Beauty is Skin Deep?

29 May

Part of the enjoyment of writing this blog is hearing others’ thoughts on musical issues (and otherwise). Many of you are so very articulate and provide such interesting views. Colette is one such reader. She sent me this post and I think it is very thought provoking.

Recently there has been some comment in the media about how the major record labels only want to sign and back women who are considered “hot” — conventionally very attractive — no matter the strength of their musical gifts. And that today, no woman can win American Idol who isn’t very young and “sexy” by fairly rigid rules.

How would some of the great, great female vocalists of the past have made it in the age of music videos and hotness-hype. Would they be considered too fleshly, too unusual looking, too unfashionable, not provocatively sexy enough, to appeal to those raging teenage hormone cases the record companies are most eager to serve? And the narrow standards of beauty much of the American public has internalized?

So, here are three remarkable, unique women singer-songwriters who had great success in the 1960s and ’70s — would they have been shunted aside today? Whatever the answer, how lucky they weren’t, back when. We still have their music — and at least a little good video of their most moving, captivating songs:

Phoebe Snow: “Poetry Man”

Janis Ian: “At 17′

Laura Nyro: “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Poverty Train” (at Monterey Folk Festival)

Thought provoking, indeed. Before the Music Dies addresses this issue, in spades. This video is a stark illustration of just how shallow the music industry is now. Dear Erika Badu so aptly captures the ludicriousness of the pop-star “machine”, particularly with young women. To quote Erika, all you need to make is “cleavage down to here…..but make it down to here, now because 2006 — it’s butt-naked, Wednesdays.” I heart Erika.

Before the Music Dies – How to Create a Sexy Pop-Star

Sadly, today’s music scene would promptly reject artists like:

Janis Joplin

Mama Cass

and let’s face it, Barbra Streisand, herself would have a tough time breaking into the biz nowadays….

Sadly, the glorification of superficialness by men in an industry that promotes 80 lb. darlings and favors looks over talent is the prevalent thought in today’s music. That’s why it’s time for people who really enjoy music to find the talent, no matter the “look”. Problem is, how many truly talented “ugly ducklings” never even pursue a music career because of the daunting challenges associated with “making it”?

Special thanks to Colette for her contribution.


Posted by on May 29, 2007 in Music Today


22 responses to “Beauty is Skin Deep?

  1. brc

    May 29, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    Interesting topic. What a great collection of talented women. And the variety in the music and the artists you posted is truly amazing. I think we could easily add Patti Smith to your list–

    I wonder if this is really just a phenomenon with women? If we examine the men in the music industry do we have the same issue? There are a lot of no-talent men with very successful music careers. If Taylor Hicks were a dumpy fat guy, would we be as interested in his music? I like to think I would, but I don’t know. (Oh yeah, I forgot. He doesn’t have the support of a major record label).
    Back to the topic… If we look beyond types like Beyonce, J Lo, Shakira and Britney, I think there are many talented women who are successful who don’t meet the conventional standard of beauty… Avril Lavigne, Norah Jones, Kelly Clarkson, Regina Spektor, Tori Amos are a few that come to mind. I’m not saying they’re not pretty I just don’t think they are conventional “hotties.”
    So in spite of my disdain for the music industry’s focus on promoting hot babes with no talent, ultimately I do think talent can and does win out. And I do think that many of the artists you mention in your post could achieve success today.
    In terms of American Idol, I would argue that while Carrie Underwood meets the “young and sexy” beauty standard you reference, I don’t think that Fantasia does. That said, Carrie has had considerably more success thus far than Fantasia.
    The message of “Before the Music Dies” is sad to me. I think in many ways it reflects where our culture is at in general… very superficial and lacking in authenticity. Did any of you see the movie “Fast Food Nation?” While the film makes a statement specifically about the fast food industry, I think it makes a broader statement about the superficiality of our culture. This reminds me of that.
    Thanks MM and Colette for a very thought-provoking post.

