“Allure” by any other name: The double standards of rape culture, racism, and gender in pop music
This afternoon, my Facebook feed delivered to me a think piece from i-D magazine titled “The eternal allure of Sunset Strip groupies”, a piece about the cult surrounding the “Baby Groupies” of the 70s, namely the Sunset Strip rock n’ roll scene.
Girls like Sable Starr, Lori Lightning, Bebe Buell, Pamela Des Barres, Queenie Glam, and Shray Mecham have gone down in music history as legends, credited with shaping the musicianship, love lives, and general lives of the 20th century’s biggest musical acts and artists. Googling pictures of these girls suggests the rock stars and bands they were associated with, and offers a slew of old black and white pictures of them from the era.
In the shots they look sultry, enticing, coy and sexy beyond belief, fashionably decked in the gritty street styles runways, designers, clothing websites like Nasty Gal and big name pop artists like Rihanna still emulate to this day: Platforms or knee high boots paired with stockings or socks, fluorescent crop tops and halters, hot pants and revealing lingerie, lush velvet, big messy curly hair, dramatic fur coats, dark eyes, long lashes, stark blush, dirty knees. It all reminds me of my own obsession with the genre and the scene during my own teen years.
In dozens upon dozens of think-pieces, books, documentaries, and fan pages dedicated to them, their respective music scenes, or the rock stars they befriended, these young girls are glorified. Yet many of them don’t even have Wikipedia pages of their own. Their value was in who they had slept with, not who they were or their interests or talents.
What’s more, there’s little to no discomfort with the fact that these baby-faced darling rock n’ roll “groupies” of the 60s-early 80s, posing like grown woman, sexual and revealing and seemingly autonomous and empowered, were actually 11–17 year old girls from messy homes childishly seeking fun and excitement, and instead of rightfully being turned away, older white male rock stars 10+ years their senior “slept” with them and “dated” them. These are facts that historical accounts, interviews, and lyrics will openly tell you but that won’t be called for what it is: Pedophilia and rape.
So why are these young girls’ times playing non-consenting sexual consort to grown men venerated in rock n’ roll history? Their experiences are referred to with reverence and envy when we should be disgusted at how openly they were exploited by every part of the scene and industry then (and even now) and how the men who objectified and raped them received absolutely no backlash. When Jackie Fox of The Runaways recently came out about being sexually assaulted by their manager, Kim Fowley, details about his very blatantly predatory behavior came to light, including magazine ads he would put out in which he specifically solicited underage girls to sleep with, but he was allowed to continue on in his behavior with impunity and it took a now-grown adult Jamie to bring his treachery to light.
On the “other side” of this pop culture conversation, many refer to to rap and hip hop, Black genres, as the genres of misogyny. They cite rapists and apologists like R. Kelly and Rick Ross and lyrics and accounts concerning acts like NWA and other 90s and current day rappers and R&B crooners as evidence to the genre’s innate and blatant sexism and patriarchy. While it is necessary to call out acts and performers regardless of race and genre and to expose all rapists, misogynists, and apologists for what they are, hip hop is grossly misunderstood by people who don’t know the culture or the language and are invested in dismissing and pathologizing Blackness. And, to the point, it is telling how hyper-focusing on Black men and culture unfortunately compacts with an old Jim Crow politics of the savage, animal rapacious Black male.
This all comes together to paint a really sad picture: While we will easily point fingers at Black rapists, abusers, and misogynists, we’re yet quiet about the white men who behave exactly like them, if not worse. I could easily share a song on social media by The Stooges, David Bowie, or T. Rex, all artists I’ve been inspired by and love(d), without much hullabaloo from my progressively-minded friends. But if I were to do so for R. Kelly or Tyler the Creator, I would have a few people messaging me about being upset or triggered. The disparity is deafening.
Worst of all, in conversations that erroneously posit Black men as rapists and underage white (or in the case of Lori Maddox, light/passing) women as empowered by their dalliances with white men, women of color, especially darker and Black women, are put in an uncomfortable place of erasure.
Rape culture disproportionately affects the communities women of color exist in (working class/poor, queer and trans, sex workers, etc), and racism pushes us away from resources and restricts our access to economic and artistic empowerment. We have to deal with multiple forms of patriarchy, both internalized within our own communities and from white supremacy, heterosexism, etc in just our daily lives, let alone in pop music. We have to fight against colorism and hyper-sexualization, against legacies of our bodies seen as unrapeable because merely by existing, as once being property, we consent.
So when we are not recognized or seen as victims and are yet expected to take up campaigns that increasingly seem less like calling out rape and rapists and more about maligning our cultural spaces and people, what do you do? We’re neither rock star nor groupie, empowered nor victimized. Women of color fight for representation in every single measure, even in assault. Our communities are just reduced to the straight cis male-centric racist tropes of the men who rape and we’re expected to defend our race and not fight rape culture. Us women become non-existent. And the most violence happens to those who are not heard or seen.
So here I ask: Why give these white dudes a pass? Why use language that posits underage “baby groupies” as autonomous and consenting when they were not? Who are the women of color “baby groupies” of pop culture, regardless of the race of the men or the industry that assaulted or disenfranchised them? What are the names and faces of the women of color in the pop music industry and their narratives of exploitation and assault? Or do we only see vixens, gold diggers, and “strong” female pop stars or sultry overly sexual songstresses?