by Izzy Labbe

This is part one in a four-part serial blog about sexualization in the music industry, beginning with the 1960s.

I’m one of those people who can live without food and water, shelter, human interaction and all that other stuff people are supposed to have to survive, but whose body and existence will shut down upon the removal of music.

But it’s always troubled me, from a woman’s point of view, how much of the music industry that I love sexualizes and objectifies girls and women. I decided recently that instead of ignoring the sexy music videos, sexist song lyrics and even the over-sexualized women musicians I see right now, I would do some research on just how long this has been an issue. Believe it or not, the sexualization of the music industry did not start with Britney Spears.

In the 1960s, women started emerging from social roles placed on them by men from beginning of patriarchy (which, according to my World History textbook, was 4,000 BCE). This basically means that women stopped trying to fit into the stereotypical housewife/mother role, and started to embrace their sexuality, as well as demand equal rights in working outside the home and contributing to society, and controlling their finances and bodies. Great! Women taking charge. But then, something terrible happened: men started objectifying women all over again, regardless of their new-found sexuality. It was still looked upon as okay for a man to objectify a woman in song and everywhere else–which was pretty much what happened.

Since music videos didn’t really start to exist until MTV came out in the 1980s, sexualization in songs was basically wrapped up in the lyrics. Even in songs that have blessed the world with their very existence and are beloved by millions, sexualization shines through:

“Well she was just seventeen/And you know what I mean/And the way she looked was way beyond compare”
“I Saw Her Standing There”, The Beatles

“It was an itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie yellow polka dot bikini that she wore for the first time today”
“Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, Brian Hyland

“(Why don’t you come out) with your red dress on
(Come out) Mmm, you look so fine
(Come out) Move it nice and easy
Girl, you make me lose my mind”
“Sherry”, The Four Seasons

“Some like ‘em fat, some like ‘em tall
Some like ‘em short, skinny legs and all
I like ‘em all, huh, I like ‘em proud”
“Mother Popcorn”, James Brown

There’s also the ongoing idea that women are owned by men, or should be:

“When I saw you walking down the street
I said that’s a kind of girl I’d like to meet
She’s so pretty, Lord she’s fine
I’m gonna make her mine, all mine”
“Hey! Baby”, Bruce Channel

(This song also encourages street harassment, a practice that is still looked upon as socially acceptable. Think about it: men driving by a group of women and honking? It happens a lot more than we realize).

I could go on to list a thousand more songs from the 1960s that objectify women, but I have a word count, and I think you get the picture. The fact of the matter is, if you’re looking at songs about women that came out in the ‘60s, you’re going to get a heck of a lot more that talk about how pretty a girl is than how smart or strong she is.

In fact, it seems that the only songs about strong women…were performed by women. These are the women that are hardly ever judged or objectified based on what they’re wearing, or what a nice, cute girlfriend they are, out of respect of their sheer talent. Aretha Franklin didn’t need a man to write a song about her in an itsy-bitsy bikini, because she was out there belting her lungs out, singing about true love and heartache.

A few years later, in the midst of the Summer of Love in 1967, a sexual revolution occurred, and women became even more freed from their gendered societal norms. Here’s where it gets tricky: some women musicians started to take charge of their own bodies and embrace their sexuality. And some started to try to appeal to male audiences by sexualizing themselves, which has remained widely prevalent in today’s music industry (think back to Britney Spears, as well as Katy Perry, Ke$ha, etc.)

At this time, please remember that there is a line between embracing your sexuality and sexualization. It’s one thing to take charge of your own body, but it’s another to have the media do it for you via objectification. The sexual revolution’s changing of norms for women led the music industry’s sexualization into the 1970s – and into another blog.