  2. Colette

    May 30, 2007 at 1:40 am

    The examples you give are interesting: Avril Lavigne, Norah Jones, Kelly Clarkson, Regina Spektor, Tori Amos. Yes, none are “model-pretty,” to meet that weird standard, but they are all slender and attractive enough to “pass.” It’s when you get to someone like a Phoebe Snow or a Janis Joplin that “the rules” for today really kick in. And I also wonder if a Kelly Clarkson or a Tori Amos or a Fantasia has to be twice as impressive in order to make it? And none of them carry a lot of weight — though I imagine Clarkson must be tired of people giving her a hard time for not being rail-thin.

    As for men, that’s an interesting question too. Ruben Stoddard didn’t get the crap a woman that size would have — in fact he was endearing enough to be affectionately nicknamed “the velvet teddy bear.”

    Beauty is always a marvelous thing, no argument there. What’s worrisome is that the definition of it as applied to women is getting more restrictive — and more about the surface of the person than what’s inside…..

  3. music maven

    May 30, 2007 at 7:13 am

    brc — It’s interesting that you say “If Taylor Hicks were a dumpy fat guy, would we be as interested in his music?” Well, Taylor is PRECISELY the example of this. He shopped his music to hundreds of record labels and none would seriously give him a look, because as one producer put it, “the labels are NOT going to take a chance on a pudgy, gray-haired guy mimicking Ray Charles…”

    So, he had to resort (yes, stoop) to getting noticed as a novelty act on American Idol and now has to fight the stigma of that. Also, I think it’s interesting that Taylor only really took off on AI when his sex appeal kicked in, i.e., Taylor’s Tipping Point of Funky White Boy.

    And, make no mistake, Taylor knew (or was quickly informed) that he had to capitalize on his “appeal” and lost the 20 lbs., kept his hair bright and shiny and short, etc. It’s all part of trying to make it and “conform”, to a point. The business is quick to school new artists.

    See this comment from the Email of the Day, sent to me by Lefetz’s blog:

    My sister is signed with a major label and check out what they told her
    last week. They said, “We hope you’re piling on the makeup and getting
    dressed up for these radio interviews we’re sending you on. We’re not
    hearing good reports. From now on, we’re going to select your clothes
    for you.” This is someone who has had two #1’s and been nominated for
    three Grammy’s. It’s pathetic! She also said the same thing as you.
    They aren’t paying her a dime and she’s never recouped. Because radio
    is so dead, touring’s slow for her as well. She’s working her ass off
    for nothing and the label doesn’t have a clue about the Internet or how
    to sell digital music. My friend works for her management company and
    he’s supposed to be rebuilding her website. He said the label can’t
    even tell him who owns it so he can get in to change the DNS.

    Lefsetz has some pretty good, albeit cynical, stuff on the biz. Thanks to Gray Charles for pointing me in that di-RECK-shun.

  4. brc

    May 30, 2007 at 7:29 am

    MM your point is well taken. But I guess the point of my Taylor comment is that the music biz is just delivering what the public seems to consume. So is the problem the record labels or is the music-buying public to blame?

    I spent a few minutes in Gray’s archives and would like to add Lily Allen and Angela McCluskey to the list. Both up and coming artists who probably won’t succeed based on their looks. Candi Stanton came to my attention also. I don’t know enough about the Biz to know if major labels are supporting any of these women.

    Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not disagreeing with the main premise of what Colette says in the post. Maybe I’m too optimistic and just want to think that talent is what matters?

  5. brc

    May 30, 2007 at 7:32 am

    In re-reading my post, it sounds like I was saying that Lily Allen and Angela McCluskey won’t succeed. I mean to say that if they do succeed it will be due to talent and not looks.

