I've been thinking.
The Super Bowl halftime show shocked fans when J. Lo, dressed in a skimpy outfit, flashed her crotch at the camera and danced on a stripper pole, and Shakira gyrated and writhed on the floor in a bedazzled bra.
There is no doubt that their performances were impressive – their singing and dancing went off without a hitch. And sexual content is nothing new for female pop stars, although the risqué behavior during the family-friendly Super Bowl is more than a little questionable. But the question must be asked: if women in the music industry don’t want to be shelved after their 50th birthday, why base their careers on their sexuality?
In Taylor Swift’s new documentary Miss Americana, she talks about women in the industry. “It’s a lot to process because we do exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35. Everyone’s a shiny new toy for like, 2 years. The female artists that I know of have reinvented themselves 20 more times than the male artists. They have to, or else you’re out of a job.” Taylor continues on this diatribe for a few more minutes, discussing the difficulties women have in maintaining the interest of their fans as they age.
What stands out in this characterization of women’s struggles in the industry is the comparison Taylor draws between women and men. Female singers have the advantage of engaging with their audience through their sexuality by showing off their bodies in what are essentially shiny swimsuits and by dancing in a suggestive fashion. A woman can, theoretically, be less talented musically if she is able to market herself as a sex symbol. Male singers don’t have the benefit of using sex appeal as the foundation of their brands, for the most part; therefore, they truly have to rely on their musical talent to make it in the industry.
Scientifically, men are attracted to fertile women – they are attracted to the women that they can procreate with. As a woman ages, her fertility is more in question, especially as she approaches menopause. Though a woman can remain beautiful and classic her entire life, her sex appeal lowers as she ages. Additionally, after a woman bears children, her body changes. Does it not then make sense that the female singers who use their sexuality to appeal to audiences are a ticking time bomb?
Think of the female singers who didn’t use their sex appeal to engage their audiences: Adele, Sara Bareilles, Ella Fitzgerald, to name just a few. These women didn’t have to reinvent themselves as they aged just to stay relevant because they never used their sex appeal in the first place. They used their talent and it shows. Now think of women on the other side of the spectrum: Madonna, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga. These women are either still clinging to their sex appeal even as it appeals to fewer and fewer people or have had to reinvent themselves entirely.
This isn’t to say that singers like J. Lo, Taylor Swift, and Shakira aren’t talented. It’s to say that they have overshadowed their innate talent with their sexuality – and over time, that sexuality will become irrelevant.
What is so fascinating about the narrative that “women in the industry are cast out by 35” is that the two halftime performers, Shakira and J. Lo, are 43 and 50 respectively. They are both clearly talented, yet they rely on their sex symbol status to appeal to audiences, despite the fact that they have so much more to offer as they age, such as wisdom and grace.
The question of their longevity still remains – when J. Lo hits 55, 60, even 65 – will audiences still want to see her in a shiny bathing suit dancing on a stripper pole? It seems unlikely. For the sake of their careers, it’s important that they transition gracefully to another kind of performance - although, had they never used their sex appeal to begin with, perhaps they wouldn’t have had to transition at all.
Women have a choice when they enter the music industry: to use their sexuality to get ahead or to rely on their musical talent to speak for itself. It’s understandable that young, beautiful women would want to choose the former - they are confident in their bodies, they have been raised in a society that says rampant sexuality is feminist, and so many of their peers are doing the same thing. But building a career on sexuality will ultimately force a transition as female singers “age out” of sex symbol status - and that transition is inevitable. For even though talent never fades, looks do.
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