Expired: Ageism, Sexism & Women in the Music Industry

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Mariah Carey, Madonna and Janet Jackson

We lightly discussed the issue of ageism in the music industry before but it’s time to take a more critical look at the matter with a fresh perspective. As women over the age of 40 years continue to struggle to find their footing on the Pop charts, let’s highlight the core causal factors of this unfortunate situation.

It’s no secret that there is an expiration date on female artists in the music industry and that a metaphorical clock starts ticking against them from the moment they launch their relatively short careers. Typically, women are in high demand throughout their 20s but as they get older, pressure starts mounting for them to mature with their ageing audiences.

That demand for change only intensifies when female acts enter their 40s, before they are unceremoniously forced out of the markets that they easily dominated in their youth. However, although critics often attribute the ousting of those older women to the music industry’s natural progression, in which only the youngest and strongest survive – entertainment’s special brand of Darwinism – there are more sinister forces at work. Namely, the commercial impact of female artists in their 40s wanes as a result of ageism and sexism.

The first detrimental factor affecting the chart success of women in their forties is ageism. We’ve seen dozens of female artists gradually lose steam as they age into their 30s before experiencing a dramatic decline in their commercial success when they turn 40. As if labelled with an expiration date, these women suddenly become irrelevant to their primary music markets when they approach that fateful age.

Mariah Carey Beautiful TheLavaLizard

Let’s analyse Mariah Carey’s career as we seek to understand this point. After being introduced to consumers as the innocent, MOR (middle of the road) girl next door in the early 1990s, the diva was reborn in 1997 as a sexy butterfly with a point to prove to her then estranged husband, Tommy Mottola.

Sadly, Carey’s experienced several personal and professional upsets at the turn of the century as her career seemingly came to an end. In addition to being labelled insane – her Hello Kitty obsession clearly didn’t help her cause – the public’s interest in her sex appeal began to fade and there were several calls by critics for her to cover her lovely lady lumps. What else coincidentally happened around that time? Carey turned 30.

Even when Carey found herself back in public favour with The Emancipation of Mimi album of 2005, she was still under pressure to “grow up” and abandon the mini skirts that made her a sex symbol just a few years prior. Since entering her 40s, that backlash against Carey has worsened as people demand a change of both her fashion choices and her music. Meanwhile, younger female artists, such as Beyonce and Rihanna, are praised for their skimpy outfits, despite Carey looking just as good as her counterparts at the age of 43.

Cher Turn Back Time video TheLavaLizard

Interestingly, the ageist ideologies that constrain Carey’s career weren’t as prevalent in the 1980s and early 1990s. For instance, Tina Turner was 45 when she shimmied across countless stages in leotards that showed off her famous legs during the Private Dancer Tour tour of 1985. We also can’t overlook Cher’s daring video for “If I Could Turn Back Time” video, which was released in 1989 when she was 43 – the same age that the more conservative Carey is today.

So, what has changed? How did ageism develop such a powerful sway over the careers of female artists when it was far less prevalent in a time when parents battled so fiercely against the rising MTV generation? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We live in an era dominated by visuals.

The entertainment industry, specifically the areas of music and film, is the primary provider of visual products for consumers demanding a constant stream of fresh and exciting content. That demand affects everything and everyone, therefore placing an incredible strain on artists to constantly reinvent themselves.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for any act to keep up with the ever-changing trends in entertainment, and female artists feel the brunt of that pressure. Think about it: To whom do we look for the hottest trends in fashion? Whose music videos get the most airplay? Whose “hottest” lists in magazines gets the most attention?

That’s right, women are always in the glare of the media spotlight and they are expected to remain cusp of everything new, which seemingly can’t be done by ageing acts. Furthermore, the problem has been exacerbated as a result of social media, specifically on sites such as YouTube, on which visuals can be overanalysed by both fans and critics eager to spot every possible “flaw.”

For example, Madonna is widely regarded as Queen of Pop because of her reign during the MTV era and her rise to prominence as one of the first multimedia visual artists. Yet, even the woman who has reinvented herself more times than Bobby Brown entered rehab couldn’t fight industry ageism and her impact on the music charts has drastically declined during the last decade. Of course, Madonna is still world’s dominant touring artist, thanks to her army of devoted longtime fans, but the hits parade that defined her early career has come to a screeching halt. Yes, that was a subliminal joke about her singing.

This is where we weave ageism with the second reason for the decline of female artists’ success, sexism. You should have noticed by now that we haven’t mentioned how men fit into this discussion, so let’s get to it. The following comments may cost me my life. If you don’t hear from me within the next 24 hours, please call the police.

“…music is a product, women are used to sell those products and the primary target audience for media companies are men.”

