February 1, 2014

Cocooners require singers to be sex symbols, outgoing folks only want good music

The looks of today's hit singers could not be farther away from the '80s, a time when audiences didn't care if Phil Collins was short, pudgy, and bald, or if Ann Wilson from Heart was heavy-set. As long as they sang with enough soul and got your body moving, who cares what they look like? You weren't going to make a move on them. There were plenty of people in real life to get up close and personal with. That's whose looks you worried about -- the other people at the party.

But in today's climate of cocooning, people have redirected their longings toward personas who can be delivered into their private household without actually having to interact with them, AKA celebrities. Singers are no longer performers first, but rather surrogate boyfriends and girlfriends (if they're the same sex as the listener, then surrogate friends and allies).

It's depressing to see how many "followers" Katy Perry and Justin Bieber have on Twitter (around 50 million each), as though they had some kind of personal connection, even though every one is no more than a non-friend on your Facebook friend list. And we know roughly how many followers they'd have if they looked like Phil Collins or Ann Wilson...

And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Here are the top 100 songs on the Billboard charts for the entire year of 2013. I don't know about the guys, but nearly all of the girls just happen to be good-looking. Even the ones who are not, like Pink, market themselves as sex symbols, and are accepted as such by enough listeners to enjoy continued success. Then there are others who look good but don't exude any sex appeal, such as Selena Gomez. Those who get the most followers have both good looks and an eagerness to play up the role of sexual instigator -- someone whom an awkward cocooner would not have to interact with and win over, but who would make all the advances by themselves.

Turning to celebrities as a substitute for a lacking social life should remind you of the mid-century, another cocooning period when celebrity gossip magazines were the top sellers at newsstands, and when ordinary people wanted to live glamorous romances vicariously through celeb super-couples.

So let's have a look at the female singers who made the year-end charts in 1954. There are only 30 songs listed, yielding six performers. (From left to right, top to bottom: Doris Day, Kay Starr, Kitty Kallen, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, and Jo Stafford.)

Pretty easy on the eyes, and all but Doris Day are shown baring most of their chest and back. Not to mention the Hollywood glamour they're playing up. What constituted a sex symbol back then may be somewhat different from today -- no ho-bag dance moves -- but they were still clearly marketed and accepted as va-va-voom by contemporary audiences. (I'm not sure when exactly these were taken, probably between 1945 and '54.)

Now let's turn to the mid-point between now and 1954, the top hits of 1984. I'm going to go through each female singer to show I'm not only cherry-picking the pieces that fit my worldview.

Tina Turner was not attractive, and was 45 years old. Deniece Williams is plain-to-below-average. Cyndi Lauper's a little better-looking, but not babe material. None of the Pointer Sisters would have turned heads, nor would Shannon. Ditto Alannah Currie from Thompson Twins. Annie Lennox was kind of cute, but tried to subvert any attempt that others might have made to turn her into a sex symbol. Patty Smyth was happier being a cute little Pixie, though again not really movie star / va-va-voom. Pat Benatar seems a too tomboyish and her cheekbones too masculine to have been a sex symbol, but maybe she was to metalhead dudes. Ann Wilson's weight we've already covered. Christine McVie was below-average and 41 years old to boot.

Irene Cara looks above-average. Tracey Ullman wasn't a babe, but was pretty and did play the instigator role. Bananarama were still new wave hip chicks and not sex bomb dance vixens at this point; the video for their 1984 hit "Cruel Summer" shows them in baggy tomboy clothes and not allowed to show off their faces or bodies. The Go-Go's were cute, though "sex symbol" doesn't come to mind for these down-to-earth girls. I'd feel more comfortable calling Nena a sex symbol: aside from looking beautiful, she had a fun-loving and provocative personality. But she gave off a wholesome vibe, where sex symbols in the '80s would had to have given off a more determined or man-eater vibe.

