Tag: Women in music

Female Interpretations of Sexual Content in the Music Videos of Popular Female Artists

Undergraduate Dissertation Introduction

Here is my undergraduate dissertation ‘Introduction’. It is a bit dodgy in areas but I hope that this will provide an example and help those who are undertaking research in a similar area.


The debate surrounding the effects of sexual media has recently been reinvigorated with children and women’s charities, journalists and the current British and Australian governments, having all made attempts to address and tackle the sexual behaviours and attitudes expressed by female artists in their music videos and live performances. This renewed interest has mainly emerged due to the sexually provocative nature of current female artists such as Rihanna, whose notoriously raunchy performances frequently attract the attention of media critics, and Lady Gaga who has a reputation for wearing outrageous ensembles, often leaving very little to the imagination.

With a large majority of music being centred around relationships, romance and love, sex has always been a popular accompaniment to musical performance, lyrics and most recently, music videos. Early 20th century jazz and blues was recognised as exhibiting a certain level of sexual intensity with the gyrating crotch of Elvis, Little Richard and other rock and roll stars during the 1950s and 60s causing great controversy at the time (Arnett, 2002). Elvis was actually quoted in the 1970s as saying “Man, I was tame compared to what they do now. Are you kidding? I didn’t do anything but just jiggle” http://www.elvis.com. This quote emphasizes the percieved increase in the sexual nature of music from Elvis’ heyday in the 1950s through to the early 1970s.

During the 1980s and 1990s, sexual content had begun to increasingly permeate popular music (Roberts & Christenson, 1998) and can be seen and heard in the music lyrics and videos of female artists who enjoyed stardom at the time, most notabley Madonna, who in 1992 released the album Erotica along with a coffee table book entitled Sex which featured explicit photographs of the singer. Much tamer but still offering music fans scenes of a sexual nature, Britney Spears and Christina Aquilera have contributed to the array of provocative music videos with Christina’s Dirty video and Britney’s I’m a Slave for you consequently causing their own controversies. More recently during the 2000s and up to the present day, videos from artists such as the Pussycat Dolls, Shakira, Ciara, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Rihanna have all continued the trend (Jhally, 2007).

The majority of research focusing on sexual content of music videos can be divided into three categories: content analyses, effects research and audience interpretations. This dissertation falls into the third and least developed field of research by exploring female audience interpretations of sexual content in female music videos.

As a major source of information for young people and adolescents, the mass media is believed to play a crucial role in their sexual socialisation (Harris & Scott, 2002). The presence of sexual content in music video is so pervasive within popular music that it has now reached the point where it is highly predictable for sexual imagery to accompany the music videos of popular female artists, even when the lyrics do not match the imagery (Roberts & Christenson, 1998). For example, a recent music video by British pop artist Pixie Lott shows the singer in a variety of sexual poses despite the song having nothing to do with sex. This raises serious concerns regarding the effects sexual content may have on viewers, especially young people, who are a significant concern due to the amount of time they spend listening to music and watching music videos (Arnett, 2002).

Supporting the argument that sex is becoming an increasingly pervasive part of mass culture, this dissertation aims to fill a void within existing research whereby it fails to adequately address the interpretations, perceptions and attitudes of young women in relation to the sexual content of music videos.

The main aim of the research is to utilise the focus group technique in order to discover what young women think about music videos and their sexual content. Participants were selected through snowball sampling and are young women aged 18-25. Questions focus on the areas of body image, sexual objectification, self-objectification and sexualisation of young people. The aim is to discover how the participants interpret what they see, how it makes them feel about their body image, their relationships with men, sexual objectification and whether or not they think sexual music videos by female artists impact young girls in a detrimental way.

A Content Analysis of Sexual Imagery in Popular Music Videos (2010)

The motivation for this research came from my personal interest and concern regarding the sexualisation of young girls and women. Whilst there has been a lot of recent media attention addressing this problem, there is a lack of up to date academic content analyses.

With this research, I would like to determine how common sexual imagery in music videos is and to discover what forms of sexual imagery are portrayed most often.

Ever since the advent of the music video in the early 1980s, there has been a continuous array of commentary and analysis regarding its content and form. Previous research has focused on the perceived influences music videos have on viewer’s attitudes and opinions regarding sex and sexual relationships. This includes studies by Greeson & Williams, (1986), Vincent et al (1986) and Christenson & Robertson, (1998), whilst others have specifically focused on the role of music videos in the sexualisation of young people, for example, Ward (2003), Cummins (2007) and Arnett (2002).