Similar to all areas in life, the Western music industry is governed by pervasive patriarchal ideologies. In such a construct, the lives of women are controlled by men for the satisfaction of men. Quite simply, music is a product, women are used to sell those products and the primary target audience for media companies are men.

Almost every ad campaign selling cars, alcohol and even condoms seek to attract the attention of the male consumer. For example, condoms protect both men and women from the transmission of infections but the commercials only focus on the perspective of the former group. Trojan tag lines boast about how you (the male viewer) can make her feel good with the added bonus of a lubricant that gives both parties an opposite yet enjoyable experience. In other words, the enjoyment of women in sex is listed as secondary to that of men.

That ranking of a standard male viewer is also reflected in music. Male rappers (Jay-Z , Kanye West and Eminem) and singers (Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake and Trey Songz) only speak from a male perspective to maintain the homosocial bond of brotherhood. On the other hand, female artists seek the attention of the male consumer by giving him exactly what he wants – sexual innuendos, revealing clothing and enough gyration to stimulate even the most sluggish erection.

Even when those woman are speaking on behalf of their female fans, they never completely omit the viewer of the equation. This was exemplified by Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” video, in which she kicked her cheating boyfriend out the house but cushioned the male-bashing by included a few scenes of her sensually posing in shadowy room while wearing a bra. Similar scenarios were painted in Carey’s “Shake it Off” (naked in a tub of roses) and Janet Jackson’s “Son of a Gun” (you know you saw the way she licked her fingers).

What a perfect time to mention Jackson because she presented a perfect example of the industry sexism at the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show. We’ve all sucked on a breast at time point in our lives. We’ve felt them, played with them, caressed them or simply suckled from them for nourishment. Yet, when Jackson whipped out her breast for less then a second at the Super Bowl, her career almost came to an end.

Janet Jackson Super Bowl TheLavaLizard

Jackson was blacklisted on several media networks and her music was yanked from the airwaves. In fact, the backlash against her exposed nipple was so great that she has yet to return to the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, regardless of the quality of her music. Why did Jackson suffer in such a horrible way? Women’s bodies, especially those of black women, are sexualised and objectified in accordance to the rules of men, and they are not allowed to control how their sexuality is expressed. Remember, as I noted before, women are used to sell products on terms set by men.

So, Jackson broke the rules and paid the price. That is also the case with other women, especially those in their late 30s and older. Men, however, rarely face similar issues, thus reinforcing the sexist double standard. Ask yourselves why Jay-Z can grab his crotch or LL Cool J can perform shirtless without creating an international media firestorm. Also, is Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones ever slammed for his onstage sexual antics when he places a microphone down his pants?

Ageism and sexism converge in various ways, especially when the chart performance of women over 40 is assessed. As we expand on this point, let’s review a popular myth stemming from the joint ideologies. By myth, I’m not referring to the tale of Christina Aguilera’s supposed 4 octave vocal range. Instead, I’m discussing the common symbolic narratives that uphold both systems.

Quite simply, when men age, they are viewed as wise and seasoned but women are only considered old. Those opposing perspectives, ladies and gentlemen, support both ageism and sexism. In the music industry, this is typified by the way older male artists lose far less fans than their female counterparts as they age because they were primarily judged on the basis of their music instead of how they look.

R. Kelly provides a paradoxical example of an artist who both supports and negates this point. Later this year, the King of R&B will release his Black Panties album and none of his longtime fans have questioned the name of the record because he has always been known for his raunchy tunes. Could Carey or Toni Braxton get away with the same title? Kelly did, however, receive some heat for working with 2 Chainz on the lead single “My Story” and singing about his hoes because “he is too old for that mess.”

Still, few men north of 40 in the music industry are accosted for crafting “immature” music and their visuals are almost never judged. Women clearly aren’t as fortunate, and they are repeatedly blasted for not “acting their age” because they are “old enough to be someone’s mother.” By the way, those were all comments made by your fellow readers of The Lava Lizard.

age comments TheLavaLizard

How do some women avoid the pressures of ageism and sexism? The only way to dodge both bullets is to undergo a complete artistic rebirth. Although they many never score another hit single on the Hot 100, women who succumb to the will of the patriarchy by covering their bodies and singing music targeting the conservative Adult Contemporary market can actually sell albums. If you need proof then look at the discographies of Sade and Celine Dion.

In conclusion, ageism and sexism have a negative impact on the commercial relevance of female artists in their 40s. Although they can still enjoy positive returns from longtime fans on the touring circuits, they rarely mirror that success on the charts as a result of patriarchal pressures on their careers.

Male artists, on the other hand, almost never encounter such problems and continue to reap the benefits of those glaring double standards. In a visual world where women’s bodies are sexualised and objectified, their brands lose value with age and their products are demanded as much as spoiled milk. Well, that’s if they refuse to “grow up.”

“You can’t tell me 60 isn’t the new 20!”

Thoughts?