Madonna took raunch culture into the mainstream. But where does self-expression end and sleazy sexism begin? As Lady Gaga pulls her latest X-rated video, Zoe Williams takes a wrecking ball to pop culture's doublethink
'All my most successful videos were planned over a period of time when I was rested, and my creativity was honoured." This was the statement Lady Gaga released to explain the non-release of the video she recorded with R Kelly, for the song Do What U Want. It made no sense at all. What kind of video – for a song about doing what you want – can have failed to honour her creativity? Who puts out a press release about how much rest they need? How long could that kind of thing take anyway? What, exactly, isn't being said?
There was, predictably, a real story underneath this enigma: according to an anonymous source of the New York Post, the video was "literally [like] an ad for rape". Lady Gaga, dressed as a patient readied for an operation, would be anaesthetised. R Kelly would "do what he wanted" and then she'd wake up pregnant. The only way it could get any weirder is if there were a large number of sexual-assault allegations against both R Kelly and the director, Terry Richardson, which there are or were.
Richardson has been at the centre of so many sexual-harassment allegations that one might be forgiven for thinking "Richardson Denies" was his double-barrelled surname. There was a petition on Change.org asking big brands to stop using him for shoots until he had at least faced charges. Two friends of mine had a fight about it. Friend A wanted Friend B to sign it, and Friend B said no, on the basis that you never knew what enemies you would make in fashion if you came out against Terry Richardson.
Never mind this as an individual moral conundrum; people still don't know which way culture is going to jump. The line between what's risqué and what's sleazy, what's boundary-pushing and what's abusive, what's taboo-breaking and what's just regressive sexist bullshit, is one that people are remarkably reluctant to adjudicate. This has been going on since Madonna. Doubtless, in fact, it has been going on since the 1800s. But like so many conversations, things will be clearer if we take Madonna as the point zero.
Madonna's antics – her pointy bras and unashamed sexuality, the voracity of her stance (literally and figuratively), her absolute lack of sexual modesty – are name-checked constantly in the discussion about what the US journalist Ariel Levy terms "raunch culture". If Miley Cyrus now capers about on stage, constantly pretending to masturbate, sometimes using a dwarf, and Lady Gaga gets pharmacokinetically raped by R Kelly to illustrate a song about physical abandon, then this is all because we've managed to overcome, via Her Madge, all our old hangups about whether women liked sex or not.
The problem is nobody seems able to approximate Madonna's authenticity, her ability to project iconoclasm as a quest for pleasure, rather than a bid for attention. Cyrus's vaudeville sexuality, for all that it's energetic and rule-breaking (I like Miley), doesn't seem to say anything true about her sexual desires. This is largely because it's creatively mediated through people like Richardson (who, by wild coincidence, also produced her most famous video, the one where she is naked on a wrecking ball, for the song Wrecking Ball). It just doesn't feel anything like a woman celebrating her own sexual appetite; it feels like a man dangling a woman from an industrial bauble for the delectation of an audience that is hypnotised by her as flesh.
The sobering thought about Lady Gaga, meanwhile, is that the rapist undertone of that video is not as shocking as it would have been pre-Blurred Lines.
Coercion is this generation's "thing". In the early noughties, it was all about anal sex. People gyrated their bums at one another constantly; Kylie's arse used to be written about, reviewed really, as though it were performing separately from the rest of her body. And we had these discussions back then – is there something weird going on now? Is this a metaphor for unconsenting sex, or at the very least, disconnected sex, where the participants aren't looking at one another? Ha. Imagine our disbelief if you'd told us all then that, a decade hence, people would be writing songs about how he knew you really wanted it because "hug" rhymes with "fuck".
Although it seems like a very atmospheric, nebulous distinction between Madonna's authentic self-expression and Terry Richardson's high-concept sleaze, it's one that everybody finds pretty easy to see. What culture, generally, finds much more difficult is in identifying whose disingenuousness we're actually looking at, and whose violation. Whenever there is a feminist backlash against any of it, it is always levelled at the performers themselves; Cyrus is accused of being a bad role model, giving girls this mechanistic view of their own sexuality, where it is something to be deployed for an instrumental purpose. And she, reasonably enough, insists that she's doing what she wants, and isn't that what feminism is supposed to be all about?
The conversation shifts and slides because it's built on dodgy ground; it is illogical to attack someone for a performance whose sexual agenda you don't like, if the reason you don't like it is that you suspect it's not authentically theirs. If you think they're the puppets of a sexual predator, the predator should be the target. And if they're not his puppets, then their sexual fantasy is genuine and must be respected.
Madonna could have sorted this out at the source. There really should be some kind of mentoring system in pop.
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