Among the probably millions of videos posted in reverence for the passing of Donna Summer, I happened across this one the other day.
Donna Summer – Bad Girls
One thing that struck me about this video is that for how raw, physical, and sexual this song is, her stage presence is actually kind of limp and unsexy. She definitely has power and conviction in her voice and facial expressions, but the rest of her body is just not keeping up. Her posture is often hunched, when she tries to strike some kind of pose it often comes off as awkward and forced, and her attempts at sultry hip-shaking and stage strutting look more like somebody’s dorky friend on the sidelines of a dance party, looking off in the distance and moving just enough to not stick out as the one girl not dancing. Luckily, Donna has enough vocal abilities to make this performance still shine, but it really makes you wonder about just how comfortable she and other artists like her are with their sex symbol image. I’ve noticed this same phenomenon in some more contemporary artists as well; sexy songs with an attractive woman singing, sounding completely sincere and honest, but betraying a surprising lack of animal magnetism in their bodily movements.
Nicki Minaj – Starships
Lady – Yankin’
In Nicki Minaj’s case, it’s a little bit more subtle. I think she has enough money behind her for there to be some coaches around helping her out with her movements and stuff, but I still feel like there are times — even in her official music videos — that her natural, awkward, unsure physical side comes through. If you really pay attention to her backup dancers and how they move compared to how she moves, even in her sexiest moments, there’s really no comparison. Judging by how Lady comes off in her video, and with the knowledge that she doesn’t have anywhere near the financial backing Nicki does, it’s safe to assume she’s not getting as much coaching on her movements, but I think in some ways she actually pulls off the physically inept thing a little better than Nicki or Donna. She seems to be more conscious and accepting of it, in this video it kinda feels like part of her “I don’t give a fuck” persona. But it’s still interesting how much sexual imagery is used in these songs and videos while the artist in the spotlight is coming off about as sexy as a shrug.
I hope nobody thinks I’m trying to belittle these women or criticize their beauty in any way. You will never catch me saying or even thinking that any of these women are the least bit unattractive physically, and the last thing I’m interested in is making fun of an R&B legend for being unsexy less than two weeks after her death, or any other time for that matter. My point isn’t to point out their unsexiness, my point is that examples like these make me wonder how inescapable it is for many artists to be put in the position where they are supposed to be sex symbols whether or not they genuinely want to be. I can’t speak for Nicki or Lady, but I have read that Donna Summer was pretty heavily coerced by the music industry to take on a more sexual image than she originally intended for herself, and watching that performance of “Bad Girls“, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true.
It reminds me of the stuff I talked about in this post, which is coincidentally (or maybe not-so-coincidentally) also about Nicki Minaj to a great extent. Probably the most sure-fire way for a female artist to overcome the skepticism I talk about in that post is to play up their sexuality, and people in charge of record companies have known this for decades. It’s about sales for them, and if you can get your already talented and attractive female artist to even hint at her own sexuality, then huge sales will soon follow. I imagine some female artists genuinely want to play up their sexual side and would do it whether or not they were on BET, but I feel like somewhere in those videos is at least some shred of discomfort with the pressure to be overtly sexual that probably a lot of women feel who are trying to be successful artists, or to be successful in many other fields for that matter. And I hesitate to truly condemn these examples, maybe I’m incorrect about these specific cases and all these women don’t mind or even enjoy flaunting their sexuality in these performances. Let’s also not forget that there is a distinct possibility that artists like Nicki Minaj and Lady could possibly be, to some extent, parodying the overtly sexual overtones of pop music as much as they’re playing into them. I can’t know for sure. But I still feel that the phenomenon that these examples reminds me of is a real thing that would be good to bring up. I should also mention that this phenomenon is not limited to female artists either, this article about D’Angelo that Simon sent me recently illustrates that very convincingly.