Slutwave: Pop Phenomenon Or Feminist Scourge?

"Every generation needs a new revolution."

- Thomas Jefferson
Ke(Dollar Sign)ha at House of Blues, July 2010
Ke(Dollar Sign)ha at House of Blues, July 2010
Marc Brubaker

As one of the few women on the Rocks Off writing team, we were fervently proud to take an introspective stab at the new, curiously named micro-genre that 2010 bestowed upon us: Slutwave.

Believed to have been coined by Brooklyn blog Hipster Runoff, and since endorsed by Rolling Stone, the term describes the domination of female pop solo artists in the '00s. More specifically, it depicts those women performers who favor sex appeal - suggestive dancing, scant clothing, explicit lyrics - to promote their career over their actual music. Consensus examples include Katy Perry, Ke(Dollar Sign)ha (evidently the unofficial Queen of Slutwave) and, according to some, even Lady Gaga.

Slutwave aims to describe female artists who hesitate to consider that their music can independently speak for itself, and instead shed their clothes in an effort to gain attention and, ultimately, record sales. It's hard not to take a second glance or second listen when Katy Perry and her shapely assets are spread naked atop a fluffy cotton-candy cloud.

Of course, the idea that 'sex sells' is nothing new, and is sadly proven accurate year after year; but it's these gals who are upholding such an archaic concept.

Madonna almost never covered herself up; in fact, she embraced and flaunted her sexuality, wearing lace corsets and cones on her boobs, and I've never second-guessed her talent; point being, dressing scantily does not necessarily preclude lack of ability. Female musicians like Debbie Harry and Pat Benatar also embodied talent while confidently sporting risqué attire; it's artists like these women who have made it possible for successful acts like Lady Gaga to even exist.

Slutwave: Pop Phenomenon Or Feminist Scourge?

If a woman chooses to dress freely and provocatively - "sluttily," what have you - she has every right to do so (the same as any man). But some young women performers out there must feel the pressure to dress and act this way to be desired and thus successful; the best case in point right now would probably be Miley Cyrus. Then again, which artist who willingly opts to enter this business doesn't desire attention?

Nevertheless, it's a dichotomy: Female artists are confidently flaunting their bodies, having fun, and making money, of which Rocks Off is wholly supportive - proud, even - but it begs the question whether the act is genuine or masking a certain degree of insecurity and perceived social pressure.

Perhaps the real question regarding these entertainers is what greater good are they serving. Of course, pop music doesn't necessarily have to serve any higher purpose than producing music, and Slutwave-categorized singers are responsible for producing some of the catchiest pop we've heard in years. However, considering modern music's leading women begs the inevitably natural comparison to those of decades past.

It seems that every decade or so, a novel incarnation of women in music comes along. Most recently notable is the radical musical and political revolution brought on by the Riot Grrrl movement of the early '90s.


Following the path made clearer by '70s and early-'80s musicians including Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux and the Raincoats, '90s musicians and bands like Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail, Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney and L7 took what started as an underground feminist punk ideology in Olympia, Wash., and launched it into a legitimate subculture.

These women employed a true DIY ethic, penning zines to promote political awareness and unite and empower like-minded women. The entire movement was aimed to strengthen women and incite action, involvement, awareness; to prove that women were equals, and not required to show skin to make art or be respected. They weren't just making music, they were making progress. And radically so.

Alas, by the 1997 arrival of British bubblegum act the Spice Girls, Riot Grrrl faded and a new, manufactured impressionist movement took its place - called "Girl Power," funnily enough. Artists like No Doubt's Gwen Stefani carried a mainstream reinterpretation of the movement's dim torch, but by and large, true Riot Grrrl fizzled as the '00s neared.

The mid-'90s was an incredibly powerful era for women in music; in addition to the visionary Riot Grrrl movement, sovereign talents like Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, British multi-talent PJ Harvey, Liz Phair and even erratic rocker Courtney Love further fortified women's place in the heavily male-dominated music business.

Revisiting such inspiring women begs the question: Who are today's muses, and what do they stand for?

Slutwave: Pop Phenomenon Or Feminist Scourge?

Lady Gaga is perhaps closest to these ideals as exists today. An ardent supporter of gay rights and the fight against AIDS, she often encourages her fans to contact their senators to overturn unjust legislation. In what has sadly become a rare occurrence in modern pop, she also writes her own songs.

But what about the entertainers riding the slut wave? It's hard to deem such a term offensive, when it seems mostly accurate. So far, the '00s haven't lacked quality pop music; for that we'll gladly credit the women of Slutwave. They are successful entertainers.

But entertainment value aside, what is inspiring about women like Ke(Dollar Sign)ha or Katy Perry? Is Ke(Dollar Sign)ha's self-described "white trash dumpster-diving chic" persona supposed to impress us?

Rocks Off realizes it's senseless to compare these industry-produced, Autotuned singers to their radically respected predecessors, but where is our movement? Suffice to say, sadly, we are now in an era with a dire dearth of strong female musicians.

For now, we keep our faith in proven artists like Björk, Amanda Palmer, Karen O, Beyoncé, Tori Amos, and Harvey to keep us grounded as we await, with hope, music's next real female revolution.

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