(This post is taken from an extra credit assignment I turned in for a sociology class this spring. Figure I might as well milk it for a little more use here. I expect it to be ignored or dismissed as “crazed feminism” or moral handwringing. But hey, I felt like posting something today and this is the best I could do. Come back some other time for more anime ‘n stuff.)

The cover for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way is a typical example of how women in advertising — or in many other forms of media — are not simply objectified, but are commonly portrayed as actual objects, as explained by media critic Jean Kilbourne in her documentary series Killing Us Softly. Here the artist, who’s well known for appearing in outlandish and provocative costumes both in concerts and in photoshoots, is transformed into an actual motorcycle. The image is bizarre, attention-grabbing, and unmistakably Gaga. The meaning or intention behind it is rather vague, and for listeners encountering the artist’s image for the first time, it will certainly leave a lasting impression. What troubles me is the disconnect regarding Lady Gaga’s empowering lyrics (to say nothing of her work for GLBT kids), which often concern ideas of identity and self-respect, and the disempowering nature of the album cover image, which is totally absurd on the surface but has enough potential to affect some of her younger listeners. I’m somewhat ambivalent about this conclusion; why is it allowable for David Bowie (surely an inspiration for Gaga and her ever-shifting public image) to portray himself as a dog and not okay for Gaga to show herself as a motorcycle? Is this a (sexist?) double standard? By the end of 2011, Born This Way had sold over 8 million copies worldwide.

The debut album from Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday, introduced the world to the Trinidad-born star, whose verbal prowess quickly established her as one of — if not the — premier female MCs in the world. Judging by her songs, music videos, and willingness to take risks that few rappers would dare — her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” was likely the most memorable of 2010 — she is more concerned with breaking conventions than establishing herself as anything resembling what we know as a traditional pop star. The cover of her debut album depicts her as an impossibly leggy doll, legs splayed open and arms missing. It’s at once an extremely sexually provocative image and one that’s reminiscent of childhood, the realism of the image blending the two themes into a rather disconcerting portrait of disempowered and submissive femininity, the polar opposite of the persona she embodies on her aggressive verbal delivery in her music. Gaga’s bizarre cover is simply surreal compared to the rather explicit impression that this image stands to make on young girls who might encounter it, delivering an impossible message about body image to an audience more receptive to it than any other. Again, I’m willing to admit that I’m possibly missing the point concerning this cover. For years pop stars have used album covers to portray themselves as flawless beings existing in an airbrushed hyperreality. For years, female artists were forced to present themselves and define their public personas according to a very limited set of choices. Only in recent years have artists like Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and others (Pink, Robyn, M.I.A., etc.) taken steps to subvert and skewer these traditional notions of “sexiness” or “perfection” in the media, often with a healthy sense of humor and self-deprecation,* and by doing so it could be argued that images such as these may be less damaging to the impressionable minds of children and tweens (primarily girls, although boys are not immune from the effects of such images) than traditional “beauty” that falsely appears within the realm of the obtainable. Pink Friday has sold over 2 million copies in the US, and over 300,000 in the UK.

Sorry For Party Rocking, the second album from electropop stars LMFAO, has sold nearly a million copies in the US since it was released over one year ago. The album’s most popular song, “Party Rock Anthem,” was first immortalized in the “dancing hamsters” Kia commercial, and went on to be one of the biggest hits of 2011, spending six weeks at number one. Sorry For Party Rocking features both band members pressing their faces against the stomach of a (presumably topless) young woman, who’s cropped (decapitated?) above the shoulders. Her body is objectified, treated as an easel for the album’s title. Much like the songs within, the album cover could be construed as completely ironic or silly fun not meant to be taken seriously, but I do have to wonder how old most of the listeners who bought or received it were, and what effect the cover image might have on their attitudes toward women or (for girls) themselves.

*I’m assuming that Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj had a hand in producing said covers, and that their image is not controlled from men on high (as I suspect it likely is in the case of, say, Britney Spears) but by their own visions.