What Happened to Ciara?: R&B and the New Sex Entrepreneur

It seems like it was just yesterday when little Ciara was singing an ode to the benefits of keeping one’s cookies in the jar.  Six years later,  her now delicately cultivated sexual Lolita image has been either co-opted or manipulated into outright hedonistic vixen.  I for one am not happy about it.  With  her recently slumping album sales, this new level of sexuality reeked of desperation and was bad form for a clearly talented young woman.

I was extremely disappointed with the video for her gym friendly single “Gimme Dat”.  The single has her once again leveraging the southern fried hip-hop laced stylings that put her on the map, except this time around the audience is distracted from the intricate choreography and gravity defying dance moves that made her famous.  Instead, we find her in a full sexual spectacle popping it on a handstand, gyrating, and clad in her underwear dancing in the rain.  Her dancing is amazing, but the imagery makes her come off like a glorified pole dancer; she even performs much of the dancing in the ubiquitious stipper shoe—the glass heel.

Make no mistake that this exotic dancer/stripper imagery is by design. It is not an accident.   With the recent popularity of Amber Rose, Maliah—others, it makes sense that the largely patriarchal music industry sees an economic opportunity in co-opting the images of its female R&B starlets to  evoke a similar aesthetic.

I do not want to get all judgmental big sister on Ciara because sexuality has always had its place in R&B and soul, but there is a thin line between sexy and trashy.  Take for instance, Christina Milian.  She was carefully managing the naughty good girl image—up and until—her video for “Dip It Low” found her sliding across the floor and gyrating in pools of oil.  Her singing career tanked soon there after.  Even Janet Jackson—the master of the naughty good girl image—couldn’t survive the nipple slip seen round the world.  She blurred the line between trashy and classy for a good run, but one near fatal move finds her musical career barely gasping for life.

With Rihanna giving us a lot of manufactured S&M imagery and both Keri Hilson and Kelly Rowland  following much of the same path, it seems to succeed the modern R&B star must become a sex entrepreneur.  She must balance equal parts talent, sexuality and purity−so as not to appear “deflowered” to their male fans (see inside image of Rihanna’s Loud CD). This seemingly impossible challenge has been mastered by few.  Remarkably, Beyonce has managed to walk this tightrope for over a decade—balancing sex kitten, with empowered feminist, diva, and business woman.

I would hate to prematurely morn the loss of Ciara, as I believe she has the time and talent to rebrand and redeem her image.  I am not suggesting she take the sex out, but instead she remember the importance of artistic integrity to her fan base.  She is certainly not a strong vocalist like a Melanie Fiona or a Jennifer Hudson, but she was well positioned to inherit a Jacksoneque like role as a consummate entertainer.

So what do you think?  Are the sexualized images of R&B stars like Ciara, Rihanna, Rowland and Hilson simply the norm now for a music industry plagued by poor album sells?  Does legitimate talent allow artists to avoid the trappings of the over-sexualized image?  Does the male consumer drive this trend or are women—as consumers—equally responsible for our representations?


Hair Today Gone Tommorow…The Boldness of Baldness

Chrisette Michelle '"For Freedom, Not Beauty"

I did not exactly shave all my hair off  last year, but I came really close.  I was going through a period of transition and I hastily decided everything needed to be simplified.   So I rushed to the barbershop and asked the wonderful barber, who remains my guy ’till this very day, to just shave it all off.   He is so cute; I think I keep it low just to see him sometimes, but I digress.   Cutting my hair  was a harrowing experience, but very freeing.  I looked at my little boy bald head and thought wow,  no hair.  Sitting in the barber chair, staring at my now huge eyes and prominent nose, I began to questioned myself:  is this the same me?   Can I be pretty without hair?  Will men find me attractive?  The latter concern was of course reinforced after  my dad protested my decision, saying ” Why would you do that?…Men don’t like  women without hair”.

I’ll have him know that much to the contrary, I’ve found many do.

When I shaved my hair, I was not making a political statement or seeking to adopt any trend; it was more about a personal journey.  Taking off your hair, as a woman is like removing a security blanket.  Society is so hair obsessed that opting out can be viewed as revolutionary, even if one’s motivations are purely economical.

While I was not out to subscribe to a particular counterculture beauty aesthetic, I got to tell you not having hair is truly liberating.  There is real freedom in not having to go the hair salon and sit under the dryer  for hours, or fuel the cream crack economy.   Yet, I am now facing a real conundrum: to grow back or not to grow back that is the question.   My confidence journey is well-played out now having been hairless for close to a year and I want options, but at the same time options can be costly in time and treasure.  Plus I love the way a new shave feels on my scalp. However, I tired of men rubbing my head at public events.  I am short and I think they feel warranted to do so.  Yet I am stating unequivocally that it is not endearing, but instead, very jarring; so please stop it!

Chrisette Michelle, who recently decided to go low, has a wonderful poem entitled “For Freedom Not Beauty” on her website .  The poem is about her choice to shorn her locks.  In the poem, she asked the question, “Since when is creativity subject to criticism?”  In response to Michelle, I would argue since the invention of “the critic”. However, I too  was floored when Solange Knowles was berated in the and blogosphere last year for her choice to shave off  all her hair.

