress code. (Read: “If you dress like Rihanna, kids, the same things will happen to you!”) Sadly, these same tactics are being used in high schools, colleges, and in homes all over the world, and despite all of us knowing better, kids are still growing up to believe that women — regardless of background, intellect, personality, or artistic merit — are valued only on their aesthetic achievements.
Though that’s not to say these women are helpless — far from it. In 2002, Christina Aguilera shocked the masses by embracing leather chaps and miniskirts, using the image as a counterpart to her smash album, Stripped. Seven years later, Lady Gaga took control of her image too, morphing from the experimental “Poker Face” singer to a walking art exhibition, attending the 2011 Grammy Awards in a dress made entirely of meat. And then there’s Katy Perry: from the get-go, the “I Kissed a Girl” singer opted for “girly-girl” pieces and a fireworks bra, then went on to upstage herself monthly via colorful wigs and candy accessories.
While all pop personas are conscious (Lana Del Rey, for example, is a perfect example of re-inventing oneself both through music and aesthetics), these women used their fashion as a means of creating discussion. In Aguilera’s case, she wanted to publicly shed the Disney role she was thrust into years earlier. Lady Gaga fought for the freedom of self-expression, while Katy Perry uses her style for fun. None of these are wrong, all of these were effective, and all are arguably business decisions. Drawing attention through fashion choices also draws attention to one’s music — and yes, music and fashion can be criticized. That’s right: Music and fashion can be criticized — not the person on which the fashion is displayed, and certainly not whether the music or fashion makes them worthy of sleeping with.
Though in addition to business strategy, wardrobe is just as vital to self-expression. Some artists couldn’t care less about their personal brand, while others have sung openly about being told to change who they were for the sake of record sales.
In Pink’s 2002 hit “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” the singer elaborates on the seductive nature of the music industry, as well as her struggle with staying true to herself: “L.A. told me / You’ll be a pop star / All you have to change / Is everything you are.” Instead, Pink has built a career on fashion choices that complement her music and her true self — what you see is what you get. The same can be said for Lana Del Rey, Azealia Banks, and acts like the Dum Dum Girls. These women dress how they dress, and then they make music while dressed that way. By conforming themselves to industry norms they aren’t interested in, they’d be jeopardizing their integrity for the sake of pleasing other people.
And you can’t please everybody. Though most female artists draw criticism for their lack of stage wear (see: the Britney Spears fallout after the 2008 VMAs), others, like Adele, get backlash for pieces that cover up too much. Never mind that wearing these pieces makes them feel comfortable and that these are clothes they want to express themselves in — the public deems it their duty to remind these performers their wardrobe choices belong to us.
Not so. The right to self-expression is crucial — and shouldn’t apply just to male artists. Repressing a woman’s right to self-expression or shaming her because of her fashion sense is a systemic problem that bleeds into society, setting a double standard women are constantly up against.
Male rappers can perform shirtless, but Rihanna gets slut-shamed. LMFAO can adorn themselves in leopard print and spandex, but Nicki Minaj is told to change. Justin Timberlake can rock his suit and ties, but Grimes is infantilized, earning a whole other form of sexual attention for her disinterest in mainstream fashion. Regardless of gender, these artists agreed to one thing: to create art. How they dress while they do it doesn’t determine their worth.
Which is what it comes down to: How a musician chooses to express himself or herself visually is not about us. It’s another component to one’s identity, to one’s image, and to one’s music — we don’t get a say in that creative process, because we are not involved in it. We also don’t get to determine one’s wholesomeness based on the pieces that person wears.
“[Taylor Swift] works her ‘girl next door’ country-singer shtick, while hopping from one young man to the next and strutting across the world stage like a young whore,” the Westboro Baptist Church wrote last week. “Taylor Swift in three words: lascivious, foolish, proud, dirty, pirate hooker!”
And while those were obviously six words (way to go, guys), Westboro helps prove a strong point: Even the most seemingly squeaky-clean, kid- and teen-friendly pop stars will fail a subjective set of wardrobe standards. A musician is more than what he or she pulls out of the closet. A woman is more than the way she looks. All humans are worth more than the sum of our clothes.