Hello You

by Bill Savage // 3 March 2009, 12:50

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…

Comments From You

Mercat // Posted 03 March 2009 at 13:35

Interesting post, Mr S. I do find this ad stupid and irritating, but I like to think I'm not baffled by it - Duffy's simply being paid a huge amount of money to tell a big porky pie lie to other gullible (or so the advertisers think) women who they want to manipulate. End of. At least I HOPE she's lying, because if being Herself really does involve drinking diet coke and cycling around supermarkets, then she'll soon be needing some serious medication.

If I was a successful pop star I'd be swigging vintage champagne, riding around in limos and paying someone else to go to a bloody supermarket for me. And I like to think I wouldn't have sold out by agreeing to do something like this ad, although I can't be sure. This might make people lose respect for her.

Oh, and there is one crucial difference between Duffy and Dusty - Dusty could, er, SING!

Right, I'm putting me claws back in.

Beth // Posted 03 March 2009 at 14:38

Isnt it a little confusing to say that by putting on some make-up and fancy clothes a la Nancy Sinatra or Marilyn Monroe, you are somehow NOT being yourself?

Women and men throughout the history of rock have used costume and make-up as a valid form of self expression. That's what gets me about this ad: it IS confusing. The idea that you're only REALLY being yourself, not when you're singing, doing what you love to entertain on stage, but when you're being oh so 'naughty' drinking some fizzy pop with the gals. Rock n' roll! *heavy sarcasm*

Milly // Posted 03 March 2009 at 15:15

Surely Duffy is the antithesis of 'being free' - she is such a pop-by-numbers creation, the end product of months of strategic market research on people who buy middle of the road pop. 'People like 60s nostalgia? Oh if only we could create a popstar with 60s hair, clothes mannerisms and songs...'

Anne Onne // Posted 03 March 2009 at 20:43

Really interesting contribution. :)

I also think it worth pointing out the flack less serious female 'rock'/kind-of-rock-kind-of-pop artists such as, say, Pink, Avril Lavigne or Kelly Clarkson get. Regardless of what one would classify them, and whether one likes their music, they differ from the standard woman pop template to varying degrees.

Male artists of the same kind of genre (angsty, not particularly hardcore or indie) get less grief for not being hardcore enough or poppy enough from what I see of critics. I do feel that they get flack for not making enough of an effort to appeal to men or be pop enough. At the same time, they don't try ten times as hard as most male artists to be 'cool' or appeal to traditional music buffs.

Men in music have more freedom to perform without having to be sex objects to anywhere near the same degree. They don't have to sing about wanting their cheating partner back, or how sorry they are. Female pop music seems to be a lot more limited in the themes it pursues, and the emotions explored differ.

Come to think of it, men are more often placed into the 'rock' category than women, even if their music is pretty similar in rockiness/poppiness. There's this assumption that men do rock, maybe very soft rock, but rock none the less, and that women do pop, it may have heavy guitars in it or whatnot, but women do pop.

And of course harder core female artists get sidelined and ignored, so you can't win.

Female artists are underrepresented in rock, and there's a tendency to judge female singers by a different standard, even if they're in the same genre.

Then there's the 'women must be sexy and sing about wanting some arsehole back' rut female artists get stuck in. They get called whiny more often if they deviate from the pop template, and there's always

Personally, I think we need artists in all genres and that music is more of a continuum than a set of discrete boxes to tick, and that each artist should be appreciated for what they bring to their area. The image of music appreciation being a masculine, pretentious club based around appreciating some random male artists seen as amazing is probably one of the main reasons women seem to be less interested in pursuing it that far. Appreciating music, as well as performing is taken to be a male activity based around the superiority of artists or movements seen as male.

This may all be tangential, but I wanted to add something about the construction of female artists' images and musical style, and how they are then interpreted. A complicated topic I am not knowledgeable to talk about in detail, but I do think that there is a double standard (or more likely, lots of double standards) involving men and women in music...

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