Music video age ratings: yay or nay?

Lily Rosengard 21 October 2014

Have you ever watched a music video and panicked that it was actually a link to soft porn instead? People walk behind you in the library and glance at your screen; you’re red faced but then you begin to calm down a bit: they don’t seem to care. You realise that they, well we, have become completely desensitized to sexual behavior displayed openly in front of us.

I’ve always had these thoughts in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t until I saw my 12-year-old cousin share a link to J-Lo and Iggy Azalea’s new song ‘Booty’, that I became seriously concerned. In the public sphere of Facebook, she was expressing a taste for, and even an aspiration towards, this hyper-sexualised routine performed by almost naked ladies.

Of course we cannot tie this sort of onscreen behaviour just to music videos. It is a symptom of more widespread cultural issues of over-sexualisation and objectification. However, through watching music videos such as Rihanna’s ‘Pour it up’, it is clear that we need to place serious attention on the influence and prevalence of these videos, and try to change this for the better.

You may therefore share my delight at hearing that online music videos are to be given age ratings, similar to how films are classified. Though a voluntary scheme at the minute, three of the biggest labels in the UK (Sony, Universal, and Warner Brothers) have signed up. This is great news. It shows an acknowledgement from music industry of the increasingly sexual nature of many music videos that at the minute, can in theory be viewed by the sorts of young kids these days who learn how to use YouTube on an iPad before learning to tie their shoelaces. If they see this material when they are young, and in particular, a normalized objectification of women in many videos today, they may grow up to view this as the norm.

Despite age rating systems sounding promising, there are serious loopholes in this proposal. For one, it may even end up producing more provocative music videos than before. Instead of producing videos on the cusp of inappropriate, directors will now get a new freedom to shoot whatever they like and just rate it an 18. With age ratings, nothing is off the table. No frame can be too vivid, violent or sexual. Instead of glimpses of people having what can only be assumed to be sex, one imagines there will now be music videos that are far less suggestive… so long as they have been given the ‘appropriate’ age rating. As a general rule, teenagers have a natural inclination to be rebellious. A video they are perfectly entitled to view is certainly no where near as appealing as one they are not quite old enough for.

With this new proposal, there will be no standing on tip-toes or checking of ID at ticket booths. This is the virtual online world we are talking about. This age rating system is set to work in the same way that you may watch an ‘adult’ program on 4od by ticking a box to state you are most definitely over 16. Unlike the pimple-ridden ticket boy who works at your local cinema, the screen does not intuitively know your age, once again bringing us back to our original problem.

Another core issue with age ratings is that it appeals to the notion that after a certain arbitrary age, all previously explicit footage becomes fair game. That on your 15th birthday you are infinitely more mature than you were yesterday, and now for your present: you are now perfectly entitled to watch the blatant objectification of women in videos like ‘Blurred Lines’. This is clearly a ridiculous proposal, and instead we should promote the idea that it is never acceptable to make or view these sorts of videos, whether you are age 15, 19, or 65.

Furthermore, only those artists signed to UK labels will be involved in the scheme. This means that all music videos you may have instantly thought of as the most damaging (queue Miley Cyrus, Shakira and Rihanna), will not be affected. However, if the UK trials prove successful, there is always the hope that the US will follow suit in the future.

Ultimately, though the concept of movie-like age ratings is hopeful, it seems far more must still be done before they will have any serious effect. There needs to be a more secure way to make sure 15 rated videos are only watched by those of this age or older, rather than a irresponsible tick-box system- especially if these ratings will create increasingly provocative videos.

Simply put, at this stage, the age rating scheme seems a half-hearted, flimsy suggestion; it is certainly not a solution. Ultimately, if these ratings are going to make a difference, we have no choice but to get the Americans on board.