Is it a question of pulchritudinousness?

I’m not sure why, but I’ve been pondering this question for a while, and I thought I’d throw it over to the class. Do you think that men and women in music are held to different standards of physical attractiveness? Why and how? I was thinking of male artists that I like, but that are not traditionally handsome, and racking my brain to think of a female counterpart. I read that Lady Gaga is rebelling against the idea that she’s not thin enough or pretty enough (or so she was told) but she’s plenty pretty and thin, and frequently quite naked. I’m sure there are musicians of both sexes that have “made it” because they looked good, but does this happen more frequently for women?

46 thoughts on “Is it a question of pulchritudinousness?

  1. “pul – chri – tudi – nous – ness”

    Er, can’t we lose the ‘nous’ and the ‘ness’ and just say “pulchritude”?

    A rather FINE intellectual question to ponder on a Sunday evening, steen, and I shall be back later.

  2. The short answer? Yes.
    It becomes obvious and more appalling when you reverse the question: How many women that don’t ‘look good’ make it, as opposed to men that don’t? (And is the ‘looking good’ bar set at the same level for men and women anyway?)

  3. I could write a thesis on this.

    This question “I’m sure there are musicians of both sexes that have “made it” because they looked good, but does this happen more frequently for women?” is key, I think.

    There are terrible double standards in the music biz. Leaving aside the question about whether the industry takes female instrumentalists serious, or at least as seriously as male ones, the real point seems to be that female artists have to be attractive to be successful.

    Punk challenged this idea of sexy female singers being the ideal, as well as the idea that women weren’t supposed to play instruments, but it really didn’t take long for the biz to restore the idea.

    For the mainstream, looks are more important than talent. Nothing else can really explain the success of acts like The Pussycat Dolls, The Saturdays or Pixie Lott.

    OK, yes, there are exceptions, but it is precisely because they exist that we have something to compare against.

  4. I was watching an Aha video yesterday and pondered that they wouldn’t have been so successful if Morten wasn’t good to look at, so I think it is there for both sexes, but there is a point to be made here about what the parameters for “attractiveness” are. I think there is a much wider scope for men to be considered nice to look at, but women are very much expected to conform to a certain narrow “look”.

    I would say that Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Henry Rollins are attractive, but they’re not conventional pin ups and they didn’t get their music noticed because of their looks. I am not a fan of her music, but how much stick did Susan Boyle get for not conforming? Would an “unattractive” man, say Pavarotti get criticised for his size or lack of physical beauty?

    Maybe people of all genders suffer from judgements about their appearance that shouldn’t have anything to do with their musical talent?

  5. I’m trying to think of a female equivalent to Shane MacGowan, but it’s not happening.

    The whole “because I’m worth it” culture really bothers me, particularly when my 8-year old starts telling me that I need a make-over – probably true but why on earth should it matter to a child?

    Fair comment about Susan Boyle, as well. And how about Alison Moyet? Not unattractive by any means but she was criticised for being ‘big’, etc.

    So, like Chis, I think the short answer is “yes”!

  6. Pavarotti?

    Say no more.
    Re. Susan Boyle, she didn’t get any stick, she succeeded in part because of the combination of her talent and her total lack of physical beauty and personality.
    That was why Cowell’s jaw dropped at her first appearence, were she a talented but petite and charming 50+ year old woman I don’t think the media would have taken notice.

  7. Marina Warner developed an interesting argument in Monuments and Maidens- the allegory of the female form. Her approach was that many cultures invest a woman’s body with metaphorical meaning the way a man’s body isn’t- Eve is a far more potent figure in culture than Adam, for example; Liberté is instantly associated with freedom despite the fact that the women of her time were anything but “free”. Maria’s qualities were expressed in art through her inherent beauty and her fertility, whereas Jesus’ mainly via his wounds. Women lose their individuality to a certain extent through this process, so her corollary is that society tends to have expectations of female figureheads it doesn’t have of male ones, as the latter are seen more as “themselves”. She identifies an underlying expectation we have of female figureheads as being sort of an impossible combination of whore, saint, and mother. As with everything, there are exceptions- the world’s current most powerful woman (Angela Merkel, if you discount the recently inaugered IMF president Christine Lagarde) fits none of the three descriptions, she’s just a damn good politician.

    • Very interesting thoughts, Nilpferd. I think maybe politics is quite different from music, or even film or painting, or any other sort of art/entertainment. We’ve got Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, who are not unattractive, but certainly didn’t gain their positions based on their looks.

