While doing interviews for Mad World, I’m often asked about the current state of music, and how it’s changed since the early 80s. The first thing that comes to mind: The music charts are no longer about music.
I know, I know. That’s some statement from an author whose book highlights the artists from the dawn of MTV — the music video era! But while the bands in Mad World were certainly concerned with how they looked — after all, almost all of them were formed from the rib of Bowie — first and foremost, they wanted to make music. ”Our managers drove the video agenda; we were like, ‘Oh man, a video‘,” John Taylor says in the book, recalling how Duran Duran’s reps pushed them to make James Bond-ian mini movies.
While watching Fashion Rocks at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn the other night, I couldn’t help thinking that, for many of today’s biggest stars, it’s the other way around — the music hardly matters. The reps for Jennifer Lopez and Nicki Minaj should remind them their charges that they’re singers, not strippers giving lap dances (although, to be fair, the managers and labels are a big part of the problem).
“She got a big booty that’ll swallow a thong,” sang (lip-synched?) J.Lo as she shoved her infamous, barely-covered bottom in our faces. (Yes, her mid-forties ass looks mighty fine, but that’s besides the point.) A few numbers later, Minaj came out flaunting so much tush it would’ve made Daisy Duke blush. Among her poetic lyrics: “Say he don’t like ‘em boney, he want something he can grab.”
The morning after, my Mad World co-author asked how it all went. I told him how thrilled I was with Duran Duran’s performance — though, to be honest, they barely had any competition, with J.Lo and Minaj’s lame twerk-off coming more than a year after Miley’s bouncing butt hijacked/headlined the MTV Video Music Awards.
“I like Nicki,” JB said in her defense, explaining that she’s a really talented rapper. Rapping — oh, is that what she was doing on stage? I failed to notice.
Look, I’m not a prude, and I did notice that Minaj was flanked by a bunch of shirtless male dancers — perhaps an attempt at equal-opportunity eye candy? But is she really lighting the way forward for women? Is showing everything you’ve got onstage really how you show you’re a feminist, a word Beyoncé flashed at her recent VMAs performance.
JB argued that Nicki needs the butt antics to keep everyone’s attention. Hold on — I thought you said she was talented.
In Alison Moyet’s day, talent was what counted. ”Once upon a time, our attractive girl pop stars were Bananarama, who presented themselves with light independent spirits, but you never felt they were whoring themselves,” she told JB during their Mad World interview. By contrast, ”young women seem to have given up” and are “giving it all away” these days. In the early eighties, “there was less sexism, bizarrely, in the creative arena”; today “all [the female singers are] doing is playing to a sexual fantasy, and they are no more esteemed and stronger — they’re just being sex toys.”
Ironically, it was an 80s artist who drew up the blueprint. But while J.Lo, Minaj, et. al. latched on to Madonna’s shock-and-awe way to the top, they didn’t bother to learn her main lesson: Fantastic, unforgettable songs is the route to longevity. They’re cribbing from her Sex book, her “Justify My Love” video, when they should be paying attention to “Like A Prayer,” “Express Yourself,” “Papa Don’t Preach.”
And Madonna was always changing it up, trying to do something different. J.Lo and Minaj’s booty battle wasn’t nearly as shocking as it was been there-done that. “There are times now when I feel like it’s shocking when you see someone with their clothes on,” Moyet said. ”It’s shocking when someone’s not offering their arse to imagine yourself penetrating when they sing.”