That the world of pop feeds on ephemeral passions is nothing new. John Lennon said the Beatles were very interested in fashions. One would think that the Beatles created fashions rather than ride them. In their case there weren’t just four handsome young men in trendy clothing. They rocked the screen, all right, and their cheeky image drew smiles, but their creativity and joie de vivre were balm for the soul and fuel for the foot.
The pop scene is no different from many other genres of which the business has sensed the great commercial attractiveness. It’s nearly impossible to think of a star of either gender who hasn’t been cast in a winning image. If males have always dominated the music biz, there has never been a lack of great female singers, usually beautiful. What about Aretha Franklin, certainly not the prototype supermodel? A textbook exception.
In today’s international music scene, the commodification of the pop-rock singer has reached almost embarrassing levels, especially considering the drastic shrinkage of the digital market. It is clear that social networks have tipped the scales, rebalancing a depressing trend downwards: an infinitesimal fraction of the money that has characterized it for decades circulates in the world of music, but some habits remain ingrained, involving previously all in all spared from certain distortions.
To be honest, it is not that figures such as those of Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones, revered by the general public and critics, as well as by legions of male colleagues, were unwatchable. They had a strong image, but they rarely winked at cameras and fans: after all, they were serious artists and, presumably, leveraged their talent rather than their attractiveness. Perhaps even a different image would have gone wrong with their vocation as singers inspired by roots music and, above all, by the blues. Black music legends like Memphis Minnie and Koko Taylor weren’t the prototype of the boarder, but they sang their tunes slapdash accompanied by unrepeatable interjections and brothel poses.
And it is precisely the appropriation of “devil’s music” and folk by business that stands out most on today’s scene. Any examples? When they walk the stage, Samantha Fish and Ana Popovic, often on tour in Europe, never give up on miniskirts that would make Mary Quant blush. They are two excellent guitarists, but their trademark risks turning them into caricatures of themselves. Taylor Swift, country-pop superstar, ranges from an image of a soap and water girl to that of a winking panther, without ever getting close to the cheeky poses of her colleague Miley Cyrus.
The choice of the guitar, the sexy instrument par excellence if held by a man, can represent a breaking point. One of the first singer-songwriters to do it successfully and not blanch in the slightest in front of colleagues is Bonnie Raitt, fresh winner of a Grammie for Just like that, song of the year. Bonnie, great vocal talent and excellent guitar technique, has never had to show her thighs to impose herself. Courtney Love’s Holes had to put in a little more theatricality instead.
Today, as the Måneskin suggest, exposing the legs seems to be no longer enough. Also thanks to their popularity, the idea of a blatantly irreverent female in a male band is catching on, risking becoming yet another cliché. If the eye wants her part, the ear and the soul are no different. After all, it should always be the music that makes the difference.