Pop songs abound with fully loaded phrases disguised as harmless lyrical hooks. Here's one: work it. This finger-snapping command, which originated among black and Latino drag ball competitors as a way of acknowledging the labor of its self-constructed glamor goddesses — a house music staple made it famous, Teena Marie was an early adopter, and RuPaul brought it to the mainstream — has permeated the Top 40 in the cutthroat world of 21st-century fame.
"Work it" and its variations sometimes still signify the triumph of the underdog, as in Beyoncé's music, where labor and focus offer salvation to imperiled African-American girls. More generally, though, it's become pop's variation on Sheryl Sandberg corporate-feminist mantra, "Lean In": a call to prioritize individual achievement and rising class status in a highly competitive world.
To say "work it" is also to reference two cultures at the heart of popular music: the LGBTQ community, where it still signifies style as a source of power, and R&B and hip-hop, where it's become a signifier for sexual bravado and all-around self-confidence. Usually, that's where the idea of work stays in pop. But at music's always-active intersection of appropriation and race, different possibilities of what work can mean are causing trouble for three artists right now.
The Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, the English satirist-songwriter Lily Allen and the American indie-pop favorite Sky Ferreira are all conventionally attractive, heterosexually-identified women who fit the millennial profile of eclecticism and self-aware style. They don't have a lot in common musically, and at first glance the choices that have earned each criticism are very different, too. Azalea, whose debut album The New Classic and single "Fancy" are both in the Top 10, is a protégé of the hip-hop artist T.I. who rhymes in a thick Southern black drawl, despite being white and raised in a rural town nearly ten thousand miles from Atlanta. Allen, whose third album Sheezus became available this week, favors a Cockney accent over Americanisms, but risked criticism for exploiting black dancers in her video for the single "Hard Out Here" and playfully invoking Kanye West's Yeezus in her album's title track. Ferreira recently released a video for her song "I Blame Myself" that placed her within an otherwise all black male cast in a drug-bust scenario reminiscent of films like Boyz n the Hood.
Critics who have called out each artist on their choices are rightly demanding responsibility from these three women, especially Azalea, whose act really does seem like minstrelsy. But beyond this, it's important to ask why such crossings happen, and why they're happening again now. What do the appropriations made by Azalea, Allen and Ferreira have in common?
Azalea's commitment to hip-hop is undeniable. Allen's interest appears to be intellectual — wrapped up in cleverly turned lyrics and social commentary. Ferreira's seems almost coincidental. But apart from the apparent clumsiness of their choices, they do share a preoccupation: All gain emotional punch by pointing to underlying stereotypes about African-Americans working — specifically African-American men.
Today's aspiring divas may recall Tina Turner, Etta James or even Josephine Baker when they're being sexy. But when they get serious, they're more likely to be tough like boxers, deadly like drug lords, or mighty like the legendary folk hero John Henry, who could build a whole railroad, even if he couldn't save his own life.
Iggy Azalea claims her very right to rap because she has trained for years, perfecting her style in her adopted hometowns of Miami and L.A.. The life story she relates on The New Classic is one of unremitting toil: On its first single, actually called "Work," she raps about scrubbing floors as a teen maid, emigrating to America with no money and staying up night after night to master her flow. "Fancy" describes the fruit of this labor: Charli XCX's hook puts Azalea in the executive "fast lane, from L.A. to Tokyo," while the rapper's verses focus on how much her well-earned new money means to her.
Though it's not the only subject on The New Classic, Azalea's bootstraps-hiking origin myth dominates the album and focuses her persona. Her appearance is soft — she's also a model — but her attitude is hard, and distinctly masculine. Her best friends in rap are also all men; though she has toured with Beyonce and collaborated with Katy Perry, she is, as Perry once was, "one of the boys," preferring to feud with other women rappers rather than bond with them.
Assuming masculinity is as important to Azalea's shtick as is taking on blackness: She is, as Daphne Brooks once wrote of Amy Winehouse, a "hip-hop drag king." Pouring herself into the cartoon shape of a thug, Azalea fancies herself protected from the sexism she regularly encounters within hip-hop's gentleman's club. When the New York radio DJ Peter Rosenberg dwells on her waist-to-hip ratio during an interview — or worse, when fans try to sexually assault her during performances — she can deflect it with a chuckle and the voice she adopts, a male voice resounding with the evidence of her striving.
Lily Allen's strategy on her two much-debated singles is to question Azalea's brand of ambition through lightly funny songs critiquing female competitiveness. "Hard Out Here," the song whose video sparked protest because it showed the English rose surrounded by twerking black women, takes its inspiration from a very masculine source: the Three 6 Mafia song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," which won an Academy Award when it served as the centerpiece for the 2005 film Hustle & Flow. The song's conceit comes from Allen's use of macho posturing to insist on female power: "There's a glass ceilin' to break, uh-huh, there's money to make," she intones, later flipping the script further: "Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits."