Due to recent reports in the media and the release of a Home Office report entitled “Sexualisation of Young People Review” (2007), it was decided that this area is one of great interest and contemporary relevance. Many critics argue that music videos and performances by pop artists are becoming increasingly explicit and inappropriate for young people. This research hopes to add weight to this argument. The aim of the research was to discover how prevalent sexual imagery is within music videos and to distinguish what forms of sexual imagery are most common. A content analysis of 10 randomly selected music videos from the year 2010, as predicted; demonstrates a high level of sexual imagery within music videos. In addition, ‘sexually suggestive non-dance movements’ and ‘provocative clothing’ were found to be the most commonly occurring categories of sexual content. More explicit categories such as ‘simulating group sex’ and ‘sadomasochism’ were displayed less often.

Literature Review                                                                                                                                                                                Popular music has always had a close relationship with sex. Early 20th century jazz and blues was noted for its “sexual intensity” and in the 1950s the era of jazz and blues “gave way to rock and roll and the explosive sexuality of Elvis, Little Richard and others” Arnett (2002:254). By the latter half of the century, sexual themes had come to increasingly permeate popular music (Christenson & Roberts, 1998) cited in Arnett (2002).
According to Arnett (2002), sexuality in pop music has become increasingly explicit, having lost almost all subtly. There are many who agree with this claim, for example, record producer Mike Stock made headlines recently criticising music videos for sexualising young children. Stock claimed that “most R&B videos are like soft pornography” http://www.guardian.co.uk. In addition, a 2007 Home Office Report by psychologist Linda Papadopolous, entitled “Sexualisation of Young People Review”, found that women in music videos are portrayed as sexually available and that there is often visual focus on women’s specific body parts such as breasts, bottom and lips (Papadopolous, 2007: 50).

Due to the popularity of music videos amongst adolescents, it is not hard to comprehend the levels of concern regarding the impact of sexual imagery. A 1994 study by Tapper, Thorson & Black (1994) found that teens on average, watch music videos for 15-30 minutes a day. Despite the amount of spare time young people spend listening to music and watching music videos, much more research has looked at adolescents and television (Arnett, 2002). However, in the 1980s there were a number of studies in response to the emergence of the music video. The results of early content analyses such as Baxter et al (1985), Greeson & Williams (1986) and Sherman & Dominick (1986) revealed the presence of sexual themes in music videos.

Baxter et al (1985) used a sample of 62 MTV music videos. The research was unbiased and due to the lack of research in the field at the time, the main focus was to establish a method of quantifying specific areas of content. Baxter et al (1985) proposed the need for a coding form for collecting the data and produced a coding manual defining the various content categories, which were divided into 23 categories. In line with Levy’s (1983) study, the results show that MTV videos portrayed high levels of sexual content with 60% of music videos displaying sexual content. The sexual content found was mainly “characterised by innuendo and suggestiveness, perhaps reflecting MTV’s adolescent audience appeal” Baxter et al (1985:333). In a similar study Sherman & Dominick (1986), found that sexual behaviour was present in over 75% of videos analysed with an average of 5 sexual acts per video.

The observations made in these studies raise serious concerns regarding the sexualisation of young people. In more recent years research has largely focused on building this argument and analysing the potential affects and influence music videos have on viewers. Focusing specifically on the role exposure to sexually oriented media has on adolescents; Ward (2003) conducted a review of the empirical research addressing these claims. The findings suggested that “frequent and involved exposure is associated with greater acceptance of stereotypical and casual attitudes bout sex, with higher expectations about the prevalence of sexual activity and of certain sexual outcomes” p.347. According to Zhang et al (2008), the reason music videos have the potential to affect and influence sexual socialisation is due to their popularity and ease of accessibility. The research will now consider the methodology adopted reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of content analysis.

To discover how prevalent sexual imagery is in music videos and determine what forms of sexual imagery are portrayed most often I decided to conduct a quantitative content analysis. This decision was largely determined by the research questions, thus adopting a deductive theory. In doing a deductive analysis, the idea is to begin with a hypothesis before beginning the coding process and the purpose is to test whether the hypothesis is correct (Bernard, 2000).

