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14 June 2017updated 05 Aug 2021 10:32am

From Beyoncé to Little Mix (via Kendall Jenner): how protest went pop

Branding, messages of empowerment and fashion trends all converge in female-fronted pop videos, which are increasingly using protest imagery. 

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In case you hadn’t noticed – protesting is on trend. Politics and fashion have had an uneasy relationship for decades, but in the last few years, the idea of performing a protest as a fashion statement has ramped up. Catwalk “protests” have wildly varying degrees of political sincerity, from Vivienne Westwood’s anti-austerity protest in 2016 to Chanel’s bizarre faux-feminist demonstration on their S/S 15 catwalk, which featured more vague and nonsensical slogans like “Make Fashion Not War”.

Missoni’s pink cat-eared hats make you look like you’re permanently at the Women’s March on Washington, Balenciaga’s 2017 menswear collection included items usually found at a Bernie Sanders rally. Editorials, too, have played around with placards and megaphones: Fashion Gone Rogue’s “The Protest of Venus” editorial, Wad magazine’s “Slut Cat Walk”, Vogue Paris’s “Reality Show”.

It’s not just a high fashion trend, either. High street brands have taken up the placards and protests aesthetic, from Rachel Antonoff’s And Other Stories campaign to Monki’s “#monkifesto”. And in 2017, we don’t need reminding that protests are often used to sell things other than clothes. Fashion model Kendall Jenner’s disastrous Pepsi advert, which featured protesters holding generic placards promoting such radical ideas as “love” and “peace”, comes from a long line of brands using activism in advertising (from Levi’s controversial “Go Forth” video to the original movement marketing, Coca Cola’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”).

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Of course, fashion’s idea of an aesthetically pleasing protest often looks very different to the real thing. Genuine anger is filtered out for something more clean, posed and choreographed. The branded protest imagery might feel superficially empowering but is divorced from the radical messages of its origins.  

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Branding, messages of empowerment and fashion trends all converge in female-fronted pop videos, which are increasingly using protest imagery. While some videos, like Rihanna’s “American Oxygen”, rely on footage of actual protests, more dramatise them in a way that feels particularly influenced by fashion and advertising.

As with most pop culture analysis, we could start with Beyoncé, whose video for “Run The World (Girls)” features a group of women (and, of course, a lion) gathered in the middle of a desert with red flags emblazoned with a black “B”, faced off by a male SWAT team. They are in coordinating outfits, deliberately arranged – some on top of a car, some stood in uniform rows, some crouched on the floor – and motionless, the only movement the wind fluttering through the flags. With hands on hips and chins held high, the models stare down the camera as though posing for a print editorial.

Until Beyoncé slowly approaches the men and starts dancing. At first, the women behind simply salute and raise their firsts with alternating hands, but eventually Beyoncé leads the women in the finest gender-segregated dance off yet (surpassing even Christina Aguilera’s “Can’t Hold Us Down”). While music videos invoking protest and militaristic imagery often feel like cold, corporate endorsements of empowerment feminism, Beyoncé’s decades-long association with girl power, and the sheer fierce energy of the song lend it a sincerity which later videos lack.

Take, for example, London-born singer Dua Lipa’s video for her regrettably catchy single “Blow Your Mind”. The video features Dua Lipa and a group of impossibly beautiful women in designer outfits incongruously protesting inside one of the most expensive, desirable and exclusive estates in central London – the Barbican.

“Blow Your Mind” begins with a series of more traditional tracking shots of Dua Lipa and her friends in fixed poses. The camera pans over details in their clothing as they stand either totally still, or with a very small level movement, in a combination of slow motion and standard shots. The focus feels firmly on the clothing, which are a mix of colourful, ostentatious fashion items and punk aesthetics. Structured, poised and glossy, you half expect brand names, prices and the odd “model’s own” to appear in white serif text at the side of the screen.

The protest element enters the video during the second chorus: the group raises placards bearing vague slogans: “Dua for President”, “I Predict a Riot Baby”, “Kiss and Make Up”, “Not Your Babe”, “We are One” and “You Can Sit With Us”. There are a mass of contradictions here – Dua Lipa’s lyrics and the video’s props (patches, safety pins, placards, flags) work to create an anti-capitalist sentiment within a polished, consumerist framework.

The film feels influenced by that Chanel runway show (as well as borrowing heavily from the genuinely political video for Skepta’s “Shutdown”). Here, too, protest imagery is appropriated in service of a brand, but here the brand is Dua Lipa herself. Arguably, Beyoncé does this too with her “B” flags, but her song is actually about feminism: girls can run the world. Dua Lipa’s lyrics don’t reference any political movement, but like an advert for a major label, nods to her name and song appear throughout – from the custom bejewelled MWAH collar to the “Dua for President” placard to the “Blow Your Mind” banner. And despite the racial diversity of this group of women, and the inclusivity of some of the placards, like the Mean Girls-referencing “You Can Sit With Us”, there’s still a deliberate cool-girl vibe at play here. The video purports to be a celebration of equality and inclusivity, but is in actuality an exclusive, private party in an exclusive, private space.

Last week, British pop group Little Mix made their contribution to the canon with their video for “Power”. Another specifically girl-power oriented song, featuring the refrain “Baby, you’re the man / But I got the power”, it ends with all the members of Little Mix and their mothers (literally) leading a protest march.

It’s fun, it’s energetic, it’s colourful. But like that Pepsi ad, “Blow Your Mind” and the Chanel catwalk, it too is plagued by vague signage: Love, Peace, Make Love Not War. Still, there are hints of something ever so slightly more radical: the odd rainbow flag, the Venus symbol and “girl power” slogans.

The fear is that when protests become trendy, they co-opt genuine movements for capitalist aims (the Pepsi ad is a case in point). But music videos, which aren’t quite adverts but also aren’t quite straightforward works of art isolated from a capitalist system, are trickier to ethically pin down. I’m sure there’s plenty that could be seen as problematic at work in all three of these videos, but if a young girl watches a fun, exciting, sexy video like Little Mix’s “Power” and is introduced to wider concepts of feminism, then I’m all for it. Even if I won’t be holding a “Make Fashion Not War” sign any time soon.