Minnesota musicians embrace nudity, but with caution: ‘Your sexuality can be used against you’
Sex on the beach. Maybe thats the visual metaphor Lizzo was going for when she posted a photo of her nude body in the Bahamian surf on Instagram and Twitter in late October.
That was the day I unfollowed her. Where I once recognized her as a trailblazer in the Twin Cities music community and respected her for being a role model for women of all shapes and sizes, the nudity was getting to be too much. Among other salacious recent posts: a nude mirror selfie with one nipple strategically covered by her phone, the other starred out. Lizzo in red lacy lingerie on a bed, positioned as if awaiting rear entry. A video of Lizzo in the shower, pressing her bare butt cheeks against the steamy glass.
What I feel when I look at these images is not disgust. Its disappointment. Its sadness. Lizzo is already more famous than most musicians ever dream of. She went from performing with small-time Minneapolis hip-hop indie bands such as the Chalice and Grrrl Prty to releasing the nationally acclaimed solo albums Lizzobangers (2013) and Big Grrrl Small World (2015) before signing to Atlantic Records and releasing the smash EP Coconut Oil, in 2016. She has appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman and on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. Hundreds of thousands of fans follow her on social media.
In other words, Lizzo doesnt need to entice audiences with sex. Thanks to her infectious music, she has the masses wrapped around her fake fingernails.
It must be seductive, though, this I am [a sexual] woman. Hear me roar message. It might even feel empowering. But her voice her very art gets lost when her skin is the main attraction. Those who liked Lizzos bare butt online? They arent necessarily absorbing her messages about self-esteem and body acceptance. They arent listening to self-love anthems such as Good as Hell or My Skin. Instead they devour her with insatiable eyes.
Perhaps the hip-hop queen realized this, as well, because she started slapping the hashtag #sexualnotsexualized on her more recent racy posts. We reached out to Lizzo, with hopes that she might discuss her thinking on nudity and sexy social media posts. I have no comment, she said.
This isnt an issue only for women artists, either. Male musicians also straddle the gap between sexual celebration and self-exploitation.
Take Tickle Torture, the onstage persona of 33-year-old musician Elliott Kozel, who built his fan base on the Minneapolis music scene. His lascivious live act, inspired by the likes of David Bowie and Prince, is steeped in sex (and sequined facemasks, and body paint, and confetti and costumes and craziness). An exhibitionist, Kozel often posts pornographic pics to social media. Hes also known for running naked through audiences and exposing his genitals onstage.
Its about freedom, I guess. And trying to encourage everyone to be comfortable with themselves and with their bodies and their own sexuality, he said.
That said, sometimes his fans enthusiasm crosses the line once in a manner so egregious that Kozel will speak about it only off the record.
Many assume (erroneously) that Kozel is the same wild sex banshee in real life that he is onstage. Hes been spanked while streaking through crowds. And his anything goes reputation has prompted fans to beg, sometimes repeatedly, for a glimpse of his penis. (If you ask for it, you dont get it, he said. Ive been trying to keep it locked up these days.)
Sean Tillmann, a Minnesota musician best known for his clothes-shedding act as Har Mar Superstar, tweeted his frustration recently about the lack of acknowledgment for the good music he made before he started taking off his pants. (The Nov. 29 tweet was since deleted.)
Tillmann declined to comment for this piece, but his PR rep Michael Lantz confirmed in a statement: Hes trying to move on from the underwear Har Mar days. He says he loves them but they also pigeonholed him quite a bit.
Claire de Lune, a 28-year-old singer-songwriter who cut her teeth on the local music scene, struggles with intentions vs. perception when it comes to nudity and wielding her sex appeal. She was a member of the Chalice with Lizzo and now makes music as Tiny Deaths, a provocative-sounding dream-pop project whose name borrows from the French term for orgasms.
In pop, its always sort of been a standard to be sexy and dress super-feminine, she said recently. She enjoys wearing alluring outfits onstage, posts the occasional suggestive selfie on Instagram, and tweets her sex-positive views, although shes much tamer than Lizzo or Tickle Torture.
Still, she acknowledges that her openness is risky. As a musician in the indie realm, or trying to make serious music, you maybe hesitate to be sexy or show your sexuality because you want to be taken seriously, she said.
Rather than entice or shock, De Lune shows skin in an ongoing personal quest to accept her body, even if it doesnt match up to model industry standards. She once did a photo shoot with Grant Spanier in which she forgot to wear pants on purpose, because shed seen another local musician post a selfie in her underwear. She was quickly told to put some clothes on by an Instagram follower.
Your sexuality if you put it out there can be used against you, she said. You want to embrace it in a public way, almost to prove to yourself that its worth embracing, but you also want to protect yourself from creepers.
In a perfect world, artists could express their sexuality without endangering or demeaning themselves. Unfortunately, the culture just hasnt evolved that way. This probably explains why musicians seemed more conflicted than they initially let on about using their bodies to boost their careers. Both De Lune and Kozel got back in touch after their interviews to express anxiety about a few of their statements and how they might be (mis)interpreted.
Kozel didnt seem interested in changing his ways, though. I like putting on a good show, and if some people just come for that, thats fine with me, he said. But I like to think its backed up with good music.
As De Lune matures, she cares less about what fans and audiences think. I feel like Im coming into my own a little bit more. I feel more confident as far as trusting my own opinions, she said. If youre coming from a genuine place thats healthy when you do something, youre never going to look back at that and regret it. But if youre coming from a place thats unwell or insecure whether that was covering up or taking your clothes off youre not going to feel proud of that decision later.
As for that pants-less pic? She recently reposted it with the caption: I regret it 0.00%.
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer and book author from Minneapolis.