  6. leejolem

    May 30, 2007 at 10:03 am

    Very interesting topic. I think it’s much more acceptable for a guy to be “quirky” than girl. Take for instance Chris Sligh. He is definitely not traditionally sexy or handsome, and he capitalized on this by using “bringing chubby back” as a catch phrase. Could a female get away with this? No way!!! Would Haley Scarnato have made it as far if she weighed 220lbs? No way!!
    Whenever I see Aretha Franklin I always think thank God she already made it because TPTB wouldn’t have been able to see past her weight if she was just starting out.

    I always have to chuckle when people refer to Taylor as being fat and old when he started out on AI. He was a whopping 215lbs at 6′ (said with tongue firmly in cheek) and 29 years old. Not really that fat or that old, but Hollywood/LA has such a skewed perception.

  7. jenfera

    May 30, 2007 at 10:09 am

    It’s interesting to note that both LaKisha and Mandisa were favored to win AI in the early rounds and neither even made the top three.

  8. leejolem

    May 30, 2007 at 10:49 am

    BTW, my older sister had the Janis Ian album and as a young teenager I thought At 17 was a bitter song, but when I listen to it now I think it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. It’s amazing what the years do to your ears.

  9. music maven

    May 30, 2007 at 11:59 am

    I think Alanis Morrisette’s My Humps Video sends a message, as well.
    Paradigmn shifts sometimes take a while but perhaps a recognition of the superficiality of today’s “stars” will begin the advent of change. I think most people are tired of the Lindsay Lohans and Brittany Spears in and out of rehab with no real contribution. I’m sensing a greater caring of folks out in the “real world” who are looking for real talent.
    I think that’s why it’s so important to support young local artists. When you can, go out and listen to those local artists, put a little change in the jar.
    I also think that the internet may be another great equalizer. Consider this post from my new best friend Bob Lefsetz on Price. I think he’s definitely right and the showdown between piracy and price is coming and will provide an opportunity for a sea change. I’m tellin’ ya….the suits have GOT to be nervous.

  10. shrewspeaks

    May 30, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    Urgh…I hate that I am tied up in marathon meetings…MM you and this topic are way more exciting…

    OKAY…I am going on a limb…MTV pushed music into a visual arena that no longer exists and the music industry is lagging. Unfortunately, radio died at the same time. It did, just ask Little Steven. So what is left is a commodity driven music industry looking for the next flash to sell products as so aptly parodied in Josie and the Pussycats…yeah you heard me…Josie.

    But now, with the advent of retro soul and deep chart crossovers are we seeing the industry implode and revert back to simpler times focusing on real talent again?

  11. Dingo

    May 30, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    I’ll be damned if I can remember her name but during the auditions for Idol this year there was a fantastic singer named Tammy something. She had a raspy, raw edge to her voice and she pulled a tourist cart for a living. She was muscular and a little manly but what a fantastic voice that one had. From the moment she didnt make the cut i knew it would be a dismal year. That girl was awesome.

  12. music maven

    May 30, 2007 at 7:28 pm

    That would be Tami Gosnell.
    Great example.

  13. brc

    May 30, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    MM you are a YouTube search goddess. Must be that LibraDragnonness.

    She’s good. I remember her now. She looks a little Janis Joplinish.

  14. shrewspeaks

    May 30, 2007 at 8:59 pm

    okay…semi connected…

    Apple today launched iTunes Plus. The new option for iTunes customers features DRM-free music tracks that offer — for just $1.29 per song — high-quality 256 kbps AAC encoding for audio quality indistinguishable from the original recordings. iTunes Plus debuts with singles and albums from EMI’s digital catalog of outstanding recordings from artists such as Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Norah Jones, Frank Sinatra, Joss Stone, Pink Floyd, John Coltrane, and Paul McCartney, a dozen of whose classic albums are now available on iTunes for the first time.


  15. music maven

    May 30, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    Ahhh, shrew….all my worlds colliding.

    Again, I refer you to Mr. Lefsetz.

    Warning: explicit language.

