Once again, the unstoppable machine of pop music invites us to a tasting of a sweet and -- not incidentally -- black body. This time Rihanna entices listeners to join her in a celebration where the main course is herself on her song Birthday Cake. As a matter of fact, a popular remix seems to point to her ex, Chris Brown, as guest of honor at the party the song refers to. The live performances do not leave many doubts as to what part of Rihanna's body the word "cake" refers to. No need for winking, no double entendre: the song is a suggestive road map that guides the willing listener to blow the candles, lick the icing, and put his name on the artist's cake, described as "sweeter than a rice cake, cake worth sipping."
I am not trying to pass any moral or aesthetic judgment. Rather, I'm drawing attention on how popular culture, and in particular music, has compared female bodies to sweet substances that are there for the taking. "Honey," "sugar," and "sweetness" are common terms of endearment, without any explicit connection to oral pleasures and devoid of specific racial connotations. However, pop music draws more direct correlations between edible matters and female bodies. Lady Gaga hinted that she was an object of consumption when she showed up at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards wrapped in a dress made of raw meat. But these connections are particularly interesting in what many identify as African-American pop culture, although produced by the entertainment industry for all kinds of audiences.
Starting from the 1930s, culinary themes were especially common in blues music. A desirable young girl was called a "biscuit" and a good lover was called a "biscuit roller" (If I Had Possession over Judgment Day, by Robert Johnson, 1936). The complexion of a black person also played a role: "honey " referred to light-skinned persons, while "coffee" referred to darker ones, resulting in expressions such as "honey dripper" and "coffee grinder" as metaphors for a lover. Having sex was "grinding" (Grinder Man Blues, by Memphis Slim, 1940) or "squeezing lemons" (Dirty Mother for You, by Memphis Minnie, 1935). Jelly is an edible matter that denotes softness and sweetness, with connotations that point to childhood, comfort food, and satisfaction of primal drives. Peanut butter and jelly are often referred to as a quintessential treat for children and adults alike. The jelly metaphor, in which the physical consumption of food somehow mirrors the enjoyment of sexual pleasure, is not new, but originates in the 1942 song It Must Be Jelly ('Cause Jam Don't Shake Like That.
However, in recent years black female artists have started using these metaphors in ways that assert their power and control over their male counterparts. In her hit Milkshake, singer Kelis flips the stereotype from negative to positive to affirm the woman's control over the man's appetites. Realizing that her stuff is better than anybody else's, she refuses to share her skills and wisdom with other women. Otherwise she should charge a fee. Destiny's Child taunted listeners by reminding them that "I don't think you're ready for this jelly 'cause my body is too bootylicious for you, babe." In her song, Rihanna teases an imaginary male who wants her cake "in the worst way," positive about her control over him: "Don't try to hide it, I'mma make you my bitch." Who is the artist talking to? Just heterosexual males who find her come-on lines arousing, or also women who might identify with the sexual power and the assertiveness exuding from her?
Young black female performers might seem to have found, in the triangulation of their flesh, food, and sexiness, the key to affirming their commanding womanhood and their agency. Yet this phenomenon does not happen in a void, but as part of a massive showbiz industry that by commodifying minorities still allows mainstream culture to find new and discrete ways to reaffirm its power. At the same time, models of beauty that reinforce the preference for thinness turn female bodies into an object for entertainment.
For more of Fabio Parasecoli's work, visit The New School food blog The Inquisitive Eater.