      SHoot, I had another thought, but it’s flown from me mind! I’ll be back later….

  8. One man or woman’s sexy or attractive is just as individual as each person – an airbrushed conformity IS in pop.. but that conformity changes with fashion and heavy, heavy marketing.
    Lady Gaga is a loud mouth, as was Madonna in her heyday – they spout whatever will keep them in the publics eye – to make up for lack of ability, maybe?….they make the odd catchy tune – but that’s as far as it goes – disposable pop has it’s place – and loud mouths get to the top quickest loads of fields.

    For men – to use the Beth example – would aha have been taken seriously if Morten wasn’t an overtly (to some) attractive bloke, would INXS have been the Aussie Stooges?, etc etc.

    For Women – is Björk Gudmundsdóttir THE hottest female ever to walk the planet? (even when she wears Dougal from the Magic Roundabout on her head).. and it’s not as though I find Kate Bush attractive because I’m secretly longing for a reclusive housewife to stay home and look after the kids (and makes the odd record every decade)…

    What I find is: music that is SOLD through looks, attractiveness, beauty, nudity and sex is an weird concept – the music doesn’t live up to those subjects with any skill or thought – but songs about those things….and those things then exuding from the artists.. is what interests my ears first and then visually, it’s what I project onto the artist because of the words and music and the sexy talent.

    A naked picture of sunflowers on a packet of seeds is a naked picture of sunflowers.. but it doesn’t turn me on like a sexy Van Gogh.

    • INXS? Michael Hutchence made that band. I saw them on their first post-Hutchence tour (after the Terence Trent D’Arby rumours, before the TV Talent Contest; I have a feeling that the singer was called Brian, but he was basically a makeweight, poor fellow). Sheddi preferred that incarnation – he thought Brian (or whatever he was called) had a more conventional rock voice. But it was Hutchence’s unconventional voice and his charisma – yes, and his looks – that made INXS, briefly, more than the stodgy sax-laden rock that they were always struggling to transcend.

      You didn’t need to enjoy looking at Michael and his floppy, curly locks to appreciate KICK. But I’m pretty sure it helped.

      Incidentally, the tour I mentioned was a double header with Blondie. Just before the latter’s “Maria” comeback.

      • that’s what I’m saying Zalamanda

        if the normal Rock fan (of the male variety) hadn’t been jealous of MH’s looks.. and he was just oddly unique looking – would they have been wafted on a wave of euphoria into creating a record of garage punk perfection… instead of just selling millions of copies of the stodgy sax-laden rock!

        shit luck for him:)

      • I agree with you about MH, I wouldn’t have bought an album by them if he hadn’t looked like he did. In my defense I was an impressionable teenage girl at the time.

      • So do I, Amy, so do I. Their flashes of brilliance really were pretty blinding. Every now and then they made it to slinky, and it just wouldn’t have worked with anybody else’s voice (although – TTD’Arby – could have been interesting).

      • Terence Trent D’Arby? Now that’s a beautiful man, and very, very talented to boot. Shame what happened to his career.

  9. Hello everyone, I think a lot of it depends on the genre, even though I believe women would have to fit a narrower criteria of pulcritudinousnessity. Of course it’s all subjective, but I don’t recall too many successful male artists at the commercial end of pop recently.

    • Ejaydeeeeeeeeee! You’ve been missed!

      I agree about the genre making a difference. And I think there are actually different aesthetics, physically, for folk stars, anti-folk stars, punk stars, R&B stars, Pop stars. I wonder how much that varies from male to female?

  10. Beauty does give one an unfair advantage in lots of fields, not just music. I would say that it’s more important in pop music, where you need instant appeal, than for more ‘serious’ musicians who might have spent years playing little clubs and building up a following. I do think that women are judged more by their looks than men – I believe that both Janis Joplin and Sandy Denny, for instance, felt that they weren’t good-looking enough. But it affects men too. I’m just listening to Any Trouble, as it happens, and I’ve always thought that Clive Gregson might have got a lot further if he’d been better looking.

  11. Unfortunately, yes. Just like the movies, women seem to vanish when they hit a certain age, whereas men can rock on as long as it suits them.

