Monday, February 3, 2014

Miley on Madonna, Rihanna on Shakira: My Problem with Pop's Straight-Guy Lesbian Fantasies

Frankly, I'm over it. And considering that I'm a red-blooded gay male, who can blame me? Unless they're bitch-slapping each other on General Hospital or Days of Our Lives, watching two women put their hands all over each other will never ever be my cup of fruit juice.

"I Kissed a Girl" was one thing. As much as I despised Katy Perry's 2008 No. 1 debut, I could appreciate it as a fluffy celebration of sapphic sexuality that wasn't ultimately about a boy. In fact, say what you will about Katy Perry's music and her onstage persona, but I've got to give her this much: She might be the girliest of major female pop stars, but she's never seemed to exist solely to turn on the males of the species.

Shock antics have never been her style either. Even when she was selling sex, as she did most unabashedly in her 2010 "California Gurls" video, it came across as being as tongue-in-cheek as her candy-colored wigs and misspelling of "girls." She was simultaneously paying homage to outsized female sexuality and sending it up, like a pre-Girls West Coast Lena Dunham.

That's what separates her from so many of her female pop peers. For someone like Miley Cyrus, the music and the message (in a nutshell, hands in the air like we don't care) have become incidental to the midriff. Her songs are now merely background noise for her exhibitionism.

With her recent MTV Unplugged, Miley had the perfect opportunity to reinvent herself once more by refocusing solely on her artistry, but she can't seem to get over her own crotch. I had to watch her and Madonna duetting on a mash-up of Madonna's 2000 hit "Don't Tell "Me" and Cyrus's 2013 smash "We Can't Stop" through my fingers because I couldn't bear to watch the spectacle full-on. (Click here to see it for yourself.)

Vocally, the two pop stars were pretty spot-on, but it was a visual nightmare, starting with Miley's clashing cross-pollination of three distinct Madonna style phases: late '80s bleach-blonde baby-chick Madonna (circa True Blue), early '90s body-baring sex-obsessed Madonna (circa Erotica), and turn-of-the-century cowgirl Madonna (circa Music). Um, who's that girl?

Madonna was half a decade older than Miley is now when she became a star in the mid-'80s, so that might explain why she always had a firmer grip on who she was and who she wasn't. While Madonna was going through her "I don't give a fuck" phase circa 1992 (the year Miley was born!), posing provocatively with women like Naomi Campbell and Isabella Rossellini in her Sex book, her photographic dalliances seemed authentic. She's never been a great actress, but she sold us on her lesbian tendencies.

No matter how much Miley gyrates up against a slightly embarrassed-looking Madonna (who appeared far more at ease making out with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards than she did struggling to create a sexual spark with a girl 34 years her junior who has only been old enough to legally drink since November), it's always obvious where her sexual interests lie. She's all about boys, and everything she does she does to get a rise out of them.

Ditto Shakira and Rihanna in their new duet, "I Forgot to Remember," three and a half minutes of color by numbers dance-pop that seems to exist solely to give Shakira and Rihanna an excuse to writhe around together on a bed, scantily clad, in a pose eerily reminiscent of the one she and Beyoncé struck in the clip for their 2007 duet "Beautiful Liar". "Who needs men when we've got each other?" the song-and-video combo seems to be screaming, while obsessively courting the opposite sex.

Presumably, the goal here is to be provocative and rebellious while promoting girl-on-girl power, but the effect, is actually the opposite. Straight girls have been switching it up for so long now, that bicuriosity has become almost cliche. There's no longer anything provocative or rebellious about one straight girl cuddling up to another, which would be bad news indeed for Katy Perry if she were just coming out today.

As it is, she might owe her entire career to perfect timing. Had she released a debut single called "I Kissed a Girl" in 2014, it probably wouldn't have gone anywhere. Nobody would have cared. Pretend bisexuality is no longer a revolutionary statement if you're a woman in pop, Lady Gaga has seen to that.

Now if Justin Timberlake were to kiss a boy and like it in his next single, well, that would be a revolution. Dream on, though. Macklemore may be down with gay marriage in "Same Love," but don't expect to see him and Ryan Lewis bumping and grinding into each other in a video anytime soon. What's good for the goose isn't necessarily good for the gander. In fact, it could very well be career suicide.

It's a double standard that, for once, works in favor of the ladies. Lesbian antics won't make or break anyone's career anymore, but they're still good for more publicity, more YouTube hits, more downloads on iTunes. It's lesbianism as a familiar business model. By making it a marketing gimmick, women in pop buy into the creaky traditions that have dictated the interests of ambitious female performers for decades, using sex to sell and playing to straight-male fantasies. It's blackface without the demeaning properties, appropriating from one group for the entertainment pleasure of the opposite one.

Miley and Madonna and Shakira and Rihanna may be touching themselves and each other, but they're still catering to the same old same old: straight horny men.
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