Can Pop Music Really Parody Itself?

As Lily Allen shows, it's hard to satirize modern music videos and be a hit without reproducing the very formula getting skewered.
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Lily Allen's recent viral video "Hard Out Here" doesn't so much parody pop music as it demonstrates how little space there is between parody and pop. Allen is ostensibly sending up various other uber-popular songs, including ones by Three-Six Mafia, Robin Thicke, and most obviously, Miley Cyrus. "Don't you want to have somebody who objectifies you?" she sings before fellating a banana at the behest of a suit-wearing white dude and smirking ironically as her black dancers gyrate in slow-motion amid product-placed cars and booze.

Allen is both commenting on and pretending to be the exploited woman at the center of the music-making sausage factory. The problem is that this doesn't actually end up looking all that much different from Miley Cyrus both lusting after and pretending to be a twerking black woman. Pop is always about surface appearances anyway; Allen's presenting the tropes as tropes, but they were never anything but tropes to begin with. Even the clueless white studio exec isn't so much biting satire as a standard-issue rube/foil for the sexy shenanigans—Allen's own version of Cyrus's discarded-but-always-referenced Hannah Montana persona. 

There are things Allen could have done if she was really committed to skewering pop. If the idea is that the white guy is in control, she could have had him manipulating dancing puppets, with no real dancers anywhere in sight. She could have aging white guy asses shaking in slow motion, for that matter, while black women in business suits look on in appreciation/disgust.

But then you're getting weird and maybe actually not sexy, at which point your status as marketable commodity starts to come into question. Allen can satirize the commercialization of women's bodies just so long as she doesn't get outside the dictates of commercial pop.

Whether it's Lady Gaga commenting ironically on fame or Britney commenting ironically on, um, fame, the videos are only popular if they adhere to the formula of the thing they're satirizing, like a tamer Weird Al with more booty-shaking. And so, helplessly, Allen has reproduced Cyrus's unpleasant racial politics without understanding what those politics are, or how her stated theme of sexual objectification might have something, somehow, to do with representations of black women's bodies.

As a contrasting take on sexual objectification, race, and pop, I'd point to this:

That's Valerie June performing her amazing "Workin' Woman Blues," backed by the Hungarian band Amoeba.

June's album Pushin' Against the Stone came out earlier this year; it's (obviously) not a direct response to Cyrus or Allen or hip hop's commodification and objectification of woman, black or white. But it has something to contribute to that conversation, nonetheless. Most directly, it offers something that Allen, for all her supposed self-consciousness, is not able to—an image of women that doesn't require sexuality or bodies.

Instead, June presents herself as a worker. The video shows her cleaning up a rural cabin for two white dudes while her keening, gloriously backwoods vocals declare, "I ain't fit to be no mother/I ain't fit to be no wife/I been working like a man/I been workin' all my life."  The apparent disconnect between motherhood and domesticity seems like a deliberate reference to black women's history of working for (white) others rather than for their own families—a history that Allen and Cyrus unwittingly access when they treat black women as hired props.

But if it's a lament, the ringing "I've been working like a man" also has to be a challenge and a boast, especially when we see June with her guitar using a fierce blues-picking style typically associated (Memphis Minnie aside) with male performers. Similarly, the music claims the mantle of eclectic rootsy genius that black women don't get to wear all that often—blues guitar blurring into funk and strutting Eastern European jazz, topped off with that incredible voice insisting that hillbilly is, was, and always has been an African-American tradition.

"Lord, you know I am ready for my sugar, my sugar daddy," June wails towards the end of the song. If you put it next to Allen's "Hard Out Here," it's difficult not to hear it as a knowing joke. I'm sure June would like to be a hit superstar, but even she has to know that she's going about it wrong. When you want fame, blues licks, workpants, and a sensible sweater are not the way to go. For cash, you need twerking and Auto-Tune—or at least to fit into a more recognizable retro-diva meme like Adele.

This isn't to cast aspersions on twerking or Auto-Tune, which can both be used for good or ill like any art. Nor is it to claim that only June's sort of music is valid. There's plenty of great pop (acquire Cassie's latest mixtape immediately) and no shortage of crappy roots performers. Still, I think June's video suggests how impoverished discussions of race and gender can be in a media environment where the pseudo-event of the moment, no matter how vacuous, drives the conversation. Allen, and for that matter Cyrus, know what images of women, black and white, generate controversy and sales. As long as those images are the only ones pop culture wants to consume, it won't really matter how ironic or critical artists think they're being. 

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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