That leaves only four who are good-looking and va-va-voom enough to make "sex symbol" appropriate: Laura Branigan, Sheila E., Madonna, and Olivia Newton-John. (Throw in Dolly Parton if we're counting duet partners.) And remember, this was way before Madonna totally slutted out in the '90s, so don't give too much weight to her appearance in the list. The three songs that put her on the year-end charts in '84 were from her first disco-pop album, and none came with a very suggestive video.

It's not as though all the hit female singers were fugly. Still, it's hard not to notice how much plainer and human they look on the whole compared to the pop singers of the '50s or the 21st century. Again, as long as they could make you feel what you wanted to feel, who cares if they looked good or not? Your dance partner was the one you hoped could turn heads.

I think you'd see the same pattern over time among movie stars as well, and for the same reasons. Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver make a heart-warming couple in Ghostbusters, but looks-wise they're not Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. In The Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio and Elisabeth Shue are the attractive kids from your own high school. Audiences in the '80s wanted someone approachable like the girl next door, not a Hollywood-conquering sex bomb reincarnation of Cleopatra. But that's a topic for another post.


  1. I agree with everything except Madonna

    When I was 15 in 1984 , the year Like a Virgin was released. She also mimicked Monroe in her video Material Girl. She had little vocal talent, unlike most of the singers from the eighties, and her main agenda was becoming a sex symbol, she pushed the limits and was roundly criticized for her performance of Like A virgin during the MTV awards ceremony. for the provocative performance.
    The climax of her risqué performance found her "humping" and rolling around on the stage. To this day, the performance is noted as one of the most iconic and biggest performances in MTV's history.

    Most of my friends saw Madonna as sexy, unlike how we viewed Cindi Lauper who was probably more popular in 1984. All the acts today seem to be following Madonna's example, attempting to be sexy and provocative to become popular

  2. Nitpick here: Ann Wilson got fat in '83. Nancy Wilson stayed hot. There's a discussion at yahoo answers about this which illustrates your point, though - guys didn't care if the girl was hot if they liked the music. http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100301000912AAch58p

    Also, both Pat Benatar and Joan Jett were very sexual as part of their act, but without showing lots of skin - more of a grrrl power thing.

  3. Yeah, there ought to be a separate category for women like Pat Benatar and Joan Jett where sexuality is more implied than played-up. Their primary image is a chick who is badass enough to rock out with da guys, so you assume she has a libido like a dude too.

    Madonna became a megastar by going the route of the provocative sex symbol, but that wasn't evident in the three songs of hers on the year-end charts for '84. The "Like a Virgin" album came out at the end of the year and blew up more during '85. The three hits from her first album aren't provocative and vampy, whether the lyrics or the music video... well, maybe a bit on "Lucky Star," but not on "Borderline" or "Holiday."

    "Lucky Star"

  4. It's interesting to think what the reaction would've been if some of the good-looking girls from the '80s *had* been marketed as sex symbols after earning their first hit. Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney have several publicity photos of them posing in swimsuits (DD with a bikini top even, not a one-piece). So do today's hit singers.

    But what if Scandal tried to cash in on Patty Smyth's cuteness and put her in a bikini for the next album cover or music video? I can't imagine who would *not* have liked to see Nena in a swimsuit, and yet that would've seemed like they were crossing a line. Not like you couldn't show a girl that way in general -- just not in the case where they had already earned your respect and esteem for making good music. It would've have been violating a taboo.

    If it's someone whose music never really impressed you, then sure, why not "get a load of them gams" on the cover of a celeb gossip magazine?

  5. The '80s was full of sex symbols, they just weren't expected to play another role like actress or singer. They were models, whether they appeared in magazines, posters, music videos, or wherever.

    That allowed audiences to keep the two roles separate rather than expect the performer to violate a taboo and prostitute herself. And the model was not seen as lowering herself because showing skin and attitude is what anonymous models are supposed to do -- to liven up the mood. Their role was more of an addition to the overall vibe, not a subtraction of the performer role to fit in the sexy role instead.