I found it odd folks were not happy with her “personal” choice.  Magazines accused her of doing a “Britney” and blogs were even more cruel.  Perhaps the criticism was because the original cut was such a hack job,or because she was seen in a wig at a public shortly after the bold move was made, or simply because there is just a lot of Solange resistance out there (methinks misdirected anti-beyonce sentiment?) .  In response Knowles stated:

“I guess you just go through different phases in your life. I was pretty much at the point where I needed the change and I needed to focus my energy on more productive arenas. I was putting too much into my appearance and I needed to make this about growth and going to the next stage of my life. I felt like I was being distracted by something as simple as hair.”

Here, here Solange.  Ironically, Solange’s sister, Beyonce is responsible for a lot of what is going on with hair culture now in my opinion.  As pop-stars and celebutantes like the Kardashians, Ciara, and Ms. B get these larger than life weaves, it sets unrealistic beauty standards in the real-world.  Women are getting all kinds of lace fronts, wigs, weaves, extensions to replicate this idealized hair aesthetic and even it isn’t real.  It is certainly not a realistic beauty standard for a lot of Black women, who are so often told to embrace and emulate western standards of attractiveness, if they want to be accepted.

Last year, I saw Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” shortly after getting my haircut off and it made me feel even more empowered.  Watching the film, I learned hair is a big business and it is a business whose revenues are seen largely outside of the Black community. I try to support “Carol’s Daughter” and other black vendors with that thought in mind.  However, I need hair to buy black hair products — it is a predicament indeed.  So what should I do?  While I make my decision, its comforting knowing I have at least one fan.   On the blog Beautiful Black Woman – Thoughts of a White B’woy, a site dedicated to uplifting and honoring the beauty of Black women around the world, blogger Andreas post:

Fact: The only women that looks good in shaved/bald hair/head are the black women. This fact is strictly subjective and reflect only my view. But hey, black bald women can be really fine! 🙂

Hair today or gone tomorrow? I need your help.


Lady Gaga’s Telephone Video – A Pop-Culture Play Land

With her new video for the single Telephone, Lady Gaga blends art, consumerism, sex, violence, media,  and a little Beyoncé and creates a smart and refreshing nod to post-modern surrealism.  Directed by Jonas Åkerlund, the cultural references abound in this beautifully photgraphed and controversial video.  They are so plentiful that MTV.com has provided you with not one, but two pop-cultural cheat sheets to help you over-analyze the video—first premiering on MTV and then later rumored to have been banned from the network.  

For its part, MTV.com is reporting that the video has not been banned from MTV and will continue to run on the station (when and if they do decide to actually play music videos). If MTV had banned the video, it is arguable to whether they would have been justified.  The network regularly features girl on girl violence (and even guy on girl violence, i.e. Snooki’s lament), girl on girl kissing, blurred nudity, and blatant product placement.  I mean seriously, all this can happen in one segment of the Real World.  The Lady Gaga video does all this, but in an old is new again way that should please her fan base.  If you are not sufficiently offended, Gaga also gives you a crotch shot, barely covered mammaries, a mass murder, heavy lesbian innuendo, and blatant nods to S&M.  Perhaps the most offensive thing about the video to some circles will be its obvious feminist critque.

The video goes far beyond I am woman hear me roar; its more like I am woman watch me use equal parts sex and violence to erase male social, cultural, and economic dominance…or to just kill.  Tyrese’s character objectified a woman patron and is shortly there after poisoned to death.  Black widow indeed.  Goodbye hegemonic masculinity; hello girl on girl make out session and tortuously high stiletto boots…right?  Perhaps not so barrier breaking after all , nevertheless the experts have plenty of content to analyze, under a feminist critique.

Gaga channels everyone from Gwen Stefani and Madonna to Michael Jackson and  Marilyn Manson.  Beyoncé gets in on the fun giving us a little Bettie Page and fueling rumors that she will indeed be our next Wonder Woman.  We also get a little Thelma & Louise action, a lot of Quentin Tarantino, and I seeing the influence of Baltimore film director John Waters (Cry Baby, Hairspray, as well. 

What else rocks about this video?  The fashion.  The shoes alone are worth a watching the entire almost ten minute long video at least twice. The video showcases everything from literally smoking spectacles (which chic, crazy, and ironic).  If cigarettes are indeed currency in jail, then the shades Gaga is rocking are like jailhouse Gucci. Also, be sure to checkout Gaga’s black and white graphic suit and insanely large fedora.  Beyoncé rocks a yellow strapless patent leather number with a matching cowgirl hat that is just fashion eye candy.

This video is what Madonna would have done today, if she weren’t heavy into yoga, Kabbalah, and mothering orphans.  Its not safe, but its critique of social norms is so deafeningly loud its goes beyond simply courting controversy.  I think maybe Gaga was looking to get banned?  I mean the rumors will definitely help the songs popularity and raise curiosity about the video. 

So what did you think? Does Telephone ring your bell or gravely offend you?  Is Lady Gaga diva or devil?  Did Lady Gaga manage to make Beyoncé interesting or at least not so safe?  Was this pop-culture commentary or overkill?


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