  16. Colette

    May 31, 2007 at 12:48 am

    Just want to ask if anyone else has a good source of Laura Nyro. She sounds so utterly amazing on the Monterey Folk Festival clip, it made me want to hear more live stuff (though she did do some fine live albums). what a singer, and what an unusual person — totally on her own planet.

    Vis a vis what’s up next for the music industry: it’s really separating into two universes, the indy one and the coporate one. The indy one is very dependent on the web, which is actually OK given how many people access it. But the radio, TV and public relations spheres are dominated by the mega-industry folks.

    And speaking of Avril Lavigne, it’s interesting how she remade herself into a sexy sass girl. I love the punky tone of that song “Girlfriend” (and what a hook!).

    but the world of great music is full of eccentric and interesting and offbeat personalities who don’t play by the rules and don’t look like everyone else. that used to be part of it — watching Streisand reveal that strange beauty of her own as she performed. People seemed surprise that Melinda Doolittle could be sexy when she sang, and LaKisha too. Fact is, making good music has very little to do with your outward appearance, unless you’re a pop goddess (starting with Madonna).

    Anyway, let’s look for all those great young women from anywhere who won’t be made over. One I’m thinking of, who I adore, is Laura Love:

  17. morewines

    June 3, 2007 at 11:54 am

    “Hollywood/LA has such a skewed perception.”

    They don’t call it “Hollyweird” for nothing and
    I do have friends that work in the film and broadcast industry there.

    So why do they pick women that lip synch, have to be dubbed over several times on every track on a CD and the Paris Hiltons of America. Very simple.

    How many times have you stood in a check out line of a grocery store, for example and
    looked at the magazine rack while waiting to pay
    for your goods/services. What magazines are
    already gone/sold and what aren’t? Enquirer,
    The Globe and some other crap that I can’t
    remember the names. They are all gone. Yet
    Life, Newsweek, Sunset etc. are still available.

    Because people feed on this garbage! It’s all
    about the $$$$$.

    This will continue as long as people continue
    buy this crap, watch crap like “Access Hollywood”, Entertainment Tonight and other TV
    shows that just love to put this in your face.

    The only reason why I know what’s on these programs is because the crap they produce has
    leaked into the mainstream news. I do watch
    local news and they are getting into to the
    act as well.

    My TV has basically become a monitor. I use
    to watch DVDs.

    Current example:

    My Niece an avid American Idol fan often sends
    me email regarding some of the contestants. (I don’t watch it.) She sent me some links to news and videos. I watched a few and read the articles. At that time (a few months ago) I told her that Melinda Dolittle would win because
    she could sing and handle the stage like a pro.
    Evidently America did not think Melinda Dolittle was pretty enough.

    Grant it some may not agree with what I’ve written. Oh well. IMHO.

  18. music maven

    June 3, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    Uh, morewines…I think basically, everyone here agrees. Until people change their “appetites” and stop rewarding the behavior (i.e., buying the rags), then it’ll continue.

    I think that the Behind the Music “exercise” really nails it. A very mediocre singer can be made to be a star and conversely, a star can made to be a mediocre singer. That’s why I think that the underground indie way may be the best way.

    To Huck’s previous point — how much money do you need? That’s what it really comes down to for these artists. If you can make a healthy living, pay the band, pay the bills, the mortgage, etc. and play good music, is that enough? For some, I think so….for others, it’s more about the “fame” than the fortune. Unfortunately, I don’t think they realize that fame generally isn’t a kind mistress.

  19. morewines

    June 3, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Behind the music is a great documentary. I bought
    a copy of that when GC talked about it on his
    blog. I proved a point.

  20. morewines

    June 3, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    I mean’t “it” proved a point.
    I can spell but I can’t type.

  21. sideways721

    June 5, 2007 at 12:23 am

    Just logged on here on June 4th to see this entry.

    My college years were filled with Janis Ian and Phoebe Snow. Never had the opportunity to see them live. Probably too broke back then. I would savor the opportunity now.


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