Fans of the Dresden Dolls and frequenters of the feminist blog-o-sphere will already be familiar with the
clash between Amanda Palmer and Roadrunner records. Actually, I’m not too fond of the term “clash” in this situation because that would imply two parties on the same level disagreeing over a point, but it’ll do in a pinch. For those of you unfamiliar, after releasing a music video for her new single Leeds United (link goes to youtube), which features her bare belly, the Roadrunner Records executives told Amanda that “there were certain shots that they wanted to either cut completely or digitally alter to ‘be more flattering'” (source: Amanda Palmer’s official blog). Fortunately for us, not only has Amanda Palmer herself taken a stand against this, but also a group of her fans have started The Rebellyion. In protest against Roadrunner’s idiocy, the hundreds of fans who joined the Rebellyion have submitted photos of their bare bellies in all of their un-edited glory. I’m not focusing on the Rebellyion in this post, but I’ve got to give them a nod here. I’m glad that something so positive has come out of this.
But I think there’s even more to discuss here. The record company’s decision itself, though it bothered me, didn’t necessarily shock me. There are plenty of horror stories about artists on major record labels from Kenna (who, despite the acclaim of fellow artists and producers, had to fight to get any radio play because his work was difficult to categorize) to Sara Bareilles (whose hit single “Love Song” came out of being frustrated with Epic Records demand that she write another love song for her album) constantly having to fight to keep their artistic visions alive while very conservative record executives panic over what will sell. Though this pushes the line even there and reveals how truly fat-phobic our culture is, what really shocked and disgusted me were some of the other comments that Palmer revealed on her blog:
“I’m a guy, Amanda. I understand what people like.”
And, at a later meeting:
He said he thought it was a shame that someone as smart and talented as me could not make a commercial record that they could sell. And he thinks that someday I’ll see the light and write some better songs.
The comment, “I’m a guy. I know what people like,” is the most revealing piece of this entire dialogue. It gets at so much of the struggle that female artists have to deal with just to get our work out there. As I like to put it, it’s the problem of being told that people actually mean humankind when they say mankind when a lot of the time they don’t. There is this ever-pervasive idea that if you write for women, you are not writing something commercially viable. Men write for everyone, women for women (I mused a little about this in my Wordstock Reflections post, if you’re interested in reading more about this point.). Thus, men are expected to have more commercial knowledge.
I support the rebellyion wholeheartedly (yay!), but, in the end, this goes beyond the belly. I agree that it is disgusting that our society has such a distorted view of beauty that an unedited belly has apparently become disgusting for the masses, but there’s a part of me that is concerned that the record company’s marketing even has to reach Amanda’s belly. This goes into the state of our culture’s reception of female artists. For cis-men, it is far easier to leave their bodies behind and become voices, words, and brush strokes, or, if they don’t entirely lose their bodies in the process, they can at least move fluidly between sex object and artist (I guess maybe there can be some argument in the cases of heartthrobs such as John Barrowman, David Duchovny, or the whole slew of 90’s boy bands, but that’s neither here nor there, and I’d need an entire separate post to analyze them.). Women, according to our culture, are always attached to their bodies in some way. It brings back memories of sitting in high school English classes and having to hear the harsh commentary the boys would make about Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton’s appearances. In Spanish class, they acted like Frida Kahlo’s unibrow was an affront against their eyes and their hormones. It’s enough to make any girl despair not only about her body image, but what would happen if she dared tried to write or paint; especially if her work brought up her body at all.
I always think about it like dressing for a job interview. When my (male) flatmate dresses for a job interview, he focuses on looking neat and polished. He worries about whether he is over or under-dressed. When I dress for a job interview, I start by worrying about these same things, but then I get to my chest. I always spend a good chunk of time staring in the mirror wondering if the shirt I am wearing is modest enough or if it is so modest that I look frumpy and unapproachable. Women have to work not to be taken sexually, and, a lot of the time, if you’re being taken sexually, you (unfairly) run the risk of not being taken seriously.
Amanda, as a performing artist, is proud of her body (and she should be!). I’m not arguing that it would be better if we had no idea if she looked like, if she just sang from behind a curtain. I don’t think she’d enjoy that anyhow. She sings about relationships, sexuality, masturbation; her body is an important part of her music in a very positive and empowering way. The problem here is the record company’s inability to see her as more than her body (or, if they do, as more than her body and a money making machine.). So many of female artists who are in the mainstream–I’m using a very simple definition of “mainstream” that has nothing to do with people arguing about selling out or who is or isn’t indie (aka-I’m not talking Tori Amos, Sarah McLaughlin, or anyone like that)–are designed simply to be only the sum of their bodies. Think of The Pussycat Dolls; their name and, as far as I can tell, all their songs are designed to make you focus on their bodies. Their physical form is more important than what they’re singing. If you want to sell a ton of records in a brief burst, I guess they are who you want. This, of course, has nothing to do with art, which shouldn’t surprise anyone by now, but that’s just the way it is (note that whenever I say, “That’s just how things are,” I don’t mean it as the conclusion of an argument nor as a preclusion of much-needed change. Maybe this is how things are, but that doesn’t mean it’s the way things have to be.). So, from what we can see here, aside from a misogynistic fear of women who make angry music, part of what makes Amanda Palmer’s songs “difficult to sell” in the minds of the record company is her refusal to use her body how they see fit. I even wonder if they would mind her anger if she allowed the record company to airbrush her image (probably not, but I’m angry now, and so I’m going to speculate in ways that are not particularly kind to the record company.).
Roadrunner Records is not only perpetuating horrible body-image issues and suggesting that a very attractive woman is unfit to perform un-airbrushed, but they are also denying the worth of Amanda Palmer as an artist outside of the confines of her body and the worth of her fanbase as a commercial market. I know, I know, music is art, art shouldn’t be judged on marketability, but it is a little insulting that the very loyal fans of the Dresden Dolls/Amanda Palmer (I don’t know much about it, but I do know they have a very active fanbase) are considered unimportant from the record company’s point of view. And it is even more insulting that Amanda’s song-writing skills mean nothing in comparison to her having a round belly.