‘Pop’ started off burgeoning itself on funk and beat and groove and appeal. As with all other forms of ‘popular’ art, in music too, the popular aimed at differentiation from the ‘classical’ in terms of mass appeal. The term gradually got attached to a distinct genre of its own. The original term ‘pop music’ came into use in the 1950s’ Britain and covered into its foray genres like rock and others that had the youth primarily for its target base. Soon onto the late 60s, precisely from 1967, ‘pop’ garnered increasing opposition from the label of ‘rock’ as the latter still focused on the ‘authenticity’ and possibilities of ‘expansion’ of musical scope. Pop slowly got mired in the avenues of the ‘commercial’ and easily ‘accessible’. It became more of a musical ‘enterprise’ than an ‘artistic genre’. According to British musicologist Simon Frith, Pop comes from a place “not driven by any significant ambition except profit and commercial reward and, in musical terms, it is essentially conservative”.
Popular art primarily evolved as a counter-reaction to more abstractionist forms of art that were considered to serve an elite audience base. The emergence of popular music, like several other art forms, can be traced back to the rise of industrialization and the birth of capitalism. As people’s lives paced up faster with dwindling time for luxuriating in aesthetics, the impact started being felt in art as well. Flash-forward to a far more complex neo-capitalism of the millennia. Walkman and earphones are the shrouds from the daily noises of our external lives and the essential melancholia of our internal lives. We need an equal dose of noise banging our eardrums to keep both at bay, be it in the metro or inside the car. Beats are the modern-day elixir.
Audio with the Video
Now coming to the present-day music industry, melody or that part of music evoking sheer auditory pleasure is quite reduced. The senses to which music appeals are far adulterated. Commercial music today is far more visual than auditory. It has to be more of a performance, visually stimulating than pure sound. Music videos have been an in thing for decades. In fact, their rise of the music video in its modern sense can be attributed to the post-MTV era. Today,neo-capitalism is the dregs of the pop industry and media has been taken over by a cultural rev(u)lution of exhibitionism, placing oddly proportioned focus on bodies and faces. Propeller by a need to tell a story, music videos today are compilations of fragmentary distilled frames having in focus body parts(a lot of times employing the female body as a tool) in movement.
What the ‘video’ comprises
If one looks carefully at the hit singles released by famous pop-starts globally or in India, men are primarily accosted by several female bodies put on display for enhancing the visual appeal. It is mostly women in specified postures, seated or standing but poised in fashions similar to mannequins without ‘doing’ much. If it’s a female voice, then the video mainly focuses on capturing a perfect face (usually of the singer, but coming to that politics later) in different angles and shots, in frames of very many lightings. All in order to capture perfect stills of facial or full body shots assimilated to narrate a complete display of the model’s full-frame in different manners of being. The singer is more the model than the voice.
Female forms in music videos
Consider an Indian example, The Doorbeen. It is a three-song old band comprising of two musical brothers who sing and shoot their own music and videos. Consider their recent release called ‘Prada’. Recall all the frames in which you see Alia Bhatt and there won’t be much scope for imagining much action for her. Commodification in music videos has been a thing of yore. However, more recent musical emergents try to distill the formula in ways of their own. Instead of cutting up the body into the more sexually explicit parts, here we have the whole of it exacted and subjects to the gaze. Consider the popular singer Ananya Birla. Many of her music videos comprise only of her face shown in a maximum range of three different angles highlighting that conjunction of her facial features that makes for the perfect golden ratio on camera while the music rolls at the distant.
Nicki, Cardi, Grande
Now moving on to international standards. Ariana Grande is an icon in herself and her self is restricted to a singular image in the eyes of music consumers. The top-knotted high ponytail and gorgeously straight hair flowing down her back. The focus rarely shifts from the fairy-tale-like face even in her videos. And so is it for almost all-female pop stars.
Let’s also consider very popular icons like Nicki or Cardi. We surely have to give them the due for taking center stage when it comes to African-American representation with the female body taking the lead voice. Rap has usually seen male performers surrounded by females sharing stage solely in a decorative essence. Minaj and Cardi have toppled those roles by controlling how their own bodies ought to be viewed by the larger public gaze. Yet modern female rapsters bring forth yet another problematic dynamics to popular music today. That is the balance between the body and the voice. How much of exhibitionism is required for the purpose of making music consumable? Is bodily display too ingrained with business stratagem that music production stays impossible for mass consumption when it’s just the voice we hear without visual accompaniments?
What’s with the excess?
Female pop stars themselves have to look at the exaggerations and fantasies that modern-day media representations and images of female bodies demand. The pressure on female musicians to look good has been an ever-present thing whether they sing in concerts or pubs or independent gigs. In fact, several independent singers testify to having half of their earnings spent on maintaining their wardrobe that seems a necessity for any commercial performance. The pressure to look ‘perfect’, ‘flawless’ forms on stage is also a big presence in K-Pop art. One would distinctly remember each and every face from the popular boy band BTS or girl band S. E. S. Flawless and petite, a big draw up of consuming music is consuming visuals and displays of what the industry has labeled as the ‘perfect’ representation of the body. The very fashionable BTS has their wardrobe costing a whopping 20,000 USD, most of it procured through their own expenses.
Losing the ‘voice’
The music industry in large parts is responsible for creating unrealistic body images and standards. However, in all countries,a majority percentage of the population consumes Pop. More than 50% in the USA. While the India, with Bollywood being the dominant industry Indianised rap constitutes the popular and comes only second in mass impact if one does a word-of-mouth survey.
We rarely recognize musicians by voices. How they look is what counts the most. That is how pop icons come into being as popular music consumption depends heavily on visual appeal and fabricated media standards of the perfect shapes and perfect forms.