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Burn The Witch: The Gender Politics of Being an Auteur

Radiohead’s recently released video for their single “Burn The Witch” presents a juxtaposition of evocative and unsettling images, rendered even creepier by the fact that they are depicted using adorable claymation figurines. We are shown an unassuming little village, where flowers are being used to decorate gallows, and a close up look at a sumptuous feast, the camera lingering on a piece of meat with blood pooling beneath it. 

Some of the motifs, such as the townspeople wearing animal masks, and the final image of an outsider forced inside an enormous sacrificial wooden man that slowly burns to the ground, are directly taken from the film “The Wicker Man” a 1973 horror film about a pious Christian policeman who, in investigating the kidnapping of a young girl, ends up becoming a pagan community’s human sacrifice.

I’ve been fascinated by the overwhelmingly positive response to this re-purposing of classic iconography, especially since just a week earlier, Beyonce’s visual album “Lemonade” was met with some skepticism when she was basically doing the same thing—collaborating with other artists and drawing on sources of inspiration in order to construct an entirely new work of visual art. While Radiohead’s creative skills are presented as innovative (In an interview with Gil Kaufman for Billboard, animator Virpi Kettu states that her collaboration with Chris Hopewell, the video’s director, was intended as a kind of warning against groupthink, especially in response to the current refugee crisis) Beyoncé’s are often interpreted as a kind of outsourcing. Even reviews that champion “Lemonade” tend to focus on Beyoncé’s collaborations as a sign of business-savvy rather than pure artistry. 

In a review for ABC News, for example, Allan Raible commends the album for being ambitious, but also asserts that Beyoncé, “surrounds herself with a lot of good people” and that “Beyoncé and her producers both know how to quote and sample well.” In fact, Beyoncé’s considerable success is often seen to be in direct tension with her ability to be taken seriously as an artist. At The Daily Beast, Kevin Fallon praises the power of “Lemonade," but also raises concerns:

"You can’t talk about this album without acknowledging its surprising vulgarity and language, which Beyoncé is absolutely entitled to use in her art and her expression of womanhood, but, because of her public primness and often calculated nature we see her in, can seem inauthentic. In the same way her assorted genre mastery can seem like an artist not committed to a singular voice, the explicit content, from her mouth, can seem more theatrical than genuine."

It’s hard to imagine a male artist receiving this same level of criticism for being “inauthentic”—after all, both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had heavily constructed images, and are seen as consummate musical geniuses. But for female artists, the bigger, wealthier, and more powerful they get, the more we question whether they are contributing anything of value at all. Artists like Madonna, Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé may be upheld as great businesswomen, but their financial success is also seen as somehow diminishing their potential for artistic greatness. It’s a type of criticism rarely levelled at talented male artists like Radiohead, even when they also operate in positions of incredible power. In an article for The Guardian, Alex Marshall notes how Radiohead’s keen sense for business is not seen at odds with their artistic identity

“'Does it remove the romance from their music?’ he asks. ‘Of course not. I don’t think financial structures come into any musician’s head when they sit down at a piano, let’s put it that way. They can split the business side from the creative side. But this is the music business and that second word is important.’”  

Likewise, in an article entitled, “Why Radiohead set up a new company each time they release an album,” Hazel Sheffield presents the band’s desire for full creative control as “innovative,” a distinctively different spin from how we view similarly ambitious female artists. Take Taylor Swift, for example, who consistently receives criticism when advocating on her own behalf: Central Penn Business Journal cited Swift as a “pop diva” in reference to her dispute with Apple, just as Perez Hilton wondered whether her open letter was really just a publicity stunt. 

Even artists who don’t fall into the “diva” branding are minimized for their artistic contributions. Contrast the reception for Radiohead’s video for “Burn The Witch” with Lana Del Rey’s 2010 “Video Games,” which catapulted the artist to considerable fame, but was also maligned for drawing on an aesthetic that some labeled “inauthentic.” Critics were concerned with her use of “vintage” images of old Hollywood starlets, how she was simply “copying” an aesthetic, rather than coming up with something new. Many questioned whether the beautiful young woman’s entire “brand’ was merely a construct. 

Radiohead and Beyoncé may be equally wealthy and powerful purveyors of pop culture, but the very different gut-level response to their work showcases how we think that male artists who reach great heights are deserving, while female artists are often met with skepticism. It’s also a reason why Radiohead can draw on two very specific white, British references and be seen as conveying a “universal” message, while Beyoncé’s exploration of black womanhood is considered a “niche” topic that is potentially divisive. And it’s the reason why male artists like the late Prince and David Bowie are consistently heralded for their amazingly avant-garde outfits and experimental performances, while female artists like Lady Gaga and Sia are more often looked at as simply seeking attention.  

In her 2015 article “The Fragile Ears of Men” Leah Finnegan contends that male reviewers are to blame for the dismissal of female artistry. But this oversimplifies a very complex problem—there are plenty of male reviewers who “get” artists like Joanna Newsom and plenty of female reviewers who dismiss her work. It’s the subconscious cultural bias against female artists, especially those who gained some measure of success, that we need to look at more closely. 

The critical response to Radiohead’s latest video illustrates how we genuinely trust male artists to create, collaborate, and draw on images responsibly, at a time when we still tend to dismiss female artists. This has far-reaching implications, with women in the entertainment industry still not being seen as worthy of equal pay or even equally developed speaking roles. It also shows how, even in today’s modern world free of actual witch hunts, the female artist is still often perceived, first and foremost, as a potential threat.


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