By Sara PeckSexual sensory overload abounds in Rihanna’s recently released “Rock Star 101," wherein over the course of four minutes she manages to wear full-body blackface, dress as Anna Wintour, and gyrate weirdly while wearing exciting hats and too much makeup.Since the rise of MTV in the 1980s, music videos haven’t really been about music. But the latest trend seems to be female pop artists producing the most over-the-top, strange videos devoid of any coherent artistic message. Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” was full of this stuff. What’s the message in glasses made of burning cigarettes?The only message I can find is that female empowerment is now primarily about getting it on—it's thinly veiled behind images of women being sexually free, dominating or maiming men. (The dead guy thing is a Gaga trademark—bad breakup, maybe?). Being a strong, independent women now apparently means wearing (or in this case, not wearing) your sexuality and using it to exert power over men.Not that music videos should show women lovingly baking cookies for their cufflinked husbands, but it is troubling evidence of the virgin/whore dichotomy that is still embedded in society and popular music. Women are either Taylor Swift in “Love Story” (virgin) or a nearly-nude Rihanna “Rude Boy” or “Rock Star 101” (whore).Even the virgins are all about sex: Britney Spears circa “Baby One More Time,” Jessica Simpson’s breasty virginity and Swift being named to several “hottest women” lists. Though male artists, in music videos or otherwise, are defined by many factors, women are relegated to being “bad girls” (in “Telephone,” Beyonce tells Gaga that she has been a bad girl, and “Rude Boy” is all about sexual badassery), the only way for them to wield power over men.The only recent over-the-top video that might have a clear message is M.I.A.’s shocking “Born Free," which depicts red-headed children being rounded up by heavily militarized U.S. policemen, and then bused to the desert and mass-murdered. The daughter of a Sri Lankan Tamil political activist who has spoken out in support of the (now-defeated) Tamil Tigers, M.I.A. is fiercely independent, once performing with hip-hop king Jay-Z while nine months pregnant, with sheer polka-dotted fabric covering her bulging tummy.I guess M.I.A. wins because her video was actually pulled from YouTube. And there's a political message—which ironically, isn't that edgy; who isn't against genocide?—not just faux male genitals and half-concealed breasts.
Sara Peck, a spring 2010 In These Times editorial intern, is a Northwestern University student studying journalism and political science.