Photo by Christopher Macsurak
The music industry came under heightened scrutiny last week when Nicki Minaj, despite breaking the VEVO record for most views in twenty-four hours for her “Anaconda” video, was noticeably absent from the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards nominations for Best Video of the Year. As is the custom these days, Minaj took to Twitter to voice her frustration. She set off a firestorm when she implied that her lack of nomination was a result of unfair discrimination. “If I was a different ‘kind’ of artist, ‘Anaconda’ would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well,” she tweeted. “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.”
To be completely honest, I am not qualified to comment on whether or not Minaj’s video ought to have been nominated. Until last week, I had not seen “Anaconda” (nor do I recommend it, which I’ll go into in a bit), and I do not follow pop music closely enough to say for sure whether it “made a profound impact on pop culture or defined a genre,” as I understand the winning video is supposed to have done. I can, however, appreciate the cultural conversation that her comments have sparked. She may not have gotten the nomination she desired, but Minaj was victorious in launching a wave of scrutiny that the music industry has, in my opinion, long deserved.
In response to Minaj’s claims, many news outlets rushed to her defense, unapologetically examining the history of race in pop music and backing up her claims. In no way seeking to overshadow the very serious issue of race in music, I find that the discussion has been revelatory in more ways than one. More than shedding light on existing racial disparity in the industry, the recent examination of the music industry has uncovered a notable gender disparity as well.
Consider the recent Marie Claire article by Corinne Redfern. Arguing that slim, Caucasian women are disproportionately rewarded for their artistry, Redfern writes, “To put it simply: When Britney Spears got naked and covered herself in sequins for ‘Toxic,’ she was nominated for Best Music Video. When Emily Ratajkowski got naked next to Robin Thicke in ‘Blurred Lines,’ he was nominated for Best Music Video. When Miley Cyrus stripped off and broke a million health and safety rules by riding a piece of construction equipment, she wasn’t just nominated for Best Music Video of the Year—she won it. All of the above videos have been controversial, but they were acknowledged by the industry for their impact nevertheless. But as soon as Nicki Minaj—whose black body deviates from Caucasian beauty standards—dares to own her own culture and dance in a similarly provocative fashion, it’s glossed over and relegated to sideline categories of ‘female’ and ‘hip-hop.’”
I must say that after reading Redfern’s article, I was not struck so much by the injustice of Minaj’s nudity and provocative dancing going unrewarded but rather by the absurdity of rewarding female artists for their nudity and provocative dance to begin with. Redfern seems to imply that stripping down is the established prerequisite for female recognition in music. The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that I’m not sure she’s wrong.
Being the feminist that I am, several questions immediately came to mind. If nudity and sexual provocation are among the criteria for Best Video, why wasn’t Robin Thicke naked himself? Why isn’t sexual provocation a prerequisite for men as well?
My curiosity piqued, I decided to look into it further and watch all of the winning Best Videos of the past several years. While it’s hard to scientifically quantify sexual suggestiveness or even nudity, even a cursory glance at the winning videos over the past several years is telling.
Since 2000, MTV’s Best Video of the year has been won by a female artist nine times. Of those nine, six appear naked or in underwear at some point in their video. Over the same time period, six men (or male groups) were awarded the title, and except for a few brief shirtless appearances by Eminem and Andre 3000, they were all fully clothed.
Justin Timberlake wore a turtleneck in “Mirrors,” the young men from Panic! at the Disco wore full suits in “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” Billie Joe Armstrong et. al., were dressed from head to toe as they ambled down the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and the flashiest part of Eminem’s sartorial choices was his pair of superhero tights in “Without Me.”
The picture among winning female artists was markedly different. Miley in “Wrecking Ball,” Rihanna in both “We Found Love” and “Umbrella,” Lady Gaga in “Bad Romance,” Britney in “Piece of Me,” Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mýa, and P!nk in “Lady Marmalade”—all of them stripped down in the videos that won them the title. Even Beyoncé’s unitard in “Single Ladies” was more underdressed than anything male winners wore.
Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, several of the videos among the male winners showcased skin in their videos—it’s just that they only showed scantily clad women, not men.
I have no intention to pass judgment on any of these ladies, but when one sits down and watches all these videos one after the other, a distinct pattern emerges: Winning male artists dress up and sing into the camera. Winning female artists [ahem] dress down, if you will.
I understand that there is a myriad of possible explanations for the stark contrast between male and female artistry in the music industry. One could conceivably use these figures to make the argument that the male body is unfairly censored. One could argue that there is simply more of a demand for the exposed female body than the male body. Maybe men and women are simply different, and that is manifested in their varying artistic choices.
No matter how you slice it, there is a sharp contrast between male and female musicians when it comes to how they dress and perform. And while that is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, it may be evidence of the fact that women face unfair expectations. I’ve said it before: “When nudity becomes a requirement for attention, when sex appeal becomes a prerequisite for airtime, and when one’s physical assets determine whether or not her achievements will be recognized, sexual liberation becomes sexual subjugation.” And although I can’t really say for sure, my hunch is that it is a lot harder to make it as a female artist if you’d prefer to cover up (Taylor Swift excepted).
MTV’s Video Music Awards is just one awards show and can hardly be considered a complete representation of the entire music industry. But to the extent that it sheds light on the varying expectations that female artists face, the contrast should give us pause.
Because, if we glance at the past winners of Best Video, Nicki Minaj was just playing the game that everyone else is playing. I’m just not convinced that, to get recognition for her talented music, she should have to.
I wrote this article for Verily Magazine, where it was originally published.