  6. Not related to this post: This website / service I saw on a tech site today could only exist in cocooning times: kitestring dot io. You tell the service "I should be back from my XXX at YYY time," and if you don't send it a text message by YYY time, it sends a message to your emergency contacts that you never made it back from XXX. Laughable.

    1. wow. I signed in through AIM and my name came through as *that*.

  7. Sounds like those car alarms that are always going off, when there's never a thief. At least the phone app won't be disturbing the community, though.

    "Keep tabs on"... it's a good way to sum up the changes in attitudes. In the '70s and '80s, people just let you be, and folks were more connected. Now everyone is spying on each other, and are disconnected.

  8. When did country music stars switch from Willie Nelson-looking guys to beefcake? I think it predated the switch to all-cute rockers by ten years or so.

    Pop stars, on the other hand, were always cuties.

  9. "Also, both Pat Benatar and Joan Jett were very sexual as part of their act, but without showing lots of skin - more of a grrrl power thing."

    Emphatically no. "Grrl power" is a 90s and later thing, little girls getting in your face and DEMANDING that you pay attention to them and their "strength". Just a different kind of attention whore. Pat and Joan were just badass, they didn't need to prove anything to anyone.

    Another data point on singers: I remember, growing up in the 80s, that Frank Sinatra was seen as a joke - an old fogey that your lame parents listened to. Suddenly, in the 90s he somehow became "cool" again, with everyone jumping on the Frank bandwagon and pretending that they never got off. Once again, the early 90s shift is readily apparent...

  10. I remember the Sinatra revival too -- even the wannabe sophisticated teenagers were jumping on. Part of the whole retro-mid-century thing.

    His music is much better than the "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" fare from the same time, but still... it's so butt-kissing and pedestal-raising toward women. It's the whole "Girl, you so fine" style of R&B that has re-emerged since the '90s.

    A major part of the shift during a cocooning period is for men to signal that they aren't going to cat around anymore, that they have no sex drive, and that they only want to worship and support their woman. The original Sinatra craze met that need in the mid-century, and the revival did so during the Millennial era.

    Fun fact that some Sinatra fans may not have caught onto: "My Way" came out in 1969, and "New York, New York" in 1980.

  11. I also remember their attempt to rationalize their new-found love for beta supplication music -- that it was more mature and sophisticated, unlike the hair metal they were listening to as teenagers.

    ...As though there was no thriving adult contempo music back in the '80s to choose from, that wasn't so gooey and servile, more honest. Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry, Peter Gabriel, Sade (bonus for those who equated jazz with sophistication), Kate Bush, Phil Collins, Style Council, etc.....

  12. Madonna seemed to become more androgynous in a stylish pseudolesbian way in the late 80s as she hit her thirties. It was a time of powerful women, also on LA Law and that replacement doctor on Star Trek TNG.

  13. Yeah, whatever happened to soft rock?

  14. Steve Johnson2/12/14, 10:05 AM

    Testing -

    That was the same chick.

  15. Tina Turner was one of the biggest sex-symbols of the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's. How dare you call her unattractive? You don't have a clue of what happened in 1984. Back then, Tina was considered the hottest Rock singer alive, and the sexiest 45-year-old woman of the planet. She was asked to act as the sensuous and provocative Shug Avery in The Color Purple movie (1986), but turned it down.

  16. Assuming your theory that there are alternating periods of "cocooning" and "connecting" in society is true, that would mean once can't exist without the other because the periods are reactions to each other. I guess what I'm trying to say is, there's nothing objectively "bad" about cocooning or connecting, even though there are obviously upsides and downsides to both. You seem to have a strong distaste for cocooning though.

    Also, the '80s looked like a very androgynous, artificial looking, cutesy, plastic decade to me. Not that that's a bad thing, but that's what it looks like when I look at photos/videos.


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