Hello again blog! I’m resurrecting this because, like a lot of folks, I have some thoughts about Lily Allen’s return to music in her new song, Hard Out Here.
I’ve obviously seen the discussion about racism in the video, but I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that as a white feminist in what seems to be a discussion about another white feminist (Allen) oppressing her black female dancers, my voice is really not needed in this debate. I’m interested in this aspect of it, but I don’t feel like I should be commenting on it. So I’d advise looking elsewhere for that.
I think Hard Out Here is interesting because there are two completely separate satires at play: the song and the video. Put together, the whole thing is a critique of sexism in the music industry, but in isolation the lyrics are much more general, except for the self-referential ‘you’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen’ right at the start. The rest of the song is a brutally sarcastic reworking of the sexism that is common to all women, regardless of their professions: the policing of our sex lives, the gendered, heteronormative pressure to look good or ‘you’ll end up on your own’ (i.e. without a man), the myriad abuses and double-standards we’re held to whilst still being told by a society that resists change that ‘we’ve never had it so good’, so we should just stop complaining. I’m never completely comfortable with the word ‘bitch’ because I would prefer gendered slurs weren’t normalised under any conditions, but this is the closest I’ve come to enjoying a reclamation of it. The sheer volume of ‘bitch-bitch-bitch’s that Allen hurls at the listeners actually seems to work to drive home how preposterous it is that a whole half of the population are routinely torn down and dehumanised by this word, and as an insult it isn’t even widely considered that bad.
Plus it’s pretty catchy. Not that my taste in music holds much stock.
The video is, as many people are pointing out, a different story. There are bits of it that I absolutely adore, and generally these are the parts focused on Allen as an individual, her own insecurities, and her own anger at the pressures being put on her by an unjust industry – her protest of ‘I’ve had two babies’ to the body-shaming being flung at her by her male manager, for example, and the absolutely EXCELLENT balloons. But I’m cautious about whether the slow-mo shots of twerking arses being drenched in champagne really work as satire. The aim is clearly to ridicule the degradation of women’s bodies in music videos (and thank fuck someone in a position of influence is hitting back at the disgusting mess left by Robin Thicke earlier this year). But I wonder whether this visual satire actually works when its framed by the very aesthetic it’s attempting to poke fun at.
It’s all very well for Allen to sing ‘and if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you’ve misunderstood’. That’s useful to anyone stupid enough to hear the song and think it’s somehow an anthem of the patriarchy. But sarcasm doesn’t work on video for the same reason sarcasm often fails in text messages or Tweets. Sarcasm is a vocal technique which lets us know what’s being said isn’t meant in the way we’re hearing it. Sarcasm doesn’t work anywhere near as well when we’re trying to look at it.
If you looked at those soft porn rip-off shots out of context, they wouldn’t be satirical. They would just be soft porn rip-offs. And yes, obviously satire only functions because of the context its placed in. But I do think there’s something uncomfortable about a bang-on song that shouts angrily and intelligently at sexism being illustrated by visual re-creations of sexism. If the video wasn’t a music video, if perhaps it was a parody skit within the framework of a TV sketch show, if it didn’t actively contribute to the overall depiction of women’s bodies in music videos, perhaps it would work a whole lot better. As it is, a good half of that video is visually made up of the stuff the song is critiquing. And that’s a problem.
So maybe, as an experiment, you might try listening to the song without the video? Or watching the video without sound? Does it change anything for you? I’d be interested to find out.