A van’s back doors open on a street corner in New York; two shifty indie types in scarves, coats and bobble hats jump out and wander down Broadway, checking around for cops. The guy pulls off his hat and drops it, then his scarf; 20 feet later he’s lobbing his jacket over his head behind him and helping to yank off the girl’s coat. Within a few seconds they’re both topless, dropping their kecks as they skip past phone-filming onlookers until they stand naked beneath the billboards of Times Square. For 20 seconds. At which point they’re wrestled to the Tarmac by two fist-flailing NYPD goons.
Were the rozzers so quick to manhandle Janet Jackson to the ground after her ‘wardrobe malfunction’ at the Superbowl? Would they have been so quick with the mace spray if it’d been the Pussycat Dolls flashing their grumblies down 42nd Street? Or would they, perhaps, have helped clear the traffic for them instead? Because while pop has used flesh-flashing to flog records since ‘Making Your Mind Up’, this was the video for Brooklyn perk-punkers Matt & Kim’s ace new single ‘Lessons Learned’ – the pinnacle of a new wave of unconventional indie nudity. And that’s just obscene, right?
Ever since Beth Ditto, with that NME cover, sparked a new era of confrontational ass-baring across the underground you can almost hear the mainstream gagging on its Glamour with each fresh acre of exposed indie flesh. No Bra plays topless? Put ’em away, luv! The Big Pink clutching each other’s knacker-sacks? Guh-rosss! Matt & Kim parading their privates around the streets of New York? Cover your eyes, Jemima, they’ve got tattoos and clearly smell of Ginsters! The mainstream likes its pop nakedness airbrushed, titillating and one blurred pixel short of full-frontal; all this normal person nudity is just cringe-worthy…
Now I could argue all day about the benefits of promoting normal body shapes, the artistry of PJ Harvey’s ‘Dry’ sleeve and the power of ‘keeping it real’ in the face of the far more offensive R&B videos full of bikini-clad honeyz being paraded like saleable meat. But the fact is, even I cringe when I see alternative artists getting naked, but not for any crass aesthetic reasons such as cellulite, arse foliage or Dalston Knobrot.
While sex may sell pop music, it undersells alternative rock. Pop sexuality is all about teasing you with the promise of the perfect sexual being; a promo peepshow full of pouting slave-for-you Britneys and sold-by-the-pound Saturdays. Rock, however, is about luring you in with the mystery, cloaking the mundane and wonk-toothed in the psychedelic poncho of the enigma. As soon as you strip the indie act bare, it becomes instant gimmick. I can recall watching The Dandy Warhols play to a crowd of five at The Dublin Castle, until Zia got her knobblers out and the room filled with panting he-geeks inside half a song.
Similarly, what happens when No Bra wants to play a gig with a bra on? Her entire concept gets underwired out of existence? She renames the band Respectably Clad? Nudity instantly overshadows artistic merit: spot quiz, what’s the first thing you think when I say ‘Flea’? Exactly.
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What’s more, indie bands can get nudity painfully wrong in a way only ever equalled by Horne & Corden. Whereas The Cribs were knowingly witty with their girl-next-door-ha-ha-not-actually-naked-at-all video for ‘Men’s Needs’, Amazing Baby’s recent ‘Electric Ladyland’-style shots with nude models screamed ‘what’s wrong with being sexy?’ and The Virgins’ balls-out bondage T-shirts verged so closely on gay porn that one NME staffer was almost wrestled by security when he dared to wear one as far as the canteen.
Indie nudity is always hawked as a ‘statement’, but of what exactly? The need to shock as much with their bodies as with their songs? Metal does it better. The desire to overturn media propaganda of what is a ‘desirable body image’? Their sheer unsexiness defeats the purpose. A visual metaphor of how far they’re exposing themselves within their music? We don’t need to see your knackers, mate, we get it.
When a pop star gets naked for a video it’s in their contract, when a rock star does it it’s pure self-indulgence. Pop music is shallow enough that it needs sex to sell it; rock music, I would hope, is meaty enough meaning that there’s no need to actually show us ‘the meat’.