The research hypothesis claims that there are high levels of sexual imagery within contemporary, popular music videos. Additionally, the research aims to discover what forms of sexual imagery are most commonly represented in music videos. The hypotheses are based on my personal knowledge and theories relating to the field of sexual content in mass media. I believe that a quantitative content analysis was the most appropriate method for the research as it “seeks to quantify content in terms of predetermined categories in a systematic and replicable manner” Bryman (2008:275). It is “systematic, empirical and quantitative” Burton (2000:333), which are suitable characteristics for achieving the two research objectives outlined above. The research took a positivist perspective and an empirical approach which were considered the best means for testing the hypothesis. A positivist approach requires the collection and assembly of data on the social world (Burton, 2008) and is “unconcerned with people’s inner mental states” May (2001: 10) which is well suited to the nature of quantitative content analysis (Burton, 2000). Positivism requires the social scientist to study social phenomena “in the same state of mind as the physicist, chemist or physiologist when he probes into a still unexplored region of the scientific domain” Durkheim (1964: xiv) cited in May (2001: 10). Positivism is in contrast to interpretivism, which is concerned with the “empathetic understanding of human action” Bryman (2008: 15). An interpretivist approach would be better suited to analysing the affects of music videos on young people, perhaps using a method such as longitudinal observation study, allowing causal implications to be made (ibid).

There are numerable advantages to content analysis including that it is an unobtrusive, non-reactive research method which avoids “researcher effects associated with reactive methods such as interviewing” Burton (2000: 334). Although content analysis is often associated with the mass media, the method has much greater applicability than this. It is a highly flexible method that can be applied in many contexts and to a wide variety of data (ibid). Due to the lack of participants, content analysis has the advantage of being relatively straightforward. For example, there are no requirements to contact people, arrange meetings, interviews, send out questionnaires, etc. This also means that there are very few ethical concerns due to the lack of participants and the fact that there were no problems gaining the data needed. Access is rarely a problem for content analysis as a lot of documents; media texts etc are available online for free or in libraries (Burton, 2000). In the case of the research at hand, the music videos analysed were freely available to view online. Another advantage of content analysis is that it is a very transparent method which can be easily replicated and produces consistent results (Bryman, 2008).

Despite the variety of advantages offered by content analysis, there are some limitations which are not as easily foreseeable and do not necessarily disrupt the research process. For example, a disadvantage is that content analysis deals solely with information that can be measured and standardised. Burton (2000) argues that this focuses on what results are produced rather, neglecting the decisions and intended meanings associated with the findings. Another disadvantage of content analysis is the difficulty of devising a coding scheme that does not include some sort of interpretation on the part of the researcher or coder. For example, during the research, the process of coding the categories was heavily reliant on my interpretation of the content. For example, ‘sexually suggestive dance movements’ can be interpreted differently depending on the person. However, there is a solution to this; the content manual is aimed at resolving this issue by providing coders with clear definitions of what constitutes a content category. Another disadvantage of content analysis is the inability to determine the reasons behind the research findings. For example, the reason why sexual imagery is so prevalent in popular music videos.

To begin the research process and with the aim of determining what forms of sexual imagery are present in music videos, I produced a coding schedule (see Appendix I). According to Bryman (2008) “coding is a crucial stage in the process of doing a content analysis” p.283. This involved compiling a list of content categories to analyse within the theme of sexual imagery. This included categories such as ‘emphasis on body parts’ and ‘sexually suggested dance movements’, which were mainly inspired by the content categories included in the study by Baxter et al (1985).The next step of the research process involved producing a coding manual defining the different content categories (see Appendix II).

With regard to the music videos under analysis, the research aimed to focus on popular contemporary music. To do this I used the ‘official UK top 10 singles chart’, randomly selecting one song from each week of the year 2010. This made a total of 52 songs representative of the year 2010. The sample was then decreased by random selection, to 10 music videos, a much more realistic sample considering the timescale and requirements of the research project. An advantage of random sampling is that “each unit of the population has an equal probability of inclusion in the sample” Bryman (2008:171). This increases the credibility of the sample and enables the findings to be generalized to the wider population (ibid). When conducting the content analysis I easily accessed the music videos online via http://www.youtube.co.uk. The process took around 30-40 minutes as predicted and was fairly straightforward. There were just a few occasions when I paused the video to determine whether content should be coded; this was usually to take a second look to confirm a decision. Reflecting on the process of coding and sampling, I feel that it went very well as no problems were encountered. I enjoyed the process of content analysis.

