I recently wrote a piece on Frank Ocean, and a piece on Father John Misty (self-promotion here and here), and in the midst of my research, was struck by two quotes I encountered regarding how women fit within the pop music industry.
On his Blonded radio show, Ocean played a phone conversation he had with Jay Z, in which Jay bemoans the "advertisement model" of pop radio. "You take these pop stations, they're reaching 18-34 young white females. So they're playing music based on those tastes. And then they're taking those numbers and they're going to advertising agencies and people are paying numbers based on the audience that they have. So these places are not even based on music. Their playlist isn't based on music," he said.
Father John Misty, always eager to deploy his plethora of takes, offered his thoughts on pop music to Pitchfork. "When you lionize pop music, you lionize the very thing that feminism purports to be against, which is a culture of exploitation and overcharging. Which is what cracks me the fuck up when you read these ridiculous puff pieces about how wonderful major-labor pop music is, and the whole fucking industry is run like you actually buy into the idea that that woman that's onstage, wearing next to nothing, is powerful. Because that is like being a child," he cracked.
There is a lot to digest here! We'll start with Jay Z, who directly criticizes the pop music industry's reliance on ad money, but in doing so, indirectly criticizes the young white women he alleges wield the greatest influence on that ad money. It becomes unclear if he's more upset by the revenue model, or the tastes that drive the revenue model, leading one to wonder if Jay would feel similarly if young white girls were more interested in hearing his music, or at least the music that aligned with his taste. Pop radio is bad because it only plays music that will make money with young white girls, and because their taste is bad, pop radio is bad.
Misty, on the other hand, approaches women in pop from the production side, criticizing the industry for seeming to empower the female pop stars that it actually exploits. Misty is a walking and talking "actually," and here he offers two powerful rejoinders; actually, you're not a feminist if you support pop music, and actually your favorite female pop star is a half-naked exploited child. The questions of exploitation in pop, and the legitimacy of female empowerment in pop, are certainly worth considering, but Misty's comments taken in tandem with Jay Z's seem to criticize an industry for being constructed to appeal to young women.
Jay Z suggests pop radio, which relies on the 18-34-year-old white woman consumers, is flawed. Father John Misty suggests that pop music, produced by glorified female pop stars, is flawed. Their criticisms are more squarely aimed at the faceless executives who dismiss and dehumanize artists, but ultimately they seem to be critical of a system that makes music for women, by women. That is an oversimplification of their analysis, but their tone does seem to lead one to think that their self-interest is significant in the reading of the industry.
Misty, whose music and persona are dependent on sharp cynicism, gains cultural capital by criticizing the pop music industry. Jay Z gains very real capital, as his Tidal streaming service serves as the more progressive foil to the archaic pop radio model.
Both artists profit from pop radio and pop music, even if by standing in opposition to it. And they've come to that oppositional stance after time in the machine; Jay Z has had his share of pop success, and Father John Misty has written for pop stars Lady Gaga and Jay's wife Beyoncé. They've attained the status necessary to move freely in and out of pop, offering them a valuable perspective in critiquing its flaws.
However, I don't know if it's Father John Misty seeming to suggest that a woman "wearing next to nothing" can't be powerful, or Jay seeming to suggest that a model based on the musical taste of young white women is therefore "not even based on music," but the validity of their critiques seem undermined by a tone that is dismissive of the women both producing and consuming pop music.
Certainly, the pop music industry has significant problems, in not empowering more artists outside of pop, and in not improving the treatment of artists already within pop. I don't think Jay or Misty are going to mansplain them away anytime soon.