If you’ve been on social networks in the last year, and any of your friends are women, it’s entirely probable you’ve heard a bit about Goldieblox. Really, you absolutely should have, because the intentions behind the product are entirely solid: create a building toy that young girls will want to play with, and inspire them to want to create, instead of the same old toys that foster the most tired of female stereotypes: have all the babies! Marry all the princes! Date all the cuties (but holy God make sure it’s ONLY THE CUTIES)! Instead, we have “embrace math! Think independently and creatively! Break the patriarchal cycle!” A bold set of goals for a toy? Sure. Still, the fact that this idea exists is heartening to many who see it as a step away from ridiculous gender divides. Women can do what men can do. It’s a basic fact of life, and it’s positive to have any company willing to have that be their message.
By comparison, “Girls” by the Beastie Boys is in no way going to be singled out as a high point for women’s rights. It’s the quintessential teen guy song, and I don’t think that needs to be shameful. It captures the simple joy of reaching one’s sexual peak and finding out that, holy crap, girls are totally hot! I presume women have a similar eye-opening moment. I have no doubt that it crosses boundaries of gay and straight… when we hit our sexual awakening, our preferred type of person just stands there, illuminated and drawing us in. We don’t understand it, but we revel in it. Eventually we grow up and grasp the complexities of this desire, but when it begins, it’s like solving a mystery.
So “Girls,” for many straight men, and surely a number of lesbian women, captures that immature but honest moment of hormonal reverie, and I can appreciate it in this light. I don’t get on board with the use of homosexuality for humor, nor do I get on board with the (pretty obviously flippant, IMHO) description of the things women are good for toward the end, but I appreciate the song as what it is, and nothing more. It’s pretty clearly musical humor, from the tinkling vibraphone to the ridiculous “bom bom bom” backing vocals, so even in my youth I never took it as serious. If there is some sort of misogyny at play, I tend to think it is the latent, unrealized sort. It was the 80s, after all, and in a world where the most childish of the Beasties can go on to marry feminist punk icon Kathleen Hanna, I doubt the song was ever intended to be anything but tongue in cheek. Even so, it is an 80s relic just waiting to be lampooned.
In some ways, then, the folks at Goldieblox choosing to take “Girls” and use it to their advantage was a smart idea. Girls are not just here to clean, cook, and be sexually attractive, as the song suggests: the whole appeal of the product is that it is attempting to shatter the paradigm of toys for girls, and present an option which is definitely marketed to them without selling them the Prince Charming or Housewife routine. It’s a goal more companies should have set for themselves by now. Sadly, in choosing to parody the song, Goldieblox failed to grasp another important lesson for their target market: if it’s not yours, it’s not yours.
I’m persnickety about parody and covers in general. This is not news for those who know me, despite my love of performing other songs and my respect for a great parody. It is simply that both are oversaturating the musical landscape. In both cases, this allows maximum exposure for the creator, with minimal effort. The melody is written already, and the lyrics often have jokes built in based on the content. Girls are the theme and main lyric of “Girls”. It doesn’t take much to turn the song into a song about girls, because it is. It’s ostensibly lazy, and it really isn’t guaranteed to pay dividends in the long-term. Ask the hundreds of musicians who wrote (frequently bad) parodies in the Napster era and inevitably were labeled as “Weird Al” songs how successful their parody made them. Ask Orgy or Alien Ant Farm how long their careers sustained after getting famous off a cover. Hell, even Weird Al creates original content for 50% of any given album… it’s a basic sign of respect for your craft to actually mine your own ideas.
Al also takes the time to reach out to the songwriters he is planning to parody, again as a sign of respect. This is obviously, if you’ve been following along, not what Goldieblox did.
The Beasties, for their part, at least publicly showed their respect for the concept that the company is striving for. However, they also restated a point from their song “Triple Trouble”: “I ain’t sellin’ out to advertisers.” They also point out that Goldieblox chose to file a lawsuit against the Boys before they took any legal action. For those who are not cynical business sorts, I’ll repeat that: the company sued the people who wrote the song they used without permission, before any actual legal action was taken by the songwriters. This is the mentality consumer art has taken in the early 21st century: if there is a property to be exploited, it will be, and fans will gobble it up rabidly. One would presume a true fan of something would actually be offended by the people who seek to profiteer off of their favorite work, but it’s unsafe to presume anything these days, and so we have “huge fans” of Bill Watterson who replicate his work, despite his desire to never market his own work (this goes as far back as the days of Calvin peeing on things… it’s not like Watterson approved it), and “huge fans” of the Beastie Boys taking their work without permission and suing them for not wanting this to happen. For lack of a better term, it’s all a bit childish.
This is all pretty well-worn terrain at this point. I’m not saying anything new about the facts of the conflict. I do, however, find all this concerning from a company which desires to make a change in how children are raised. The source material isn’t exactly mature on its own, and the Beasties are not free from sin on sampling others’ work, but to me the conflict here revolves around responsibility. We have a toy creator who believes young women need better role models, and need toys that teach them new roles. I don’t disagree with these goals. Still, if one is going to position oneself as trying to make a statement about child development and the lessons one should learn early on, there should be a bit of consistency. All of the shattered stereotypes in the world will not make for a better world if we are also still teaching children that art is worthless unless we can profit from it, let alone the more insidious belief at the root of this whole debacle: when all else fails, even if you’re not right, sue. Sue even though you want what belongs to someone else. Sue even if the other side isn’t. Use the full power of the law to get what you want, even when basic human decency states otherwise. Crush anyone you can crush to build your own empire. Especially if you can steal something from them. You can do anything that men can. Even the terrible things that no one should be doing.
We as a culture are ready for the next big step in equality, and I would relish buying my daughter anything that wasn’t pink and set up to simulate domesticity, if I had a daughter. This whole scene, however, has simply left a bad taste in my mouth, right down to knowing that the yard too far in this fight was the late Adam Yauch’s will, not the wishes of the living members. Music belongs to us all, because of how we take it in. We can hear songs anywhere, we can capture them in our minds, we can record it from the radio or through the air, we can reproduce it simply. That’s part of what makes music so meaningful to us. We can’t forget, though, that music doesn’t just appear. It is created by someone, and that someone should always have rights regarding its usage. We make a lot of assumptions when we presume other people’s art should be ours to do whatever we wish with. Assumptions as insulting and ridiculous as defining young girls through baby dolls.
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