Ladies First

Cyndi Lauper 1984   Image: Rtbusacca/Mediapunch/REX/Shutterstock

Cyndi Lauper 1984

Image: Rtbusacca/Mediapunch/REX/Shutterstock

Once upon a time, female pop artists were prized for their “naturalness”, and if they consciously manipulated their own artistic imagery they risked being seen as artificial or, worse, “inauthentic”. But then along came the 1980s: cue a dazzling refashioning of the female pop image as women artists seized on the power of the video clip and showed the world who they were – and who they really wanted to be.

WORDS. Taylor Fox-Smith

In the 1960s, the city of Detroit in Illinois, USA, was an industrial hub. The “Motor Town”, as it was known, was home to two legendary production lines: the Ford Motor Company, and the Motown Record Corporation. It was the Supremes who rose to prominence as the Motor Town’s leading girl group, with early hits like ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’. Spending months in the Artists Development department at Motown where, according to The New York Times, they were “polished and preened like a new car”, the Supremes were meticulously constructed. Vocal training, choreography and finishing school: Motown’s unique regimen intentionally paralleled the way cars were assembled. For Motown head Berry Gordy, the girl group was a vehicle worth perfecting. This idea becomes most apparent in a music video featuring Motown’s other girl group, Martha and the Vandellas. An early promotional video for “Nowhere to Run” is set on the Ford Mustang assembly line, with the singers shown to be objects in the manufacturing process. Riding on the moving car parts as they are pieced together, the women and the car are one and the same.

Women in pop music have always been deeply intertwined with the technological apparatus of their time. Technology is almost always culturally coded as male, and women who have mastered the machine – automotive or otherwise – have tended to be discredited. In the words of musicologist Susan McClary, female artists have been expected to represent an “unmediated” nature if they are to be taken seriously.

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