When I think of music’s, or specifically singing’s, liberatory potential, one voice immediately springs to mind: the earth-shattering, shiver-inducing, bone-chilling instrument possessed by Aretha Franklin. Aretha’s amazing talent is intimately linked for me with freedom, not only because of her own, very real struggle to express herself as a black woman artist, but also because of her tremendous capacity for instilling a sense of transcendence in her audience. As a listener, one is taken on a journey through a spectrum of emotions, and regardless of whether a song is mournful, pensive or joyful, Aretha manages to enthrall and elevate beyond the specific context, transporting one to this unshackled realm of, well, freedom.
Aretha’s gospel background undoubtedly plays a role here, as musical ecstasy is frequently reached by ever-intensifying call-and-response sections and coloratura passages, which allow her to really flex her vocal chords, showing off her vast and impressive range. A musical style so heavily steeped in the legacy of slavery inevitably conveys suffering and bears the marks of oppression, however, it also offers a way out of trauma and subjugation – indeed this is the liberatory power Aretha literally gives voice to, and in her own inimitable way repeatedly transforms into states of untrammeled freedom.
Her music is therefore hard to resist, and I find myself continuously drawn to classics like “Respect”, “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady.”After more than fifteen years as a self-professed Aretha fan and admirer, her records still excite me, and as a female singer, I still learn from her. I’m sorry to say that the same cannot be asserted for more recent recording artists, and I am hard-pushed to find anybody in her league, and with the same capacity to inspire.
Certainly, the world has produced some fine singers, and women artists are struggling to launch successful careers despite the seemingly increasing odds presented by a patriarchal industry, which confuses objectification with adoration and debasement with entertainment. But perhaps this is precisely where my difficulty in identifying female singing greats of the present era, on a par with Aretha, stems from. Rather than instinctively linking vocal artist A with freedom, passion, emotion, etc. as I have done above with Aretha, the automatic mental conjunction is made between vocal artist A and a re-enactment of that well-worn drama of scanty clothing and feigned lust/desire in view of what feminist theorists call the male gaze.
That this should be so is not surprising, as it is the industry’s intention to create and reinforce in us connections between women singers and their bodily availability. On the one hand, it stresses the notion that women are sexually exploitable – for this is what we actually want – while on the other, it renders the need for patriarchal objectification rather superfluous as women and girls learn to self-objectify. All of this means that an artist’s talent, her craft, that is, her music, become secondary, a saleable side-product for the actual commodity posed by her body.
Now, it will be interjected that this kind of objectification is nothing new, that women have always been reduced to their physicality – a phenomenon attested to by the many works of art created over the ages, which are currently hanging in galleries and private houses all over the world. Certainly, this is a valid point, and it is indeed true that the equation ‘woman=the female body,’ has been made since time immemorial. However, what we are currently experiencing, certainly in Europe and North America, is a new form of objectification.
This 21st century version is driven by multinational corporations reaching beyond the specific cultural localities coining this new objectification, and it constitutes a kind of hyper-sexualisation bleeding right through our societies. It has been described as the ‘pornographication’ of our daily lives, and has become intensified and increasingly directed at the very young.
Thus, in a bid to increase profits from new consumers, girls are now targeted as a matter of course, much to the dismay of some concerned parents and teachers. Sadly, women artists play their role in this dangerous game, whether they are the victims of self-objectification; whether they believe themselves to be outside of the bounds of patriarchal control; or whether they think of themselves as using the game to their advantage. Whatever the case may be, the result remains the same: aggressive and insidious objectification, which for music means subservience to the male gaze.
Perhaps, though, singing has changed; perhaps expecting women to ‘merely’ be singers, and to be recognised for ‘merely’ being singers, is passé and old-fashioned. Art has moved on, and a woman’s body is now as much part of her performance as her vocal display. Hence, she becomes the performance, rather than her music. While this might be the case, I find it hard to reconcile the stereotypical, sexist posturing to be found in many a music video with appeals to self-determination and artistic freedom.
Claims of a subversion of the male gaze through playful use of irony, for instance, seem shallow, given that there is nothing radically different about such alleged expressions of embodied self-awareness. Also, if nobody gets one’s sense of irony, then continued reinforcement rather than undermining takes place. Since pornographication is now so vociferous, we need outspoken, direct, and clear artistic critique, in order to turn the gaze into hearing, and to re-stitch those connections between women artists and the sense of freedom, passion and emotion they potentially hold for us.
We can start by supporting those who are currently struggling against the odds of patriarchal industry, who are already critically engaged in reconnecting, and thereby transforming, indeed, liberating not only women, but music itself. Maybe then it will be easier for us to recognise the Arethas of the present. For, although Aretha surely was not immune to distinctly gendered and racialized expectations placed upon her by virtue of being a black female singer, she is living testimony to our capacity for overcoming such expectations by (in Simone de Beauvoir’s terms) setting herself up as subject, that is, the subject of singer. In light of the music industry’s current penchant for extreme objectification, nothing less than Beauvoirean ‘subjectification’ a la Aretha Franklin should be aimed for, as nothing less will truly liberate us as women, as singers, and as lovers of music.
Clara Fischer is a philosopher and musician. When she isn’t busy writing, reading, playing the piano or singing, she’s preoccupied with analysing the wisdoms of her cat.
Photo from art.com