ONCE upon a time, when the world was young and people voluntarily listened to Sinead O’Connor records, nobody knew what twerking meant. Instead we went happily about our business, with nary a twerk in the world.
Oh, how times have changed. You can barely leave the house these days without coming across a twerk or two. And it is twerking – or perhaps more accurately, its constant presence in our lives – that has got Annie Lennox, that wise old owl of the pop industry, cross. So cross in fact, she wants to change the law.
In an interview this week, she lambasted the “pornographic” images that now plague many music videos, and suggested that a rating system should be introduced for pop promos in order to warn viewers of the graphic nature of their content.
“I actually think what are really required are some very clear boundaries,” she told Radio Five Live. “I’m all for freedom of expression, but this is clearly one step beyond, and it’s clearly into the realm of porn. How do you stop your kids being exposed to it? It’s so powerful. You don’t want to see your seven-year-old girls twerking all over the place.”
She is referring of course, albeit obliquely, to the likes of Miley Cyrus – whose most recent pop video features the 20-year-old swinging naked from a wrecking ball and who twerked her way into the history books during her provocative performance at the VMAs last month – and Rihanna, who pole dances and twerks in the video for her latest single, Pour It Up; and Katy Perry, whose video for California Gurls featured the singer spraying squirty cream from her breasts.
Of course, it’s not just female singers who are at it. A lot of rap artists seem unable to put a video out without hiring at least 20 scantily clad women to dance provocatively in the background (the rappers, of course, remain fully clothed). Indeed, ever since the 1980s, when pop videos first came to prominence, musical artists have known, understood and exploited the value of a sexually alluring moving image.
But what Lennox is talking about is a little different. The above-mentioned stars – the Mileys and the Rihannas – have a young demographic. The girls who go to their concerts, buy their records and religiously follow their every move on Twitter are often not even teenagers themselves, but children, caught up in the glamour and the allure of a woman who both performs provocatively for an adult audience while producing candy-coated pop songs that appeal to pre-pubescent kids.
These children then seek out everything they can about their particular pop idol – which in Cyrus’s case would include video of her simulating sex with a man 16 years older than her on stage – and because the internet is so ubiquitous, and because children are so savvy when it comes to using it, it becomes incredibly difficult to police, leading to children being constantly subjected to the sort of sexualised images that in a more controlled environment like a film shown in a cinema would receive an 18 certificate.
As Lennox puts it: “They are being barraged with it.”
So what, then, is the answer? A certain amount of regulation on music videos would, I think, be a start. Perhaps music channels should start being more judicious on what they show, and at what time they show it. And perhaps YouTube should consider more age restrictions for watching videos – the little that exists clearly not being enough.
David Cameron has made noises recently about policing those who access pornography, but what about the sexualised images in mainstream culture? Perhaps what we need is an open debate about how we ration our children’s exposure to such pictures. As Lennox said: “I don’t think there is one parent in the country who could comfortably say they were fine with their kids being exposed to that kind of thing.”
Ultimately, however, what needs to happen – and unfortunately shows no sign of even starting to take place – is a backlash by the artists themselves: A rejection of themselves as sexual objects, as chattels who use sex in order to sell their work. As Sinead O’Connor, who wrote to Cyrus last week, said: “It is in fact the case that you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped… You are worth more than your body or your sexual appeal.”
Try telling that to a twerking seven-year-old.