I’ll be hearing the chorus to Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” in my head for weeks after just a few spins of her very funny, very acid new single “Hard Out Here.” “If you’re not a size 6, then you’re not good looking/Well you better be rich or be real good at cooking/You should probably lose some weight ’cause we can’t see your bones/You should probably fix your face or you’ll end up on your own,” she sings, tongue firmly implanted in cheek. “Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?/Have you thought about your butt, who’s gonna tear it in two?/We’ve never had it so good, uh huh, we’re out of the woods/And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you’ve misunderstood.”
The video is simultaneously pastiche and critique, referencing everything from Robin Thicke’s discussions of his anatomy in balloon writing to Miley Cyrus’ use of twerking African-American backup dancers as objects, and linguistically playing off Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp.” And as apt as the song and video feel now, it’s also part of a long tradition of female pop stars whose brands rely on the idea that they’re different from their fellow pop tarts making music and videos that explicitly swipe at the conventions of their industry.
Pink did it for the first time with “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” a track off her second album, Missundaztood . That record was explicitly an attempt to discipline her from her debut, Can’t Take Me Home, which took advantage of her contralto range and R&B talents to package her as a down white girl, slipping hip-hop slang into her lyrics, dressing her in baggy athleticwear, and pairing her with non-white love interests in her videos, in contrast to the girlier images assigned to her counterparts like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. “LA told me, ‘You’ll be a pop star,'” she sings in the first verse, in possible reference to the city or to L.A. Reid, who founded Pink’s label, LaFace records. “‘All you have to change is everything you are.’ / Tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears / She’s so pretty, that just ain’t me.”
The song went on to place the entertainment industry’s drive towards conformity in a larger social context.
Jewel’s “Intuition” followed in 2003, with a similar use of backup dancers with hyperkinetic backsides, and a critique of advertising culture married to a message of self-empowerment. “You learn cool from magazines,” she warned listeners, against a backdrop of logos and contrived modeling and music video setups. “You learn love from Charlie Sheen.”
And Pink followed up in 2006 with “Stupid Girls,” which took aim at everything from consumer culture, to social conditioning and beauty culture, to participation in demeaning cultural products, specifically 50 Cent videos and sex tapes:
As much as it’s cathartic to see songs like these get released by artists on major labels, and to see those artists get major-label money to make videos to promote them as singles, watching a decade of these critiques makes a couple of things clear.
First, there’s something a bit uncomfortable about a trendline running through these songs: many of the examples of sexualization of women that these white female singers are rejecting are either black women’s bodies, or African-American cultural influences. In “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” Pink is throwing off the advice of an African-American record executive. Jewel, oddly, complains that “All the powers that rule this land / They say Miss J’s big butt is boss / Kate Moss can’t find a job,” a critique that seems oddly detached from the damage that Moss’ heroin chic did to American women’s collective body image. Pink’s swipe at 50 Cent, and by extension, video vixens, ignores the limited trajectories into the entertainment industry for women of color, much less the agency of headliners like Lil Kim, or more recently, Azealia Banks.
At least “Hard Out Here” suggests a more complicated dynamic, with a white, middle-aged record industry executive tutoring both Allen and her backup dancers in the arts of twerking, suggestively scrubbing rims, eating bananas, and the flashing of cash. If you’re going to suggest that pernicious trends in popular culture have a tendency to emerge from African-American-dominated cultural forms, it’s nice to see an artist at least acknowledge that those trends are as constructed, exported, and monetized to at least as great an extent as Britney Spears’ midriff. In “Hard Out Here,” the argument is not that black women and their sexuality are somehow poisoning innocent white women, or that black female sexuality is animalistic. Rather, Allen’s suggesting that the entertainment industry is well aware of the power of both putting that sexuality on display and of having white women perform similarly to African-American women, though in clear contrast to them.
Then there’s the larger question of what these critiques are meant to intend. Jewel’s suggestion that her listeners should “Follow your heart / Your intuition / It will lead you in the right direction / Let go of your mind / Your Intuition / It’s easy to find / Just follow your heart baby,” and liberate themselves from the cultural conditioning of advertising is hilarious. It’s even funnier, and even sadder, if this is meant to be instructions on how to achieve a successful entertainment industry career that also leaves you satisfied that your integrity is intact. Similarly, refusing to be a “stupid girl,” or rejecting the specific prettiness of “damn Britney Spears,” still leaves plenty of room for compromise. Allen may warn that “If you’re not a size 6, then you’re not good looking,” but the real number is probably more like a 2, and even with a post-pregnancy body, she’s still rocking highly fashionable clothes and the kind of hyper-feminine hair and makeup that have always been part of her self-presentation. This isn’t revolution, it’s reform, and relatively mild reform at that.
The truth is that, as much as I adore Pink and Lily Allen in particular, artists like them and songs like these effectively function as a pressure valve for Big Music. By giving these women money and a platform to critique the industry in which they’ve succeeded, large labels prove exactly how tolerant and expansive they are, while continuing on their merry way to make the kind of music and images Allen, Jewel, and Pink deplore. Or as Allen puts it in “Hard Out Here,” “Inequality promises that it is here to stay/Always trust the injustice because it’s not going away.” The very existence of “Hard Out Here” is a reminder of just how true that is.