I've been watching music videos practically since their birth, or at least their MTV incarnation. They are one of the more absurd art forms around, a roughly three-minute "film" about something that may or may not have anything at all to do with the song, a medium that was once a crucial driver in album/singles sales, then a purely artistic statement, then irrelevant, and now a return amusement. But they've always had a lot of sex in them, because pop songs are usually about love or sex.
But from a feminist viewpoint, sexy videos can be deeply problematic — they were, at their height, the easiest go-to for representations of women as nothing but sex objects/ornamentation. But recently I have been hooked on the new Charli XCX song for "SuperLove," and because the single isn't out until Dec. 8, I've been stuck watching the video (above) over and over again, released in September, to get my fix.
It's a perfect launch pad for a discussion about modern sexiness in videos because it nods to a lot of the Sexy Video Girl cues, short of a scene involving water and a clingy see-through shirt. It's set in Japan and features Charli and friends traipsing, sashaying, dancing around a trashy, blinged-out, multicolored carnival. They ape around with robots, strike poses, act goofy and sexy, often at the same time, and traffic in that perfect pop-star blend of overt sexiness + coy innocence. We're sexy! We're just girls! But we're sexy women! Now we're being sexy on purpose! Wait, that time we were just sexy and didn't know it. And so on.
Make no mistake: The song is baller. It is beyond catchy — it throbs with a kind of buoyant giddiness that, even after having played it endlessly for months (not my usual three-week pop-song burnout), I still crave hearing it. This is from the same blitzo talented young woman who wrote "I Love It" and gave it to Icona Pop, and keeps churning out relentlessly catchy gem after gem and saying smart, fun things about it all.
Here's the thing, tho: Is the video ironic? Does Charli XCX, a smart, talented woman who's been writing songs since she was 14, has a worldwide hit under her belt, a major label deal, and an unusual degree of artistic control, mean to make fun of the typical sexy music video by gyrating, posing, flipping her hair and playing up sex-kitten style long looks at the camera? Or is it so in the water to be overtly, even pornographically sexy that it's just what you do, because videos must be sexy? Can such antics be feminist simply because the woman in them chooses to traffic in the standard sexy video trope?
Riddle me this: What does a sexy video look like that isn't sexist? Who gets to make that call? Can a woman make a video that looks designed to titillate men and still be a feminist or still have a message of agency? Isn't "All the Single Ladies" sexy as fuck? Does that render it less feminist by virtue of its appeal to standard notions of what sexy looks like?
I don't think so.
Regardless, we seem to expect our pop ladies to ride a very fine, dubious line with their sexiness. We accept that they must be sexy on some level, and yet, we ask them to somehow signal to us that they know this, that they hate it, too, that they don't really think it's right, or fair, or that somehow, their version of the sexiness being presented/sold to us is authentic, or about their own pleasure, or, that if it's about attracting men, that it's done so with agency or choice and not to just pander.
This seems like a lot to ask in three minutes for a pop song about an infatuation so intense that you equate the feeling with whiskey and druggy-high-soaked blood, but OK.
Admittedly, I kinda hated the Charli XCX video at first because the sexiness seemed so forced. But after having watched it dozens of times (ok, maybe even a hundred), I began to see that vamping as total artifice, a complete pose, a self-consciousness that belied the usual tit-jiggle/vag-grab of sex appeal we so often see just for the sake of it.
But even if that's just wishful thinking, I'm not sure I care. Or that the medium can be saved anyway — or that it should be. I've been watching music videos since the mid-80s, and they're mostly terrible, by-the-numbers sexual objectification that is barely worth even parsing, it's so obvious and dumb. And I say that even when the video is fun. Were I to eliminate every form of art that it is rooted in misogyny, I'd probably have a mere weekend's worth of entertainment to get me through the rest of my life. As a friend put in a great essay, and I'm paraphrasing: Sometimes you love pop culture, even when it doesn't love you back.
Take Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" video (1987) where Tawny Kitaen foreshadows catfish vaginas over a coupla Jaguars.