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Wednesday, September 23, 10:00 - 10:45am (Panel)

Their Bodies, Ourselves: Faith, Sex and Politics in Pop 

  • You Can’t Take My Youth Away: Pop Stars and Political Representation in the Trump Era, Allyson Gross (U of Wisconsin, Madison)
  • Can’t Have You: Christianity, Virginity, and the Purity Movement in ‘00s Youth, Maria Sherman (writer)
  • Brown Sugar: Black Girls, Media Language and the Maturity Curve in Pop, Brittany Spanos (Rolling Stone)


Panel Description

Where politics go, so goes pop. The genre and its off-shoots are a useful avenue for charting the ebb and flow of the political mainstream. The bodies of young stars have become the prime vessel to deliver those changes through stage performance, lyrics and celebrity persona. Whether it is through public proclamations of faith, the creation of a charitable organization or radicalized readings of sexuality, young musicians have often been mirrors to society and the ways it has or has not changed over the passing of time. This three-paper panel will examine various forms of the body political In popular music, whether that’s sex, religion or activism.

You Can’t Take My Youth Away: Pop Stars and Political Representation in the Trump Era by Allyson Gross

Young fans – many of whom may not be old enough to vote, or couldn’t in the last election – increasingly look to their favorite artists as a source of political representation. Pop’s upper echelon has tried to meet this need. Whether through charity organizations for progressive causes (Harry Styles’ Treat People With Kindness, the Shawn Mendes Foundation), lending their voices to calls for action (Billie Eilish on the climate strike, The 1975 collaborating with Greta Thunberg), or directing fans towards electoral politics (Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande), pop stars are increasingly performing political activity for and in response to fans’ own politics.

But the contexts in which these political expressions arise and are sustained are fraught with contested meaning. Harry Styles and Shawn Mendes’ charity initiatives are rhetorically rooted in apolitical axioms of “kindness” and “change,” while fans of both have challenged them to make more explicit statements (particularly on #BlackLivesMatter) which reflect their values. Taylor Swift’s notorious reticence to position herself politically has only recently transformed into progressive support, to mixed response. The pop fandom political landscape is a contested discursive space of representation, identification, and action. In a time when youth are driving popular political conversation, particularly around climate activism and gun control, what does it look like for pop stars to organize and be organized by their fans? How are they mobilizing young fans?

This paper will explore how artists rhetorically construct their own politics and build upon the source of their connection with fans for broader fandom political engagement. Examining artist interviews/statements and fan discourse online, this paper will explore how fans of pop’s biggest stars engage with their political efforts, and attempt to push them towards more explicit expressions of political value. How do pop stars rhetorically navigate silence, weak signifiers like “kindness” or “change,” and explicit calls to action in today’s political landscape? What does it mean for fans to be dissatisfied by these expressions? How are youth pushing their favorite artists to better represent their own political will, and are they succeeding? What does success even look like?

Can’t Have You: Christianity, Virginity, and the Purity Movement in ‘00s Youth Music by Maria Sherman

In the early ‘00s, popular culture was inundated with the purity movement, a political shift spearheaded by conservatives. “Love Waits” purity rings disseminated across Disney Channel—long before slut-shaming rhetoric was chastised for its inherent misogyny in the 2010s, young pop stars like Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and the Jonas Brothers became poster children for teenage virginity a decade after Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake did the same.

Concurrently, the popular counterculture of the time—pop-punk and emo—postured the same thinly veiled Evangelical messaging, offering a parent-friendly alternative to the groups that began cropping up on TRL (think Panic! At the Disco’s queered, Vaudevillian performance). These were Warped Tour-headlining, youth group-attending acts like Underoath, Relient K and all those centered around specialty labels like Solid State Records and Tooth & Nail. (Though all these bands differed slightly in how outright they were with their religiosity, their Christian ideology appeared more explicit than their pop counterparts. The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to pop-punk or post-hardcore, either: Demon Hunter brought purity to the metal scene.) Though these bands occupied a space typically maligned in the mainstream, they offered the same conservatism broadcasted on Top 40 radio by another name: hard rock music.

In this paper, I will explore the Purity Movement—going beyond pre-existing work that centers solely on purity in teen pop music—to identify its origins, successes, and inevitable cessation. I will traverse the racial/classist implications of the movement, which, on the surface, appeared exclusively white and middle class. How did artists navigate sexual maturity in the wake of finding fame for their willingness to participate in a heteronormative, virginity narrative?

Studying interviews, lyrics, live performance, social media, TV shows (the Jonas Brothers episode of South Park,) I hope to establish a political history of this time period while unpacking sociocultural implications—what followed, and what, if any, are the remnants still found in popular culture? Was purity “just a phase,” like many of the musical styles and subcultural markers of the time that adopted it? Or does it still exist, pushed to the margins?

Brown Sugar: Black Girls, Media Language and the Maturity Curve in Pop by Brittany Spanos

Beyoncé Knowles is only three months older than Britney Spears. Even when they were just teens at the turn of the century, their sexual expressions and physical desirability were well-dissected and often grossly celebrated on vastly different terms. While the white, southern Spears was a virginal flower who needed to be protected, her appeal through the male gaze was taboo. Meanwhile, the black, southern Knowles was more openly fetishized and often celebrated for being able to hold back her also virginal sexuality to an appropriate degree.

This isn’t unique to Bey and Brit: black and brown female bodies are often treated like they exist on a maturity curve where the taboo of their burgeoning sexuality is seen as a less controversial public topic of conversation. This plays out in the private sphere as well, often leading us to ponder the ways in which we have failed young women who do not have the “luck” of bearing white skin.

This paper will examine the ways we talk about black and brown female bodies when it comes to Top 40 pop. I will start by looking at the expectations and coverage of all-black, boundary-breaking girl groups like the Shirelles, the Supremes and the Ronettes in comparison to their white peers like the Shangri-las. Madonna and Janet Jackson’s expressions of sexual freedom at the dawn of their respective careers in the Eighties will be examined before jumping to the girl pop renaissance of the late Nineties with Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, TLC, Aaliyah and Britney Spears at the epicenter. Critical analysis of their personal expressions of sexuality, language used to discuss them in the public sector, and the political and cultural contexts of each era will unpack how we have both fetishized and failed to protect our non-white stars.