Making fun of the drive to win even as she claims to embrace it, Allen mimics masculinity more lightly than Azalea does. Her whimsical, Afropop and jazz flavored sound keeps her light voice in a feminine zone; but her most interesting lyrics take her elsewhere. When Allen says "I want to be Sheezus" on her album's title track — a song in which she calls out peers like Lorde and Rihanna by name but later retreats from her challenge, calling it "dumb" and "embarrassing" — she is, jokingly or not, placing a male star at the apex of a list of divas. There's a conflict throughout Sheezus between this masculinizing urge to "lean in" and Allen's feminine desire to relax in the presence of her husband and two kids. "I'm here to make money, money, money," Allen croons, skewing the words yet another competitor, Jessie J, on the miserable anti-red carpet song "Insincerely Yours." Only the love songs here are genuinely comfortable. Yet Allen still invokes hip-hop and the traditionally male pastime of record collection in the unabashed party song "Our Time": "I've got quite a good record collection," she sings, enticing her friends to her lair. "Yeah I got everything that came out on Def Jam."
Allen's ambivalence about success, cast as a tension between male and female, makes for a richer listen than Azalea's posturing provides. Ferreira's video also contains some deeper layers of meaning, though its location in Compton — chosen randomly, according to director Grant Singer — remains problematic. The mixed-race Ferreira has pointed out that her own brother is half-black and that members of her family appear in the video, which pays homage to music she loves. Certainly the video is an odd mishmash. It begins with scenes that look like outtakes from the powerfully realistic film about the late Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station, then incorporates dance routines reminiscent of Michael Jackson's gangland-musical video for "Bad." Scenes of Ferreira being arrested and sexually toying with police interrogators are intercut with moody shots of her black street friends.
The associations the video makes are strange and unsatisfying, but make more sense in relationship to the song it serves. "I Blame Myself" is Ferreria's response to questions about her own rocky career path, which has included much conflict with record labels over her image and artistic direction. The video was made months after her real-life drug arrest; she was not in Compton at the time, but in upstate New York with her boyfriend, Zachary Cole Smith of the shoegazer band DIIV. She is a self-styled rebel uncomfortable in the pop world. Confronting her own very different demons, Ferreira and Singer turned to a common story of labor on the margins: drug dealing in the African-American inner city.
Idealized and martyred in countless films, television shows and hip-hop verses, the drug dealer is the imaginary African-American worker in tragic mode. The role offers provisional power but almost always leads to defeat. For a white female artist to claim space within this story is puzzling, but also telling: Instead of stopping at the point where the black male represents hardness, Ferreira tries to connect with his vulnerability.
Asking whether Ferreria has a right to tell this story leads to a "yes or no" conversation. The story gets more interesting when we consider how tenacious these fantasies remain. Playing with the imagery and rhetoric of working-class or underclass black men doesn't seem to fit with the inspirational or sexually inviting messages most female pop stars produce. Yet even though black men are horrifically underemployed in America, with little opportunity for advancement, fantasies of their strength and prowess still capture the mass imagination.
There's a cultural connection between deeply embedded historical anxieties about the efficiency and strength of black workers (originally, slaves) and the tendency to marvel at black male bodies perfected through labor within the sports world and entertainment. African-American artists themselves have often turned these images around, and connected with the real people often behind them, finding pride and meaning in their stories. White male artists have done the same thing: think of Eminem's boxing fetish.
Now, women musicians are navigating a ruthless show business scene that mirrors the growing gap between haves and have nots. The pressure to outshine and outsell everyone else in the room is increasingly oppressive as major labels consolidate and indies try to maintain contender status. It's the same in other entertainment realms: Opportunities exist at street level, but rising is hard. It's easy to feel misunderstood and outcast. Maybe that's why artists as different as a brash white rapper, a cool British wit and a dance-pop iconoclast from L.A. are all stretching to find some part of themselves within the image of the stigmatized but alluring black male who gets business done.
It's the other side of what happened with Miley Cyrus's twerking controversy last fall. Then, as has happened many times before, black women's bodies signified pure pleasure, separated from the culture of both social customs (like dancing) and labor in which they've lived as Americans for hundreds of years. Maybe it's too painful for a pop song to consider how these women were forced to "work it," historically: as often mistreated domestic help, or, as Leslie Jones's troubling comedy routine about slave labor on last week's Saturday Night Live implied, as literal producers of those strong men who tilled American fields.
Then again, women have worked it that way before. In 1983, Donna Summer celebrated waitresses, seamstresses and cleaning women in her video for "She Works Hard for the Money." And she added a caveat: "You better treat her right," she said of her working women. That call for justice, however vague, brought a different message to the table. Instead of just working it, it's important to remember that there's still plenty of inequity that, as a society, we need to work out.