Unless you have been living under a rock for the last couple of years you will be aware that Rihanna and Lady Gaga are both popstars who employ stark visual imagery, far more adventurous and individually tailored than their music. On her latest album campaign Rihanna used barbed wire and harsh geometric lines to portray a tough, military image, showing her renewed strength and fortitude following a horrible physical attack by ex-boyfriend Chris Brown. Lady Gaga resets her image dozens of times over the course of a single song, attempting the impossible and the unexpected, her unpredictability expanding on her seemingly random approach to songwriting.
Both are also top seeds in their brackets for Fug Madness, the annual competition run by Go Fug Yourself to find the worst dressed person of the year. GFY is a light-hearted website that lovingly mocks the sartorially afflicted and celebrates the celebrities who successfully navigate the precarious world of fashion. It’s always an enjoyable read, not least because the two women behind it are witty, forgiving, and completely aware of how ridiculous the whole fashion business is. But the key to the site’s appeal that it’s always the subject’s choice of clothes under scrutiny, not women’s body shape or physical flaws. When Britney was undergoing a bout of mental illness a few years ago, they refused to post paparazzi shots of her looking overweight in pyjamas, preferring pictures of attention-hungry celebs on red carpets who were dressing to ‘impress’. The only time a woman’s body comes under fire from GFY is when she has obviously undertaken some hideous plastic surgery – a ‘choice’ of sorts.
Yet plenty of women feel that it plastic surgery is not a choice at all, but a necessity. The hilariously-acronymed British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reported that 36,482 cosmetic surgical procedures were carried out in Britain in 2009 (97% of the patients were women). A drastic option indeed, but millions of women spend time, money and effort trying to attain an impossible perfect ideal every day, an ideal that saturates the media surrounding them, not least in the world of pop music.
I don’t want to delve *too* deeply into general women’s image issues, as this particular can of worms has been opened and stirred up by many others (including this excellent Penny Red article). However, a quick word to any men are reading this who are thinking ‘but I too am under pressure to look perfect! It’s even worse for gay/black/disabled/[insert minority group] people!‘: I’m sorry to hear that and I know that there are many inequality issues in the world. However today I am writing about image problems for female popstars in particular. Please think carefully before commenting about how equally dreadful it is that Peter André constantly has to touch up his six-pack with eyeliner pencil.
Rihanna is certainly a candidate who fits the perfect ideal woman, at least by the standards of the male-targeted media: in 2009 Maxim magazine rated her ‘the 8th sexiest woman on earth’. Underneath the Grace Jones hairdo and David Bowie makeup, she’s a smiling, 22-year-old Bajan girl with a clear complexion, a pearl-white smile and whose body weight falls just within in the healthy guidelines for her height (according to the NHS website).
Lady Gaga did not appear in Maxim’s Hot 100 list. Without her shield of sartorial insanity, she probably would not be able to get a job advertising bathroom cleaner let alone Estée Lauder makeup, due to her slightly crooked mouth and short stature. Apart from looking skinny enough to snap in two (likely due to her exhausting work schedule), Lady Gaga is really rather ordinary-looking, and has decided to distort her own image even further from the media ideal, to make herself look unconventional and memorable. Ace Terrier mentioned on his Tumblr: ‘I can’t think of many pop stars this side of Marilyn Manson that have worked harder to project their physical self as fundamentally unpleasant.‘ Brian Warner is also very ordinary-looking when he takes out his contacts and washes off the grease paint (if you overlook his lack of eyebrows, that is). Like any popstar trying to connect with their public, Manson and Gaga’s consistent message is vital: I am the Mad Person. If you don’t recognise them from the Kermit coat or wonky contacts, then the relentless output of razorblade sunglasses and showers of blood should make a lasting impression.
One criticism foisted upon the recent parade of British female soul singers was that they lacked any key distinguishing features (musically and visually). Faced with a judgemental media, Adele (or maybe her record label) understandably didn’t want to make her weight her defining feature – keeping all her videos and press shots from the shoulders up only, with neutral make-up. The consistent message here was that Adele wasn’t worth looking at, so you might as well shut your eyes and listen to her sing. From an artistic (and feminist) point of view this was all right and proper, but from a realistic marketing point of view Adele was not going to sell t-shirts, mobile phones or beauty products. Adele will never make it into the heats of Fug Madness because her image is not just boring, but non-existent. And so her ability to reach new fans and sell pop records is that much lower than Rihanna’s or Lady Gaga’s.
Or is it? Are visual images essential for pop success? It is certainly possible to detach the music from a physical image and still make interesting pop: The Knife wear masks in their publicity photos and only agree to play gigs if they can do so behind a screen. The members of Daft Punk may resemble Johnny Depp or John Merrick for all we know, and while Gorillaz may have finally made it into 3D they remain cartoon avatars. In these cases, a consistent message of ‘no message’ serves just as well as a horizontal white stripe painted across the face. Look for the stripe, not the face underneath. But for a success-hungry popstar, it must be extraordinarily tempting to take advantage of the publicity that getting your real face on magazines, music videos, chat shows and yoghurt adverts can provide. Amy Winehouse’s first album was just as full of her unique personality as Back To Black, but it was only after she lost 3 stone and permanently embraced her ragged beehive that she became an instantly recognisable international megastar and popular Halloween costume.
The main problem is that if you are a woman, taking the plunge into the sexist media circus immediately leaves you vulnerable to attack if you fail to constantly attain the perfect physical ideal – or at the other end of the scale, you become totally objectivised so that your primary purpose is that of wank material for Maxim readers. No matter how good your music is, if you’re a pretty girl then 90% of critical respect goes down the dumper. Bimbo! Clothes Horse! If you’re not so perfect-looking then you are accused of secretly possessing a penis. And what if you want to change your message? 25-year-old divorcee Avril Lavigne seems destined to be stuck as an emo teenager for the rest of her career, but perhaps that’s better than fading into the background like Adele. Suddenly hiding behind a robot suit sounds rather appealing! Even Madonna, the queen of image manipulation, isn’t immune from taunts about her appearance. She undoubtedly has a thick skin and doesn’t give a shit about what some dude from Loaded thinks about her forearms, but if a pop star relies on the media to promote/sell records, they must play by the rules.
Thankfully Gaga, Rihanna and Florence Welch are starting to bend those rules a little. One day I hope that the ideal image of a female pop star is one triumphantly wearing giant Mickey Mouse ears astride a pink Panzer.