I stay away from reality TV contests, but occasionally a performance goes viral that gets me to pay attention. A couple of weeks ago, it was 6-year-old Aaralyn O’Neil who got me glued to a YouTube clip of her performance on “America’s Got Talent.”
The production crew at “America’s Got Talent” set Aaralyn up to be a sweet little girl. Her pre-performance interview featured her talking to her brother, Isaiah, and speaking such words of encouragement that might be featured on a PBS kids show. “When we go out there we’re going to smile and be proud and not be nervous,” Aaralyn said.
“That was the best prep-talk I’ve heard,” her brother replied.
The moments leading up to their performance were backed with the sugary sounds of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and then little Aaralyn sang – and what an awesome song it was.
Aaralyn performed her original song “Zombie Skin,” a heavy-metal song with the lyrics “Everyone listen to me! I am a zombie! I’m gonna eat you up right now!”
She left the judges and audience in shock, but why? Even though Aaralyn and her brother made it to the next round, it wasn’t before giving some serious puppy-dog face after Scary Spice, aka Melanie Brown, rejected her because she had to be “realistic.”
It got me thinking: Would the judges’ reaction be different if it were Isaiah singing? I doubt he would have made it to the next round because it would have just been unpleasant to a reality TV audience and not a novelty. What’s so incongruous about a girl singing this music, and why were the women on the judging panel (models and pop singers) so taken back by this performance?
Little girls are sweet; Aaralyn is no exception, so her choice of music shouldn’t take away from that image. Similarly, the “sugar, spice and everything nice” image of girls shouldn’t hinder them or typecast them into a specific role. If a 6-year-old girl likes zombies and heavy metal and also wearing polka dot dresses, she should be able to enjoy all these things without a dramatic head turn from American audiences.
If Aaralyn sang Lady Gaga, the effect would be “cute.” If she played the violin instead, she would be considered a prodigy. She sings heavy metal – she is a novelty, used for comedic purposes to shock viewers and up ratings.
I think about the female pop star today and all that she embodies. The image is somewhere between a hyper-sexualized Oompa Loompa and pleathered dominatrix. Songs are about sadism and masochism, liking bad boys, open invitations to “come and get it,” etc., are seen as normal. If loose justifications for these messages make them acceptable and popular, watching “The Walking Dead” is just as much of a justification for a song like “Zombie Skin” to exist.
Anti-pop star feminists of the ‘90s like Kathleen Hanna continue to be role models for girls, even if her songs are over 20 years old. Hanna and her band Bikini Kill were part of the Riot Grrrl movement that put feminism in the forefront of punk rock music. The music wasn’t Spice Girls. Hanna was signing about issues such as rape, abuse and identity. When I think of Lady Gaga wearing her infamous meat dress, or Nicki Minaj wearing some version of a string, I think of Hanna’s “Kill Me” dress and the message it portrays.
I could try and explain it, but Hanna said it best when describing the dress (which was reproduced and up for sale as part of a recent VFiles capsule collection): “The point of the 'Kill Me' dress is to raise questions about violence against women and, specifically, what constitutes a woman 'asking for it?' If she gets drunk at a party? Calls a guy a jerk? Wears a dress that says 'KILL ME' on it? It also states the obvious, whether you wear a dress that says 'KILL ME' on it or not, as a woman you always have a bullseye on your chest."
Women in music have much more to uphold than their male counterparts. It isn’t just the music that has to meet up to pop music’s expectations. Women have to be the whole package: fashion, music and message. Sometimes that message isn’t the most empowering, and sometimes it has nothing to do about empowerment at all (just love of Zombies).
This is a long post to just tell Scary Spice and Heidi Klum to get over it. Aaralyn and all girls can wear pink dresses and listen to hardcore music if they wish. I was one of those girls, and I hated being asked if I “was a rocker” in middle school, as if that made me less of a girl.
Women into alternative music are not a novelty, incongruously cute nor “going through a phase.” In the case of Aaralyn and all little girls like her, she takes herself seriously, so adults should too.