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Music in 2019: My Body Isn’t A Cage

Yeow Kai Chai on the upending of gender, body image and communication channels.


Published: 29 Nov 2019

Time taken : ~10mins

From Billie Eilish to BTS, pop artists are breaking out of the boundaries

Summing up the music of 2019 is, in real time, a fool’s errand, not when the terms are shifting fast, or have simply evaporated in front of our eyes. The scene has changed so irrevocably over the past decade, it is barely recognisable from the pre-millennial days where record corporations held a steely grip over musicians.

The music body politic is being altered with power slowly being transferred back to the artist—thanks to the democratisation of digital music-making and distribution, and its resulting affordability. This is also mirrored in the way the artists take charge of how they want to present themselves directly to their listeners.

The year 2019 marks the turning point, with the Gen Z brigade (Clairo, Cuco, Omar Apollo, King Princess, Lauv, Conan Gray, Snail Mail) leading the music revolution by jettisoning the rule book and writing their own destinies. They achieve this by mastering social media platforms and wresting back artistic (and business) control from label honchos. Gen Z refers to post-millennials, or those born between the late 1990s to the early 2010s.

Another zinger came in early 2019 in the form of a country-rap oddity called Old Town Road by 20-year-old American rapper Lil Nas X. He created about 100 memes out of his song on TikTok, a Chinese short-form video social media app which would be baffling to anyone aged over 25. The track blew up in response to the #Yeehaw challenge on the app, with millions of users generating endless copies of their own. In the challenge, someone stands in front of the camera during the song’s introductory banjo plucks. After gulping some mystical beverage labelled “yeehaw juice,” he or she is suddenly transformed into a cowboy or a cowgirl, dressed in cowboy hats, plaid shirts and/or jean shorts, after the beat drops. The song ended up No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

The year thus signals the dawn of a generation of adroit digital natives who disregard old institutions, negotiate new channels of communication, and interrogate such precepts as body image and gender representation. Along the way, they erase the distance between artist and fan—blithely sharing likes and dislikes on various peer-to-peer platforms—just like everyone else their age.

Social media and anti-image

The Face of 2019 is, bar none, Billie Eilish, a 17-year-old home-schooled prodigy from Los Angeles and the first artist born in the 2000s to top the Billboard 200.

In 2015, she posted a track Ocean Eyes, co-written with her brother Finneas, onto SoundCloud, singing of “burning cities and napalm skies/fifteen flares inside those ocean eyes.” The song hit a nerve. She’s now on everyone’s lips—she has 42.2 million followers on Instagram, and is the most streamed female artist on Spotify at the point of writing. Latest evidence of her ascent: She was nominated for six Grammy nods, together with fellow Gen Z-er Lil Nas X, who also landed six, and another game-changer, Lizzo, 31, who got eight.

With her urban goth-meets-Harley Quinn get-up, Eilish is the natural evolution from Lorde, the New Zealand artist who is still only 23, both of whom trade in unlovely emotions rendered in horrorcore visuals. (That also aligns her with earlier iterations of moody sirens like Fiona Apple and Sinead O’Connor, who, revealingly, were treated worse, and even ostracised for similar indiscretions.)

Advisory: Featured songs may contain disturbing imagery and explicit lyrics.

Eilish is a defiantly unsmiling, droopy-eyed riposte to the high-energy, slickly-choreographed Britney bunnies from a generation earlier—as well as a challenge to the current coterie of slim-fit princesses who have been drilled by television since young, such as Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Camila Cabello.

Whereas pop nymphets in the past were expected to behave and be on-point (see the backlash to Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show), Eilish is not. She shares freely about her Tourette’s syndrome and sleep paralysis; talks about animal rights and climate change; and laments that the older generation has royally messed up. The image, or rather, anti-image, is also reflected in her contrarian need to be “real” and relatable, yet also maintain privacy. To prevent body-shaming, for instance, she prefers baggy, ill-fitting clothing—something her legions of teenage girl fans also swear by.

Whereas Eilish comes across broody and not a little scary, Massachusetts native Clairo, now 21, is the music equivalent of mumblecore. In fact, she was crowned recently as the “mumbling voice of Generation Z” by no less than Pitchfork.

She had uploaded a (literally) home-made video in August 2017 to YouTube for Pretty Girl, a lo-fi anti-ballad about trying to be perfect for a partner, while not being true to oneself. Webcam-recorded in her own bedroom, she made goofy moves only people would do when no one was watching, acne dots still visible on her face. The clip catapulted her to Internet fame, amassing a staggering near-43 million views thus far.

She went on an Asian tour, performed in Singapore in March 2019, and released her debut studio album Immunity, co-produced by former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, to critical acclaim in August.

For Clairo, posting her originals onto Bandcamp and SoundCloud pages, are initially more like a diary, “just a private thing, a space for me to express myself,” she told Pitchfork. “It wasn’t until Pretty Girl that I really understood that it wasn’t so private.” She continues to respond to fans’ comments online, sharing her struggle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis as well as her sexual identity.

The body as reclamation

The body thus has become a symbol—a crucible—for the musician, in an act of reclamation and assertion.

