Shimmering synths and breathy vocals seem to be the only distinct punctuations on Ariana Grande’s decidedly safe new record, “Positions.” However, between blissed-out sex anthems are a few tongue-in-cheek jabs at the music industry, starting with her ponytail.
Though trivial on the surface, the album’s standout R&B groove fest “My Hair” serves as a direct send-up of Ariana’s image. The lyrics: “To run your hands through my hair/Baby, ’cause that’s why it’s there” are a clear allusion to the most recognizable part of her public persona. They frame the ponytail in the same hyper-fixated way that love songs praise the body. Which pokes fun at how parts of her image are fetishized in the media.
She isn’t new to this type of in-joking either. In an earlier 2016 Grande track “Jason’s Song,” the references to her over-the-top hairstyle are abundant. With lyrics like: “You focused your frustration on a small detail/Blew it out of scale, like my ponytail.”Ariana Grande is clearly a self-aware artist who realizes that besides her immense vocal ability, her fame comes from her ability to associate.
Hoodies, thigh highs, cat ears, and of course, ponytails, are all visual cues so deeply entrenched in the cutesy-cool Grande brand—they’ve become shorthand parody for the singer. As much as Grande seems to disdain these impersonations, it’s no coincidence that her merchandise is plastered with the updo.
Her top-charting singles and market dominance partially come from her ability to create a “trustworthy” and idealistic feminine brand. Madonna and Gaga have been doing it with their respective blonde bobs and lingerie sets for years prior. Ariana knows that a pop diva’s image must be curated to near-perfection in order to find autonomy in an overcrowded industry.
Double standards in the music industry
This objectification of the female image has clear roots in the still male-dominated music industry.
Out of thirteen major record labels, only one is run by a woman as of 2019. Which includes media giant Universal Music Group, a company with zero women running any of their frontline labels. Additionally, only 2% of the top music producers are women. None of them have ever worked on an Ariana Grande project.
Under this patriarchal system, it’s not surprising that visual perfection dominates female pop as opposed to sonic distinction. People expect even megastars like Beyonce to dance like a professional, look visually stunning, and market themselves through activewear. A capitalistic balancing act that’s nearly non-human—and people still manage to cry “overrated.”
Yet, male singers in the music industry have the luxury of not having to maintain their image. For example, someone like Ed Sheeran often performs in beaten-up flannels and maintains a very light social media presence. But, he still manages to be one of the most widely beloved and all-time streamed pop artists ever.
These clear double standards show that women have to operate under a male gaze in order to find success. Thus, making it not just normal for pop stars to have to appeal to fantasy, but a requirement.
Taking back the image
Despite the harrowing statistics that make female empowerment within the music industry look like a pipe dream, many starlets have made it work.
Take the recent summer phenomenon, “WAP.” In this track, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion manage to subvert the degrading language typically aimed at women. Through explicit lyrics and the accompanying video, both Cardi and Megan position their bodies in a controlled, aware display. These artists focused on their own pleasure instead of a man’s. Essentially, they found a way to look back at the looker.
I can argue that Grande also reclaimed pleasure on her record. In addition to the interrogation of her public image, she also takes agency over her sexuality with verses like, “Can you stay up all night?/Fuck me ’til the daylight/Thirty-four, thirty-five.” Which shows her as the active party, pursuing desire instead of simply being the object of it.
Hair, bodies, and clothing have thus become the self-reflexive defense for women under the tight scrutiny of the music industry. At this point, pop stars know what you see and they don’t really care anymore.
Not quite victorious
While Grande’s humorous embrace of her public persona could speak to a new wave of artistic authority in female pop music, it’s a clear anomaly.
These starlets possess an incredible amount of wealth and in Grande’s case, white privilege. She can easily game the system by playing it. Most female artists attempting to enter the industry do not have this type of advantage. Especially women of color. The mold of visual appeal is still an abusive way to box in female artists, who may not ever have the opportunity to break free in a system mostly helmed by white men.
Ariana Grande and other pop superstars of today didn’t create the oppressive environments they work within. However, the fact that their brazenness only appears at the very height of their careers speaks volumes about the degrading work that they probably had to put in for years prior.
But, it’s worth noting that Ariana has credits as both the sound engineer and the vocal arranger of the record. This gives hope that actual creative control could be possible. With someone that powerful bucking the trend, who knows? Maybe even more “positions” might open up for women in the music industry sooner, rather than later.