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In Grammy week, in the month the federal government issued some guidelines on the arts industries and their approach to exploitation and abuse, in a year where individual local record companies will be protected by their industry body again … what’s new?

Wind Back Wednesday visits a speech given to university students 20 years ago on the topic of who’s sold and how, what’s bought and why, and who thinks they’re above it all.

Yes, to confirm, this was delivered in 2003, not 2023. Can you tell the difference?


I WANT TO LOOK AT HOW two singers, both women, are marketed and how the media responds to them. One’s Holly Valance, the other is Avril Lavigne.

In one sense they’re almost the opposite of each other: one does dance pop, the other plays rock; one is very clearly using sex, the other tries to downplay sex altogether. But both are seen by a large segment of the media and public as being all image and they’re dismissed for that reason. And both are being bought by teenage girls.

Is that a coincidence?

Last year I looked at the Holly Valance album and thought, when did Ralph Magazine take over album covers? There she was in cut off shorts, unbuttoned at the top, her jacket open to show a black bra. The shots inside had her draped in her underwear over a woolly lounge and generally looking like a photo shoot from one of those magazines aimed at teenage boys and men who still act like teenage boys.

But I suspected and the record company confirmed that Holly Valance’s singles and album were not being bought by teenage boys or even young adult men. One record store owner I asked about this said “the only guys who buy it are those who wish they were her”.

So I was confused: if the music wasn’t being bought by straight men why was it being marketed at straight men? I put the question to the record companies and their answer was that I, like many of us in the media, just didn’t get it.

Holly Valance wasn’t being marketed at men. Men were just the halfway point. Men were what the marketers were using to make Holly Valance, or Britney Spears, or any female figure with any sex appeal, more appealing to women and girls.

How does that work? A lot of it is aspirational, they told me. Firstly, when they were younger, singers such as Britney or Christina Aguilera saw the likes of Madonna dressed like this and they wanted to emulate their heroines. They weren’t being forced to dress in a particular way by men managing them as we all thought; they wanted to dress this way. No doubt the next generation of pop singers are watching Britney or Holly and thinking the same thing.

Next came the way the image has an effect all its own. As a publicist who has worked for both Britney and Kylie told me, if the boys are noticing the girls take note. “If the image is eye-catching, it’s something people will want and want to be,“ she said.

So even though the highly sexual imagery in the photos and the filmclips and the lyrics were not meant to arouse straight girls, the fact that they had that effect on straight boys was noted and appreciated by the girls, the ones who were buying the singles and albums.

Now is this right? I don’t know. It’s certainly what the record companies believe and their marketing strategies are geared that way. And their sales suggest it must be working some of the time. And the clothing retailers would back them up. You may not be buying the singles or albums or clothes but someone sitting alongside you today has been. Have they bought into the marketing?

A week ago, I attended the Avril Lavigne concert. She’s only a couple of years younger than Holly Valance, but she has made a point of not marketing herself as the super babe. She’s one of the guys, wearing the same clothes, copping the same poses as the other blokes in the pop/punk scene. She doesn’t want to be labelled as just a girls’ artist, she wants the boys buying her too.

One of the messages is she isn’t being manipulated by anyone; she’s natural. How true is this? Well, keep in mind that like just about every artist on the charts she’s signed to a record company with a lot of money and a big marketing division.

But I saw her perform and she was good, at least as good as the boy bands in the same genre, the Blink 182s and Sum 41s. I said so in my review and you should have seen the abuse that came in, all from blokes, angry that I should compare her with these other bands. She was a fake, a marketing exercise, they said. I don’t know, maybe she is, but then so are they, all those boy punk bands dressed the same, sounding the same, jumping around the same.

And the audience at her concert, some as young as six, though mostly in their early to mid-teens, didn’t care either way, they were having the time of their lives. Is it because at their age they don’t care so much about what boys think?

More interesting for me though was the media reaction. Radio stations and newspapers like mine got stuck into her for the same reasons those letter writers expressed to me. She’s a fake etc. she can’t be a punk she’s young, clean, a girl.

She was being tarred with the same brush as Holly Valance. Why? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was because she’s not a boy. The message is she can’t be credible if she is a woman. Even if she doesn’t play the game of skimpy clothes and do me baby lyrics.

Maybe she can’t win that argument. Not yet anyway. But she has the fans already, the ones who don’t care whether Avril Lavigne is popular or respected by the boys. The ones who have seen past one image, even if it’s only as far as the next image.

The point of all this? You’re smarter than the marketers and media manipulators think you are but it doesn’t mean you’re immune. We all think we’re making decisions based on sensible grounds, on our knowledge and our needs - not what someone whispers in our ear. But we’re all capable of being talked into buying into an idea or an ideal that isn’t us but becomes us because we’re told it often enough. And that’s true whether the idea is a pop song or a body shape or a way of behaviour.

There’s an old saying that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. In other words, if you want the freedom to choose always be aware of who’s offering you the choices.


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