    • An exception that proves the rule (perhaps): Chrissie Hynde has stubbornly refused to go away. I’m not saying that she’s unattractive, merely that she doesn’t necessarily conform to convention and that she’s – well, she’s not gonna stop until she’s darn well ready! That’s how it seems. People seem to view Chrissie as a serious musician and to ignore her gender.

      There’s also Ms. Harry (I can never remember whether she’s Debbie or Deborah these days); still riding high with Blondie (after a few years off here and there), and I think she’s had to fight against being seen as an attractive woman. Which she probably is, still. Blondie were, I think, more ‘pop’ than the Pretenders; they are also seen as being more of a cohesive unit – so perhaps Ms. Harry is not taken as seriously as Ms. Hynde?

      • Ooohhh, I don’t know, Zala…I think Chrissie and Blondie were very very very conventionally beautiful. Thin and stylie and gorgeous. WHen I was a teenager I was insecure as hell and wished I had Chrissie Hynde’s legs.

      • Maybe you’re right, Steen. I started off, though, with the thought that the two of them had managed to stick around for longer than the norm, ie they didn’t “vanish when they hit a certain age”. I’m sure that there are other examples. Can’t think of many, though.

      • I saw a recent photo of Deborah Harry (just sounds wrong!) and couldn’t help but notice that she was looking a lot younger than she is if you know what I mean. It would appear that even for the exceptions, there is an imperative to “look good”.

  12. tfd, good point about pop music,if you start thinking about the boy bands, yes they are sometimes very good singers / musicians but looks play a big part (e.g. Take That, or bands of that ilk) – then you have the David Cassidys and David Essexes etc (showingmy age now) – James Blunt???

    • we used to play a drinking game.. that started:

      Nothing else can really explain the success of Take That or the Spice Girls ….except:

      you got one members name and had to elaborate in ever fantastical ways of why they were successful or in the group.. (posh spice had once been used as a pick axe to climb mount everest… so was well versed in getting people high) but it always ended with ‘and they suck cock like a demon’
      …entertained us.

      (you had to be very very drunk)

  13. Thank you for your responses everyone so far! I actually posted this so I’d have something interesting to read (secretly) at work. I’ve been thinking of asking a question each weekend, and this weekend, I finally did!

    I should just point out that I think everybody is beautiful. I’m talking more about societally accepted ideas of beauty or sexiness. And I’ll be back later with more thoughts. I’m in a post-work stupor!

    ANd I just have to add that I’m not sure anybody every took AHA seriously.

    And I think Madonna and Lady Gaga ARE loudmouths, but if they were also not pleasant to look at, they wouldn’t have gotten very far. Or so it seems to me.

  14. Yes.

    I read an interview recently with a young singer-songwriter (whose name I’ve forgotten) who’d spent several years working inside the music industry, who was talking about this. She talked about overhearing two (male) record label types discussing whether the success of Adele and Rumer meant “ugly was in”. FFS…

    You’d expect and kind of understand this situation in manufactured pop – where, as people have mentioned, good looks are pretty important for men too – but I think it’s widespread in more serious music too, and that’s depressing.

  15. Re. A-ha (whom I liked before I realised/decided that Morten was a dish). I seem to recall that they desperately wanted to be taken seriously, but couldn’t – basically because their lead singer was too pretty. Nobody would have invested gazillions on that fabulous animated video if he hadn’t been pretty.

    (I didn’t have access to MTV, so I didn’t see that video until after the song had worked its way into my adolescent mind. But without the video, the song might not have charted and I might never have heard it on the radio… I’m getting myself all confused, now, but I think what I’m saying is just that the looks were part of what made the record company promote the band, they were part of what made them successful – but only part. There was, actually, a little bit of substance there too. Just ask Chinny.)

    • I think good looks will get you so far, but there does need to be some talent too. Thinking about Aha reminded me of a Canadian band called, unfortunately, Moist. I loved them, I admit the pretty vocalist caught my eye, they kept on re-releasing this single with different extras like a sew on patch with the band name on, different tracks and so on, hoping to make them a BIG thing, but they were in a pretty small tent at Reading that year.

      Marketing will only get you so far and what catches the record buying public’s imagination isn’t always as straight forward as a pretty face, well in rock circles anyway

  16. I’ve been thinking that maybe it is partly about who has an opportunity to be heard. I actually like Carla Bruni, particularly the song I posted. And I like Cat Power – I think she’s awesome! I resent the fact that they’re models, but obviously it’s not their fault. But I wonder if they got an opportunity to make an album (more power to them) because they’re ridiculously beautiful. Whereas men seem to just need to be talented or loud – mouthed?

