Updated: Aug 22, 2022
(Content warning for spicy music videos and intellectual discussion of them)
Blow-out, girly pop music is one of the most prevalent phenomenons of the last couple decades. Through the magic of the radio, word of mouth, MTV, and social media, easily digestible pop has been consumed and exchanged across the world since the late 20th century. And with commercial pop comes commercial everything— fame, fashion, you name it. In the whirlwind of the commodification of femininity and art, three figures rose to fame, marking a sort of linear legacy in the name of bright and flashy girlpop (as I’ll be calling it for lack of a better name). The three were Madonna, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga.
The beginning of commercial femininity: Marilyn Monroe
To begin unpacking the hyper-feminized, hypersexualized, and hyper-commercialized world of pop that these three women defined, we should start at the beginning of where it all began— and I would credit that to one of the most iconic figures of all time, Marilyn Monroe.
The magic of Monroe is in her ability to assert her own femininity. She chooses a role and sticks to it, popularizing the “dumb blonde” stereotype and putting her down in history as one of the best actors of all time, as well as an iconic sex symbol. Her “character,” a mask that she carried with her on and off screen, was dumb, girly, and easy— just what it took to be a sex symbol in post-war America. It was this character that was able to steal the hearts of half the country, and remains recognized as wholeheartedly adored today. (It’s also extremely problematic and lead to the downward spiral of Monroe’s life. Her story is not a happy one.)
It’s easy to see this kind of performance imitated everywhere— in kid’s books and movies, in Barbie Dolls, and, notably and thematically, in Madonna’s Material Girl music video.
Music video analysis!!
Material Girl by Madonna - video
Besides for being her most popular song, the performance and design of the Material Girl music video is gorgeous— the red, black, and white color scheme that’s interrupted by the wild pink of her dress, her blonde Marilyn Monroe hair, and the neatly placed cut-scenes pieced together tell a story that defines the beginning of the girlpop phenomenon. The story casts Madonna as a frilly, ball-gowned bimbo dancing around a completely red set, dancing and flirting with an entourage of handsome rich men. Her performance somehow maintains the allusion of her complete control and complete helplessness at the same time— she shoves boys away and tells them what to do, but falls hopelessly into their arms less than a minute later. It’s a clear reference, and she’s able to capture the magic of it fairly well.
She breaks the allusion with a well placed B-plot detailing her budding romance with a “poor,” jerky director who’s infatuated with her. It’s a slightly strange touch, but it emphasizes the overlapping layers of irony she’s able to convey.
Womanizer by Britney Spears - video
I’ll be honest, it was surprisingly hard to find a good Britney Spears video, considering almost all of her videos are essentially the same. They feature the same facial expressions, the same costumes, the same movements, and oftentimes the same basic plot. In her videos, Britney takes the form of a sexy martian, a sexy airline stewardess, a sexy chauffeur, a sexy waitress, a sexy secretary, and countless other mundane roles that are sexualized just for the sake of it. I chose this specific video because it encapsulates the spirit of her work and is personally one of my favorite songs.
The overarching theme here is service. In every one of her many roles, Britney plays someone working for someone else, usually a man, who’s in a position of power— a secretary, a flight attendant, etc. The fantasy for the presumed male viewership is that of a controlled kind of disarray. She’s a tease, yes, but ultimately she works for him. He’s always in charge at the end of the day.
This particular video is even more interesting because it came out literally three days before the stock market crash of 2008. So while men that had previously been breadwinners were panicking and losing their wealth, Britney was idealizing (and sexualizing) the symbolic rich businessman in her videos. Like almost everything else in her videos, it’s catering, but this one is a little more direct.
While it’s not her most famous video, song, or even album, Lady Gaga’s G.U.Y video, otherwise known as the ARTPOP film, is one of my favorite music videos. It covers every ground you can think of— along with four different songs. The video takes us everywhere.
Lady Gaga is a fallen angel, a queer icon, Donatella Versace, and herself, and in the short film, she gets shot through the chest, revives Jesus, gets sacrificed in a swimming pool, uses the blood of Michael Jackson to create an army of cute boys that swarms the streets of Los Angeles, and more (though not in that order).
The whole video is a commentary on high fashion, wealth, and the commodification of beauty. By sexualizing herself and her work to the point of satire, she calls out the corporate hold that the industry has on women and the overly sexual themes that these videos tend to portray.
ARTPOP is Gaga’s best album, in my opinion, and G.U.Y sums up the message of the album as a whole beautifully.
Other notable figures
There are a couple notable shout-outs in the world of early 2000s-2010s pop music. The first of the list is NSYNC: legendary boy band and, arguably, the male equivalent to Britney Spears.
It’s Gonna be Me by NSYNC - video
NSYNC, and the rest of the boy bands in America’s early 2000s boy-crazy phase, are extremely important to how we think about objectification and the male gaze. While it’s certainly not on the same level as the objectification of women, there is definitely a performative sexualization of men that exists in the pop world. Boy bands appeared almost bred to be conventionally attractive— trendy, white, “talented,” etc. NSYNC, with their bleach-blonde hair and cheesy dance moves, is a perfect example.
Sk8er Boi by Avril Lavigne - video
Avril Lavigne is the counterargument. She fits into the category of commercial pop while still remaining othered from them— she’s the “not like other girls” of every-girl marketing. While she’s rebellious enough to be seen as edgy, she remains skinny, white, pretty, and everything else that keeps her on the market and seen as acceptable. Counter-cultures, especially punk subcultures, are typically only accepted by the mainstream when they resemble popular culture enough to be comfortable and easy; a taste of variety without the pressure of actual change. Avril Lavigne is a safe, digestible kind of “edgy.”
I’d like to close out this article by saying that all of these artists hold a special place in my heart. Gaga, Britney, Avril Lavigne, and many of the other musicians and bands I mentioned here have all influenced me tremendously over the years, and their music has inspired so many people around the country. All my critiques of these artists come from a place of love. That being said, it’s still important to take everything the media feeds us with a grain of salt— there’s always room for analysis, even in beautifully trashy white girl pop music.