Bill Savage // 3 March 2009
Is it just me or is there something fundamentally baffling about that new Diet Coke advert starring Duffy? In the ad Duffy comes off stage, knocks back some Diet Coke, and gets told she’s got two minutes before her encore. She spies a bike in the backstage area and before you know it she’s hopped on and is cycling around a supermarket singing about how she’s ‘just got to be me’. In her wake an unsuspecting female shopper and some women inexplicably putting on make-up in the supermarket car park tentatively join in the song. Having spread the good word around the local retail park Duffy makes it back to her gig and the ad closes on a can of Diet Coke next to the slogan ‘hello you’.
I say I’m baffled by this ad (rather than irritated or nauseated, which would also be valid responses) because it is squarely located within those kind of postfeminist representations that are inherently baffling to anyone who doesn’t think women’s liberation can be achieved through the aggressive consumption of low-calorie fizzy pop or the judicious application of Dove thigh firming cream. But Duffy’s contribution to this ignoble tradition is particularly baffling. Through her love of Diet Coke and ability to ‘be herself’, Duffy awakens the nascent desires of the other women to break the shackles of male domination and say ‘hello you’ to their new, fully agentic and ready-to-consume selves. The implication of this is that their former, non-Diet Coke drinking selves were not real, or somehow under the influence of a (very obscurely implied) patriarchal authority (doing traditional domestic work of food shopping, having to fulfil normative femininity with make-up). In comparison Duffy seems to be succeeding at ‘being herself’ – she’s the very model of the successful independent woman. Last year she sold more albums in this country than any other artist, and two weeks ago she won three Brit awards, including the coveted ‘Best Album’ which is very, very rarely won by a female artist. She is, you would think, free to ‘be her’ to quite a large extent.
But is she? The issue of artistic and personal authenticity is an especially vexed one for female musicians who invariably fall foul of a gendered and hierarchised divide where masculine rock is valued over feminine pop. Being a woman automatically aligns Duffy with the commercialism and inauthenticity of pop rather than the ‘art for art’s sake’ authenticity of rock. See how often interviews flag up her former participation in the Welsh version of the X Factor, or her total ignorance of the history of ‘serious’ music prior to her enlightenment at the hands of producer Bernard Butler, as evidence of this. Then there are the constant comparisons with Dusty Springfield based, seemingly, on the similarity of their hairdos. Comparing female artists only to other female artists is another music press/media trick to keep women musicians in a subsidiary ghetto which prevents them troubling the established rock canon too much, but comparing Duffy to Dusty has a particular irony here given the late, great Miss Springfield’s penchant for revelling in the inauthentic: the wigs, the heavy make-up, the mimicry of heterosexuality. The Dusty persona was never ‘real’ as such, and we might ask whether any woman wanting to be successful in the mainstream music industry can be ‘themselves’ or whether they’re obliged to fit into whatever model of femininity is currently the most profitable.
Duffy’s ‘I’ve gotta be me’ then comes across as more of a cry for help, an implicit critique of the marketing of female artists. Whatever vestige of artistic authenticity she might have earned via her career has been converted into ‘being yourself’ and commodified to sell soft drinks. Bafflingly the advert might really be saying that Duffy is not free to be her. Perhaps her mid-gig tour de supermarket is her “Diet Coke break”, where she is temporarily freed from the workaday worries of being an international popstar. Like the women in the old Diet Coke campaign who broke their mundane office routine to drink pop and ogle workmen, Duffy needs to break the monotony of performing to sold out audiences by taking in some extra-curricular cycling. Maybe being a popstar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and certainly no way to ‘be yourself’. Obviously, even thin, pretty, successful women still need to drink Diet Coke to achieve that end…