Sunday, 8 January 2017

'Prehistoric' - but he has a point

The Seekers, featuring Judith Durham - not a basque in sight
There is a lot of publicised anger, not least in The Mirror, aimed at Tom Jones for his comment that Leanne Mitchell, winner of The Voice, failed to become a star because of her weight. He has suggested that she ought to have lost weight and seized her chance.

Jane Kenyon, of support group Girls Out Loud, said: "We need zero tolerance on these kind of comments. He should know better and if it's his view, it is time to put him out to pasture." Natalie Harvey of charity Combat Bullying, said: "These comments are prehistoric and dangerous. I find these comments really scary. If you can sing you can sing."

They're not wrong, of course, but there's a wider picture here. I sometimes watch the old music programmes on BBC 4 - Sounds of the Sixties, Dusty at the BBC, and so on. The 60s are infamous for sexism, with phrases such as 'dollybirds' to describe fashionably dressed young women, and I do recall the shocked newspaper articles about miniskirts, and how young women would be storing up health problems for the future. However, the way women in the public eye dressed then was not as overtly sexual as now: in shows I've watched recently, Dusty Springfield and Judith Durham wore long gowns, and while Sandie Shaw sported a miniskirt, it was tame by modern standards and would probably now be acceptable in most offices. The Supremes, one of the most successful female groups of the era, were always dressed in a sophisticated manner.

In contrast, many modern female performers feel in necessary to do so in their underwear: highly revealing basques and other outfits that leave little to the imagination. Even older singers such as Jennifer Lopez, 47, Kylie, 48, and Madonna, 58, feel obliged to conform to the sex kitten image. There are many female singers who don't follow this path, but they are less likely to get exposure on TV. The videos of those who do will get millions of hits that probably are not primarily prompted by their music. Would Cheryl Cole have been as commercially successful if she had been overweight and not considered attractive? I think not.

The singing credibility of many such performers is often bolstered by autotune, which can put right any singer, no matter how tuneless; I wrote about it here a year ago. Perhaps we should create a new term for performers who can't sing without electronic help and rely on selling their bodies to become rich and famous.

It is perhaps an indication of the power of massive entertainment corporations that decades of feminism have not hindered the growth of such visual exploitation of young women. A counter argument that I have read is that such women are empowered, proven by their commercial success, but you could make the same point about successful female escorts, as they are sometimes coyly called. Over the years, there have been, quite rightly in my opinion, campaigns to end Page 3 girls in The S*n, but I'd argue that a static photo of a topless young woman in a newspaper is tame compared to some of the highly sexualised dancing we can see on TV, and which is readily available on the internet, thus hugely more accessible than in in pre-internet days.

Tom Jones's comments were certainly ill-advised, but he has a point that appearance is more important for commercial pop success than ever before. I can only speculate how singers such as Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass Elliott and, more recently, Alison Moyet would fare if they were starting today. I'm not making adverse comments about these women's looks; I'm merely stating that they wouldn't have conformed to the very narrow, very prescriptive definition of desirability expected by some audiences - and required by record companies.

Perhaps Tom Jones's critics should cast their disapproval wider to include those who have created and who perpetuate a definition of female pop singer that requires hopeful young women to sell themselves primarily as sexually alluring - by their appearance rather than by their talent. I consequently find it encouraging that Leanne Mitchell has said that she is quite happy the way she is and has no intention of slimming down.


  1. "Perhaps we should create a new term for performers who can't sing without electronic help and rely on selling their bodies to become rich and famous"


  2. I've never resorted to selling my body while performing.

    No market.


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