    If you think of Scarlet Johanson or Zooeey D. making albums. I don’t hate them, but plenty of other women have (I’d guess) as much to offer, musically. Or maybe not. I don’t know. Or maybe that’s just celebrity.

    • I think you’re right there – it’s about opportunity to be heard. Models and actresses making records – well, that’s partly celebrity at work, but the celebrity quite often rests on appearance.

      Of course, good looks can often count against you once that record is made – if you’re in the wrong genre (especially if you’re the ‘wrong’ gender) – being pretty, and having the sort of following (young and of the opposite sex) can stop more ‘discerning’ listeners taking you seriously. It might even affect the type of music that you end up producing, viz. Shane’s comments re. INXS.

  17. I was just sittin’ and a rocking’ on a Sunday afternoon and this topic came drifting back into my mind. First thought was that in the era of big band jazz [yes, that was pop music] all of the bands had good looking chic singers and guys in their tuxedos; all with smiles. They were often more important than the bands themselves as far as the dancing public was concerned, theirs were the names that the public knew. EXCEPT for bands like Count Basie, [we’re talkin’ 1930/40’s]: Basie had Jimmy Rushing, generally known as Mr 5 by 5, he was 5 ft tall and 5ft wide, not what you would call a sex symbol and Basie’s female singer was Helen Humes, not ugly but definitely not up to the prevailing beauty standards; but they were both black and generally speaking , so was Basie’s audience. Duke was playing at the Cotton Club so he had to toe the line, his was a different audience. So it makes a difference who you’re playing for.
    Which brings us to another branch of pop music; reggae.
    Bob set the visual standards and just about every reggae musician that followed him said something like “To hell with how you think we should look, our values pertain more to rasta than to pop culture” and so they set their own standards and lo and behold lots of non reggae artists emulated ’em. Pretty or handsome were no longer the standards.
    Just a couple of examples that don’t conform to those images.

  18. GF – very interesting point about early jazz. It seemed to be more about charisma for both sexes. Before TV?

    And I think Bob Marley was one of the most beautiful human beings ever, so those standards were set pretty high!

  19. I agree that the genre is crucial here. Rather ironically I suspect that in some cases a pulchritrudinous female is also going to have “problems, specifically in being taken seriously as a musician.
    I can well remember the attention given to Gaye Advert, for example, no one ever wrote much about her bass playing.

  20. I just flicked through my copy of She-Bop II and… well, it’s a pretty universal problem. Mention was made of the riot grrl movement (hardly mainstream) and a number of high profile artists were mentioned, including Tracy Chapman, because of her refusal to pander to mainstream mores; Annie Lennox, for the androgynous image that she later found difficult to shake off; k. d. lang for her sexuality (I distinctly remember a friend dismissing k. d. for not being sufficently attractive – I’m not entirely sure if, at the time, my friend, a straight woman, knew that k. d. was a lesbian).

  21. Well, Bish hasn’t weighed in yet – but Adele.

    I’m a girl so maybe my opinion on this doesn’t count, but i think that Lady Gaga is butt ugly. Which is why i have no beef with her dressing and presenting herself the way that she does. What else are you going to do if you want to make the kind of music that she does, but don’t have the looks?

    I see that no one has mentioned Patti Smith yet. Interesting face, sure. But no oil painting.

    I think that it’s probably really hard if you’re not terribly good looking and have little to mediocre talent. If Cheryl Cole wasn’t pretty, would she have any sort of career? Britney? I think that if you’re talented but not so hot looking, you’ll find a way.

  22. Sorry, but I can’t resist any longer – here’s what the pulchritudinous Mr Petty (in the persona of evil record company boss Joe) says about it:

    Go get me a kid with a good lookin’ face
    Bring me a kid can remember his place
    Some hungry poet son-of-a-bitch
    He gets to be famous, I get to be rich

    Or bring me a girl
    They’re always the best
    You put ’em on stage and you have ’em undress
    Some angel whore who can learn a guitar lick
    Hey! Now that’s what I call music!

    ‘A kid can remember his place’ reminds me of Sakura’s piece about J-Pop, a few posts back.

  23. It’s just occurred to me that Missy Elliott hasn’t done too badly for herself in spite of being no great beauty. Then again so has Lemmy. Both have talent.

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