Existential questions, cutting across creed, colour and gender, have replaced materialist pursuits. Take Brooklyn newcomer Mikaela Strauss, better known as King Princess, who names her debut, Cheap Queen, and appears on the album cover in drag make-up.

The title is borrowed from the world of drag queens, referring to someone who is extremely resourceful, making something out of not very much. Her music video, Prophet, features her in culturally loaded guises, from an American footballer to a construction worker to her body splayed on a table as a cake as people dig in.

Aside from the Z-Pack, another artist making waves this year is Lizzo, Grammy’s latest darling, and a bodacious, plus-sized and genre-fluid singer from Detroit. She advocates body-positivity and is quick to call out the double standard whenever she gets called “brave” for wearing a bikini, or doing the same things a skinny woman, such as actress Anne Hathaway, would do without being labelled as such.

Lizzo credits social media and the Internet for diversifying concepts of beauty. “Back in the day, all you really had were the modelling agencies. I think that’s why it made everything so limited for what was considered beautiful. It was controlled from this one space,” she told Glamour magazine.

“But now we have the Internet. So if you want to see somebody who’s beautiful who looks like you, go on the Internet and just type something in. Type in ‘blue hair.’ Type in ‘thick thighs.’ Type in ‘back fat.’ You’ll find yourself reflected. That’s what I did to help find the beauty in myself.”

– Lizzo

In Singapore, electro-pop artist Jasmine Sokko does not flaunt her looks—she wears masks so that people can focus on her music first. She has become one of the most-streamed Singaporean female singers on Spotify, after Stefanie Sun, Tanya Chua, Olivia Ong, and before Kit Chan. In February 2019, she made to No. 4 at Rave Now, the Chinese online reality electronic music show—the only Singaporean female competing in the finals, and yes, she was wearing a visor.

As she told Bandwagon Asia, “Back then when EDM was slowly rising, the perception of putting a girl and EDM together was a busty DJ. I didn’t like that. So, for me, the mask is, ‘Yes. I might be a girl but listen to my music.’ ”

The women aren’t the only ones affected by this new gender understanding. In the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, men are compelled to take a hard look. While the West grapples with toxic masculinity which involves “suppressing emotions or masking distress” and using “violence as an indicator of power,” as The New York Times defines, an alternative rises in the East with a new breed of Asian boybands, epitomised by male K-pop groups. They are casually skewering the notion with their unabashed attention to make-up, skin-care and personal grooming.

“The way male K-pop idols present themselves, it’s very different from the traditional masculinity we see in the American mainstream,” said Crystal S. Anderson, a Longwood University professor who studies K-pop, in an interview for a New York-based digital platform StyleCaster. “They pay a lot of attention to the way they look. The way their hair is styled. The clothes they wear. That’s not something that’s often attached to traditional American masculinity.”

BTS, K-pop’s biggest and prettiest boyband, is one champion turning masculinity on its head. They broke America and sparked fervent water-cooler conversations about male representation. This year alone, they made history twice—they became the first-ever South Korean musical guest to appear on the popular American show Saturday Night Live (on April 13), and they sold out tickets to their first-ever US stadium show on 6 October in 20 minutes after tickets went on sale.

Appropriately, in the age of the Internet, their historic feats went viral. The hashtag #BTSxSNL, for example, was No. 1 on Twitter worldwide from the top of their Saturday night TV performance through early Sunday morning.

The listener is the maker is the marketeer

And so, the march into the 2020s: the erasure of old ways of consumption, music-making and identification will expedite with the digital reach into all aspects of our lives.

In September, the London-based music-industry body, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), released a music-listening report which surveyed 34,000 people in 21 countries. It shows that 89 per cent of respondents now use some kind of audio-streaming service, and that 64 per cent listen to music through audio-streaming services in the last month. The latter statistic is a leap from 57 per cent a year ago.

There will be inter-media pollination: podcasts, meditative soundtracks and generative music (created by algorithms and computers) are some hybrid platforms where music crosses over into channels, such as gaming, fashion, and philosophy.

Artificial intelligence (A.I.) is the great leveller. It will also make previously costly, tiresome, and complex processes, easily available and potentially free across music creation and marketing. This effectively cancels out the middlemen. From mass consumption to mass creation, listeners are empowered to be creators as well, with the help of A.I. tools such as voice synthesis and A.I.-facilitated composition.

So, picture this: You are not physically in music hubs like Los Angeles, Taipei or Mumbai. Instead, you’re in your PJs in your own bedroom, cooking up some of the world’s most eye-popping sounds, and who knows, could become the next Billie Eilish—without once stepping out the door, or even showing your face. Oh, and 20-somethings and older need not apply.

Contributed by:

Yeow Kai Chai

Yeow Kai Chai is a poet, fiction writer, editor and arts curator. He has been working in the media industry for more than two decades, including as entertainment editor and music reviewer, in various newspapers such as Life, The Straits Times, 8 Days and My Paper. An editor of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, he served as Festival Director of the Singapore Writers Festival from 2015 to 2018, and helped launch the nationwide music platform, Hear65, when he was working at the National Arts Council.

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