The results of the content analysis show that high levels of sexual imagery are present in popular music videos. The most common form of sexual imagery portrayed was ‘sexually suggestive non-dance movements’ with 80% of music videos displaying this behaviour. This was followed by ‘provocative clothing’- 70%, ‘sexual suggestive dance movements’ and ‘emphasis on body parts’ which were both present in 60% of videos analysed. Content categories addressing more explicit sexual imagery such as ‘simulating group sex’, ‘use of object in a sexually suggestive manner’ and ‘sadomasochism’ were found in just 10% of music videos analysed. However, ‘sexual bondage’ which could be considered equally as explicit, was found in 20% of music videos and similarly, ‘simulating penetrative sex’ was found in 30% of music videos. Overall, the results support the hypothesis that there is a high prevalence of sexual imagery in popular music videos. In addition, the results reveal interesting figures regarding the various types of sexual imagery and how often they are portrayed.

There are a number of concerns and questions raised regarding the findings of the research. For example, what impact does sexual imagery in music videos have on the sexual socialization of adolescents, their relationships and identity formation? The sexualisation of culture theory has much relevance in this context. According to Coy (2009), the term ‘sexualisation of culture’ describes the “current saturation of erotic imagery, particularly of women, in popular culture” p.373. Examples given include music videos. According to Ward (2003), the media plays a crucial role in the development of sexual knowledge-
“given the lack of alternative sources, coupled with the media’s accessibility openness and appealing nature, it is only reasonable to expect that the media would play an important role in sexual socialization” Brown, Walsh-Childers & Waszak (1990) cited in Ward (2003).

Parents and peers are important sources of knowledge when it comes to sexual information; however, they are not the only sources and possibly not the most influential. The media and television are believed to play a pivotal role in the sexual socialisation of young people (Arnett, 2002). Television programmes such as “The Joys of Teen Sex” (Channel 4) which is specifically designed to educate adolescents about sex, further add to this argument. In addition, Larson & Kubey (1983) found that listening to music and watching television can “deeply involve adolescents” cited in Baxter (1985:334). With the music video being a combination of the two, even greater emotional involvement can occur, in this sense “the music video has potential to contribute to the cultural norms of a relatively impressionable audience” Ibid.

Some academics have drawn upon the uses and gratifications model in an attempt to distinguish what uses adolescents derive from watching music videos with sexual themes. Arnett (2002) looks at the portrayal of sexuality in music videos, presenting a three way model for understanding the uses. The three uses outlined are: entertainment, identity formation and coping. The research demonstrates how adolescents use music videos in these ways and argues that the proposed model leads the way for future research on music videos and young people. Arnett (2002) suggests that research on sex, teenagers and music would benefit from focusing on what the young people themselves have to say regarding the meanings of sexual themes in music. This is possible avenue to explore for dissertation.

To conclude, there have been many concerns raised regarding the sexual content of music videos ever since their emergence in the early 1980s. Some critics argue that the sexual content is gradually worsening to become ‘sexually explicit’ rather than ‘sexually suggestive’ as was the problem in the 1980s and 90s. Sociologists, psychologists and other academics have contributed to this debate, often arguing that the sexual imagery contained in media has a detrimental effect on the viewer. Concerns have also been raised by worried and outraged parents and child activist groups.

The content analysis conducted shows that sexual imagery is a common feature of music videos. According to Arnett (2002), if there is a typical music video, it consists of “one or two men performing while beautifully, scantily clad young women dance and writhe laviciously” p.256. The results support Arnett’s claim although it should be noted that it is not dancers that perform these sexual roles, in contemporary music videos it is almost always the female performer as well. For example, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez have all been the sexual focus of their own music videos. This has further implications considering the idolisation and emulation of celebrities in contemporary culture. Further research to support the findings could look into the effects of sexual content and how the target audience feels about the sexual content of music videos as suggested by Arnett (2002). Another possible avenue of exploration is to discover if adolescents display a preference for music videos with high levels of sexual imagery. There are many possible paths to explore with regards to the sexualisation of young people and the suggestions made can form the basis of a dissertation.

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