Late last year, a reader sent me an e-mail asking what my thoughts on the Lykke Li’s “Get Some.” Truth told, any news about the Swedish singer’s forthcoming Wounded Rhymes was hovering my mind’s periphery. I knew it was coming out soon and that she contributed a song for Twilight‘s New Moon soundtrack. I liked her first album Young Novels. I thought it was interesting that “I’m Good (I’m Gone)” was sung by the season nine cast of American Idol in one of their embarrassing car commercial music videos. But that was really the extent of it. So when the reader pointed that Li refers to herself as a lover’s prostitute in “Get Some,” I was pretty bummed and surprised I hadn’t heard about it. At best, it gives detractors more ammunition to claims that indie recording artists are the quickest to sell out.
Look, I’m not here to knock prostitutes. I’m starting on the second season of Deadwood, and Trixie is one the show’s most interesting characters. I understand that several feminists have spoken in defense of their work, including a lawyer friend of mine who wrote a really stunning piece of legal writing on the subject when she was in school. I recognize that many people go into prostitution on their own accord and derive pleasure and self-empowerment from their work. As their work often gets collapsed in with human trafficking (which is an altogether different matter and should be eradicated), we should recognize that sex workers are real people who are providing services. Frankly, I think they should get health benefits and union rights like other professions do in the states. But I also feel beyond uncomfortable with a society that places a dollar value on exchanging sexual favors with paid strangers.
As a feminist, I’m ambivalent about prostitution as a profession. However, I’m really not okay with female pop stars self-identifying as prostitutes in their songs, particularly as misguided attempts to gin up controversy, construct blockhead metaphors about the power dynamics of female sexuality, or be edgy. I get that Li is Swedish and thus may have a different outlook on it than this ugly American. However, though it’s perhaps meant to be perceived as transgressive, women playing the whore ultimately seems like such a safe play. It presents the illusion of confronting taboos around sexuality, but casts women in the societal roles ascribed for them. This is why I’m probably not going to get much out of the penis P.O.V. shots that await me when I get around to seeing Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. Maybe by the time they appear, I’ll have fallen asleep or smashed my television.
It’s a tenuous connection fraught with racial difference, but Li’s single made me wonder why I celebrate Rihanna’s sexual frankness or am more accommodating of Keri Hilson’s gleefully explicit “The Way You Love Me.” I think we still might live in a culture where black women declaring and demanding sexual gratification on their own terms is unfortunately really unsettling for many people. Though I certainly hope that these women are recognized for more than their libido, I’m glad their pleasure doesn’t seem to come with a price tag.