The Albums That Defined 2015 explores how this year's most influential records have shaped and reflected the wider music landscape. Starting off the 8-part series: how Lana Del Rey, Grimes and Nicki Minaj not only challenged the male gaze this year, but openly mocked it.
“Watching the Boys” is the name of an iTunes playlist I made before writing this, but I wish I’d made it ages ago.
The female gaze, in opposition to the male gaze, is not new, but this year, as feminism rises as a mainstream topic in music writing thanks in part to figures like Bjork and Jessica Hopper, along with the constant, unnecessary clickbait battles detailing whether or not Beyoncé is a feminist (not linking), women in music reclaimed the narrative and the right to their own sexuality and basic human emotions. It captivated me.
Alongside discussions about the lack of female perspective that have been going on in film for decades (to a degree that may be a few paces ahead of us here in music), in the '90s riot grrrl pushed against the idea that songs were about women, not created by them. Yet the male gaze has been slow to erode. It persists, both in film and in music, as women continue to struggle to occupy creative spaces on equal footing.
3 women (riffing on the high-art male-gaze-fest Robert Altman movie, which I’ll get to in a bit) who not only challenged the male gaze in 2015 but openly mocked it were Nicki Minaj with The Pinkprint (which released late last year but dominated much of this year), Lana Del Rey with Honeymoon, and LDR tourmate Grimes with Art Angels.
Lana Del Rey who “doesn’t even know what feminism is,” according to Kim Gordon (the Girl In A Band spokeswoman, who also advised LDR to “off herself,” hasn’t engaged with LDR in any serious way, I’m guessing, which is kind of unforgivable if she’s going to drop disses like that), sings so-sweet on “Music To Watch Boys To”:
Putting on my music while I’m watching the boys
Singing soft grunge just to soak up the noise
Play them like guitars, you're like one of my toys
No holds barred, I’ve been sent to destroy
Del Rey may be serious when she says feminism is uninteresting to her, but, by Honeymoon’s second track, just by showing up and being Lana Del Rey, you know that she knows she’s pushing the mainstream narrative by offering her own unapologetic stories. They're stories fraught with female experience, emotion, sexuality and flaws, as well as outright challenges to masculinity — “You could be a bad motherfucker / But that don't make you a man,” Del Rey croons on “High By The Beach.”
Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” samples Sir Mix-a-Lot's voyeuristic “Baby Got Back” from the drop, progressively twisting and manipulating the '90s ode to women whose ideal proportions are actually rapped into mainstream consciousness in their exact numerical measurements.
Minaj stages a hostile takeover of Mix-a-Lot’s war on the tyranny of skinny bitches (hashtag) with a track laced with sarcasm and her practiced, unfeminine, maniacal voices and giggles: she’s spending an entire track talking about her butt, her men and her life, and you’re going to listen.
In the video that obsessed the internet long before “Hotline Bling,” Minaj is chopping phallic bananas in the kitchen (“That was important for us... always keeping the power and the control in everything,” she tells MTV), and Drake’s getting a lap dance, but he doesn’t get to rap a single word.
Grimes’ “Kill V. Maim” isn’t a single, yet, but when listening to Art Angels it’s impossible not to latch onto. Not only is the faux-cheer-squad anthem one of our first chances to hear Grimes throw out the guttural, Marilyn Manson-harsh screams she was born to embody, she’s singing phrases I feel I’ve heard every music scene bro I know say at some point, in a put-on, lower register:
I got friends in high places
I get out for free
I got in a fight but they don't know me
Cause I'm only a man
And I do what I can
Grimes’s Claire Boucher, also author of the powerfully cheeky lines “If you're looking for a dream girl I'll never be your dream girl” on “Butterfly” and “Oh, why you looking at me? (Baby I can use it)” on “Venus Fly,” is tired of talking to the press about feminism, so maybe KVSM’s sass-fest can be a final nail in the coffin. I hope the video is just her chopping up noise bros, Rihanna style.
And, yes, in 2015, Rihanna kidnapped a white woman in her video for “BBHMM” and hung her upside-down, naked, to enact revenge on a shitty male business cohort who I assume saw said white woman as his property. Rihanna also regularly records duets with her abuser. As an artist, Rihanna makes us uncomfortable, and I’m down for it, and my mental madlibs review of ANTI is aching for completion. Maybe the question is: are women allowed to be controversial for reasons other than how much skin they show, or if they sing their own tracks live?
A male pal recently complained to me about Taylor Swift’s 2015 video for “Blank Space,” saying he wasn’t sure how something so violent, so hostile, could be produced for mainstream consumption.
In the video, Swift pushes her lover, drops his cellphone in a pond, cuts up some shirts and sets a suit on fire, ruins a painting, smashes a car which may or may not belong to her, stabs a cake, takes an axe to a tree, and shakes the lifeless, or unconscious, body of her lover as he lies on the pavement.
I wasn’t sure what to say.
I’ve spent my life as a woman watching as, and listening to, men tell me what women are like. Turn the tables around — put a woman in charge, even of the stories of her own hysteria, as female emotions and sexual desires have long been deemed (this is where we get to Robert Altman’s 3 Women and psychotic females as an idiom or genre dominated, of course, by the voices of men) — and people freak out. And that’s awesome. It says something about where we’re at as a culture right now: namely that we’re not there yet.
Women claiming their own narratives — and making fun of men’s questionable ones — is more important than just dismantling objectification. It’s about women being seen not just as people, but as artists.
More of THE ALBUMS THAT DEFINED 2015: