Girls, Popular Music and Music Videos

      by Ashley Grisso  



To understand the immense power of music on girls and all of us, it is important to explore the history of emotions surrounding musical performance (Gencarelli, 1993). Music is clearly connected to our feelings and emotions. Music has been perceived as a threat since Plato and Hsun Tzu wrote about humanity being overcome by emotion when hearing music. It was then feared that one's emotional response would cause rationale and logic to suffer. Music is a tonal analogue of emotive life. Music appeals to our feelings because it presents symbolic "forms" of feeling. They [symbolic forms] are experienced and processed holistically (Langer, cited in Gencarelli, 1993). Music evokes an emotional response in a listener and we "know it when we feel it." Currently, we as a society, continue to possess an incredible fear of music due to its unexplainable connection to our feelings and emotions.

Paradoxically, despite some parental and societal fear of music, popular music has served the important purpose of helping many pre-adolescent and adolescent girls to uncover different aspects of their identity, as well as to form relationships with one another through their music usage. For example, pop music by 1960s girl groups spoke to young girls powerfully because it gave voice to the contradictory selves in girls struggling through crushing insecurity to forge a coherent identity (Douglas, 1995).

Girl groups in the 1960s, and most all musical artists and bands throughout the last 40 years are produced and managed by men. Despite their control, female artists' pop songs present contradictory messages about female sexuality and rebelliousness that are often poignantly and authentically expressed. Pop music was and still is simultaneously, deeply personal and highly public. There is a significant camaraderie that exists for females in their cultural experience of pop music. Douglas (1995) said: "Music exerts a powerful influence on us, one that we may barely have recognized, because of a process of identification. By superimposing our own dramas, from our own lives, onto each song, each of us could assume an active role in shaping the song's meaning. Songs that were hits around the country had very particular associations and meanings for each listener, and although they were mass-produced they were individually interpreted. The songs were ours, but they were also everyone else's. We were all alone, but we were not really alone at all. In this music, we found solidarity as girls." The meanings one negotiates from a media text (popular song) differs for each individual person. This is an important aspect of media literacy that, viewers/users negotiate or individually construct meaning (Aufderheide, 1997; Considine, 1995; Hobbs, 1998). Yet, together people can socially construct their reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1967).

Music is a communication that need not be limited to analysis of lyrics, but music, style and context, as well. Musical work can not be separated out from its performance. Audiences experience music, for the most part, in performance. An artist(s)' distinctive sound also includes a mediated, visual image or actual physical presence that accompanies it, except in radio listening. Where or how one receives the lyrics, music, style or accompanying persona of a performer create the context of the musical experience (Gencarelli, 1993; Goodwin, 1993).

Music videos are used, in part, to construct identity, both for the performers and the viewer (Jhally, 1990; Cole, 1998). As a genre, music video has adopted mass media images of women that often use pornographic ideology and conventions. Music videos send explicit messages that reinforce female gender identity as overtly sexualized. The number of objectified representations of women partially defines for the music video viewers and the larger culture what gender roles are acceptable in our society. Women are subordinated and their sexuality is exploited. The eroticization of female submission and male dominance is commonplace. As offensive as this image of women is, this medium has great cultural currency among many adolescents. As girls look for information to help inform them of how to create their sense of self, they often spend considerable hours in contact with music television. Repeated viewing of music videos can contribute to girls' constructing their social reality.

Social reality is not a given or fixed construct. The media are crucial symbolic vehicles for the construction of meaning in girls' everyday lives. Audience analyses that have been undertaken with adolescent girls reveal that they struggle with media representations, but are ill equipped to critically analyze or resist them (Durham, 1999). Peer group activity and social context affect adolescent girls' interaction with mass media, especially in terms of their dealings with issues of gender and sexuality. There is a shift from thinking of youth as objects of adult practices to active participants in the process of interpreting and framing their own social realities, in the context of large and small social structures (Durham, 1999). We know little about the influence of the mass media in girls' or boys' construction of gender and sexuality and need more study.

Music videos contribute to young girls defining themselves and one another by the standards put forth in soft pornography, as a sexual object or commodity. Some female viewers may interpret video images of what women "should be" by mass media's patriarchal standards. Music videos' influence needs to be weighed and situated in the larger context of information that young women, and specifically my subjects, are using to conceive of their sense of self (Cole, 1998; Jhally, 199O).