3. Everything is porn

Maybe don’t read this if we’re related

Sometime in the noughties, everything turned into porn, although it’s hard to pin an exact moment on this, and of course the crossover between pop culture and filth is hardly a recent innovation. 

The Velvet Underground took their name from an exposé book about swingers (I have read it and let me tell you, I am not sure the author disapproved nearly as much as he was pretending to); the Rolling Stones’ artwork often leaned heavily on violent, pornographic imagery (and they were protested by the women’s movement for it); Madonna’s video for “Human Nature”, from 1995, is a fetish extravaganza. 

But in the noughties, porn was suddenly everywhere and in everything. The Terry Richardson aesthetic — stark, perverse, intended to (he said) capture the “internal porn star” of his subjects — was absorbed by the fashion industry and style press as a signifier of edginess, and then fully mainstreamed.

In 2007, Richardson shot Obama (at the time campaigning to become the Democrat nominee) for Hype magazine. By then, rumours of Richardson sexually harassing models and assistants had been around for several years, but this failed to dent his glamour. Richardson was a star, and as some other guy was saying in 2005: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”


Porn didn’t just provide the look of the era. By the end of it, it sex had become the organising metaphor for the experience of celebrity. “If You Seek Amy” by Britney from 2009 puts sexual objectification and public scrutiny on the same plane: “Love me, hate me, say what you want about me/ But all of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy.” (I’m not convinced this lyric even counts as a pun given that any reading other than the phonetic — say it out loud, away from any children — is grammatically unsustainable, but anyway.) The video ends with her putting on her best all-American mom face to meet the press.

That also goes back to Madonna: “Human Nature” is explicitly a riposte to critics of her Sex-era direction (“and I’m not sorry”, “I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me”), with Madonna making a defiant show of submission. In the video, she’s both an object constrained, and a subject who has chosen to provoke than surrender; legs pulled open, legs slammed shut. It feels subversive, although as ever, I’m not sure that performing the thing makes the thing go away. It’s a great video though.

It was also influential. In 2011, Rihanna revisited the idea for “S&M”. The lyrics suggest a connection between sadomasochism and the singer’s public profile (“Sticks and stones may break my bones/ But whips and chains excite me,” she sings, swapping out “words will never hurt me” for BDSM in the formulation), but the video makes it absolutely blatant. 

In the opening scene, the setting is a press conference: Rihanna is fixed to a wall with clingfilm while journalists assail her with questions. Over the course of the video, the relationship between her and the press switches up, and an impressive range of D/s activities get a look-in.

In one scene, she has the blogger Perez Hilton on a leash. (Related: I’ve written a profile of Hilton for the Sunday Times which will be out this weekend, and which I will be tweeting about incessantly.) But however it’s played, the implication is that fame is an eroticised power game, a submitting to restraint and pain in the service of somebody’s pleasure. 


In 2013, Gaga’s video for “Do What U Want” pushed this idea even further. The lyric is about sexual submission, but as well as urging whoever she’s addressing to “do what you want with my body”, she also tells them to “Write what you want/ Say what you want about me…” There’s a disturbing spectre of depersonalisation when she sings “You can’t have my heart, and/ You won’t use my mind, but/ Do what you want with my body.” Then things get even more disturbing, because it’s time for R Kelly’s verse.

Gender being gender, he’s not inviting Gaga to top him, but instead takes up the dominant role, singing: “Do what I want with your body.” This is dubious stuff from someone who had then been accused of multiple sexual offences (he’s currently on trial for related allegations, as mentioned in last week’s newsletter), but then it gets even more dubious when he starts in on “haters”. Like Gaga, he’s angry about his press treatment. Unlike Gaga he, um, had openly said that he’d done many of the things he was accused of doing. 

The video, directed by Terry Richardson, places all this in a medical fetish scene, with interludes where a naked Gaga writhes about on — of course — newspapers. (It’s quite hard to writhe about on a blog, I guess, so the symbolic register for media is probably going to be trapped in the print era for a while yet.)

But my analysis here is based on leaked stills, because the video was never released. Somewhere between the project’s conception and when it would have been made public, Richardson flipped from being an asset to a liability. He hadn’t changed, but attitudes had: rumours about his on-set behaviour were no longer the acceptable friskiness of a genius pervert, but instead represented the patriarchal abuses of a rape culture exponent.

The idea that public status for a woman equates to sexual availability — to sexual violability — is a very, very old one, and it’s at play in these videos. But the way they deploy it is specific to a time in which pornography had wholly infiltrated everyday life. It was no longer roped off in dingy shops or specialist magazines: it was available at will via the internet, without the risk of being caught and humiliated. And the internet, too, had heightened the pervasiveness and invasions of fame. There was an irresistible rightness to bringing the two themes together.

Sarah x


Do you have a favourite song/video that combines sex and fame? Comment or reply to tell me about it please!


Leave a comment

Gimme more