If there were a line graph depicting 2013 pop music that somehow factored in internet buzz and outraged think-pieces, there would be significant upticks during the rise of Robin Thicke’s lecherous summer hit “Blurred Lines” and the MTV Video Music Awards, featuring an infamous latex bikini and foam finger. In those late summer months, the internet was a maelstrom of pearl-clutching moms, “she’s-just-being-Miley” plaudits, and everything in between. Regardless of how you feel about the twerk heard ’round the world, there’s no denying it thrust female sexuality, objectification, and artistic license into the cultural spotlight.
But just when the hubbub seemed to be dying down, and the backlash to the backlash had begun to fade, cheeky British diva Lily Allen emerged from hiding two days ago and the graph suddenly exploded:
Here’s everything you need to know right now about the response to “Hard Out Here.” Warning: exorbitant amount of morally outraged links ahead.
Vulture immediately declared “Hard Out Here” majestic, calling it “the song of 2013 (and 2014, and forever)” and printing its full lyrics. Jezebel enjoyed it, Junkee called it “savage and savvy,” while Twitter was all atwitter, with people like Lena Dunham appreciating Allen’s focus on gender and encouraging debate.
Critiques have followed too, mostly as an extension of the minstrelsy and racial tension born of Mileygate. Nichole @tnwhiskeywoman, who tweets perceptively about black women in entertainment, said Allen’s video “comes across as ‘I’m not gonna degrade myself. Get those black girls to do it.'” Planet Ivy’s Alex Strang points out how clearly racial controversy breeds success today. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd of TheHairpin.com makes a compelling case that Allen “is using racism to skewer sexism,” and explains why this trend among white pop stars is worrisome. In response, Lily Allen herself claimed “It has nothing to do with race, at all.” Hmmm.
This TwitLonger response certainly seems to weaken her attempt at bold satire, as does this interview with the video’s director Chris Sweeney, who claims artists get a free pass for exploiting female bodies if they’re being ironic. Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan points out it’s not up to Allen to decide how people perceive her video, and comes up with some inventive and totally plausible ways racial issues could have been lampooned too. She links to several other responses including #BlackinAsia, whose viral blog post calls Allen’s use of her black back-up dancers “sickening.”
One insightful reaction comes from Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress, who calls the video “simultaneously pastiche and critique.” In deconstructing “Hard Out Here,” she outlines the distinction between revolution and reform, drawing parallels between this and other examples of counter-cultural pop divas channeling hip-hop. It’s interesting to contemplate just how firmly Allen’s tongue is in her cheek; is she aware that the big recording studios who enabled her to make this video have no incentive to stop producing this version of sexualized femininity she despises (and embodies, and parodies)?
Personally, I consider the video’s 2013-specific parodies a welcome bonus to an already excellent tune. The first time I heard it, I gay-gasped upon hearing the way she lands triumphantly on the word “bitch,” and actually applauded at those giant balloons. Re-appropriating the cultural monument that is Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” is simply genius. However, the twerking is as obnoxious as it is problematic. And I am of the belief that product placement in music videos will never not be tacky, and here it detracts slightly from the anti-establishment nose-thumbing. Also, Allen’s assertion that she’s covered up in the video because of her insecurities has me confounded – if she’s ashamed of cellulite, why skewer liposuction and make every other girl in the video half-naked? (Marina and the Diamonds fully clothed in her How To Be a Heartbreaker video is more clearly, cleverly subversive, shifting the gaze to the mouth-watering men around her. Why didn’t Allen deploy a bunch of twerking old white men?)
But what a way to re-enter the pop music scene, and at the very least try to stick it to the Man. Qualms and quibbles aside, you can’t deny Lily Allen is fueling this feminist discussion we all need to be having.