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Kristin J. Lieb on Gender, Branding & the Modern Music Industry

This post was originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of Expression, the Magazine for Alumni and Friends of Emerson College.


As a former music industry executive, Kristin J. Lieb, associate professor of Marketing Communication, is an expert on the branding of female pop stars.

Kristin J. Lieb, Associate Professor of Marketing Communication

As a former music industry executive, Kristin J. Lieb, associate professor of Marketing Communication, is an expert on the branding of female pop stars.

Her 2013 book, Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars (Routledge), details the way in which female stars’ singing talent is often trumped by the hypersexualization that is demanded of them. As Lieb writes, “Unfortunately, for a female pop star, her core asset is really her body.” Lieb has also written for the music industry’s leading trade publication, Billboard, and Rolling Stone.


Q: You say in your book that singing talent is not enough to make a woman into a pop star. What qualities must a female possess to “make it”?

Female popular music stars learn quickly, from many directions—handlers, fans, and society, to name a few—that their bodies and sexuality are their core assets. These artists learn to prioritize sexual attractiveness over talent because they are rewarded for doing so repeatedly. They compete in a crowded field to secure movie deals, magazine covers, and fashion lines to support their core brand, so they are routinely trying to outdo each other in this regard.

These stars have to be able to extend their brands across entertainment industry platforms, and, at this point, their bodies and sex appeal, more than their music, help them do that. As an example, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Fergie, and Avril Lavigne have all appeared on the cover of Maxim, and it’s not for their voices or musicianship—that’s not what that magazine is about. Those who don’t have the camera-ready “attractiveness,” which increasingly means a highly sexualized, porn-leaning look, aren’t signed [to recording contracts] as readily because they aren’t slam-dunk hits from a brand extension or merchandising perspective. So while musical talent helps secure record label deals in the first place, it’s just part of the assessment process for female artists.

Q: How was MTV a game changer?

MTV linked the artist’s image to his or her music in a concrete way. Before MTV, people often didn’t see an artist before they heard his or her music, so the music was evaluated on its own terms. But after MTV, as soon as an artist debuted, the audience knew what he or she looked like. So the music and image were consumed simultaneously. For women such as Madonna and Tina Turner, MTV was a great way of launching or sustaining an epic career. For women who weren’t as attractive and overtly sexual, MTV proved the music industry had limited possibilities. Take Bonnie Tyler. She had a hit song, “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” yet in the video, there are objects flying past her face, obscuring what she looks like in varied and sometimes hilarious ways. Other female artists didn’t even appear in their own videos.

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Lieb’s 2013 book, Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars (Routledge), details the way in which female stars’ singing talent is often trumped by the hypersexualization that is demanded of them.

Q: Most fans don’t understand how pop stars are constructed and marketed. Could you describe the differences between the marketing of a male and of a female singing star?

Young men and women are brought to market in nearly opposite ways. Young men are generally instructed to keep quiet and be mysterious, while young women are coached to over-share via social media, through every magazine under the sun, and in various television opportunities, which, unsurprisingly, leads to overexposure and audience fatigue. Young men are constructed to be sort of sexless, too, as their target market, mostly girls, would be threatened by highly masculine representations; the fascination with the bad boy comes later. In contrast, young women are mainly constructed to appeal as aspirational figures to young girls and aspirational girlfriends to young boys. If artists come to market as adults, the major difference is that men have more representational types available to them. They can play virtually any role or choose any persona, whereas women are strongly encouraged to debut as “good girls” and transition quickly into “temptresses.”

Q: Why do women in the field have shorter careers?

Women in the field have shorter careers because they suffer from overexposure and burnout. If you’re everywhere, all the time, as they’re designed to be, this is bound to happen. Lady Gaga is suffering the effects of that now. And Miley Cyrus is well on her way. Then, as female pop stars age beyond their peak, they lose their potential for expanding their brands into magazines, TV, film, and fashion lines, as age and beauty are drivers of success in those areas. So the game for them, at present, is to make as much money as possible until they’re no longer deemed relevant; at which point, some of them move to the background and begin writing songs for other, younger artists. Assuming, of course, that they write their own songs in the first place, which many of them don’t.

Q: Could you explain the impact Madonna had on female pop stars?

Madonna wrote the playbook for so much of what’s going on today. Simply put, she changed what people thought female performers could and should be. She’s also the first artist to “lap” my lifecycle model, which explains the phases that the most prominent pop stars must transition into and out of as they negotiate the top tier of the industry. So now Madonna is a “legend,” somewhere in the midst of her second career “life,” at least in terms of my lifecycle.

She taught young women that owning your sexuality could be empowering, which was critically important at that time. But the interpretation of Madonna’s sexual empowerment message has changed over the decades, as different artists have adapted it for their respective times. As I look at today’s artists, it strikes me that they might think the only way to be powerful is through their sexuality, which is a nightmare from a feminist perspective. While sex-first representations should be an option, they should not be an imperative.

Madonna communicated so much more than sexual empowerment: she built and ran her own label, successfully extended her brand into other entertainment realms, such as publishing and film, before that was common practice, and even launched careers for others. And by cycling through so many versions of her public “self,” Madonna showed other stars how many representational options were legitimately open to them, and how brand extensions could help enhance their already powerful and differentiated brands. Sadly, what was extracted as essential strategy, and persists to this day, is pretty much the most heteronormative, hyper-sexualized dimension of what Madonna did, not her cultural richness or complexity.

Q: What is your opinion of TV talent contest shows, such as The Voice?

The talent shows are interesting—to a limited extent. I’ve watched all of them at various times, but The Voice is the only one I have followed, with intent, for more than one season. These shows serve as a platform for the celebrity judges and contestants alike, so while the judges refine their brands, the contestants attempt to establish resonant brands themselves, using the star/coach association or relationship as support. I prefer The Voice to the others because it’s somewhat kinder and more nuanced. It also strikes me as more inclusive, in terms of coaches/contestants, and the narratives that circulate around them.