Once upon a time, I was nine years old. I took spelling tests and struggled with long division. After school I would go over to friends’ houses and play with Barbies and Tamagachis. Sometimes, we would listen to music and bounce around. My childhood friend—who was, and remains, much cooler than me—would slip Christina Aguilera’s album into her boom box; shaking our hips to the beat, we would wonder exactly what it meant to be rubbed the right way.
Occasionally, I went to birthday parties at places like Mars 2112. Aliens would descend upon me; it made me anxious. This was the closest I ever came to a real party until high school.
Flash forward to my junior year at Harvard University. It is Saturday night and I go into my blockmate’s room to inquire as to whether my outfit for the birthday party we’re about to attend (sadly, not at Mars 2112) is appropriate.
“Have you seen it?” asks one of my blockmates, looking at her computer, her eyes wide.
It, turns out to be popular music’s latest gift to the world: Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.”
The music video features Smith, the nine-year-old daughter of actor/singer Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, singing/rapping her defensive, angry party anthem which implores all the ladies out there to whip their hair back and forth. Willow Smith, who was recently signed to Jay-Z’s record label, brings color into the sterile, white, presumably elementary or middle school cafeteria by dipping her hair in a boom box that contains red and blue paint and proceeding to whip it back and forth. A dance party erupts as the other children delight in their newfound color.
Smith sports long, tacked-on nails and stick-on crystals on her lips and eyelids. Her hairstyle appears to change with every setting, as she repeats the monotonous, caustic chorus: “I whip my hair back and forth.” It’s catchy in a sort of assaulting way. While singing, Smith scowls, flips her hand to indicate nonchalance and disdain, and, of course, shakes her head up, down, and side to side.
There is something profoundly grotesque about the spectacle, but I just can’t stop watching. First of all, the song is terrible. It’s mostly comprised of the chorus, which is monotonous at best, more accurately described as migraine-inducing.
The more one listens to the lyrics, the more perverse and puzzling the song seems: “Hop up out the bed turn my swag on / Pay no attention to them haters cuz we whip em off…I’m just tryin’ ’a have fun / So keep the party jumping,” the nine-year-old sings.
First of all, what swag? Do you swagger on into P.E.? English language arts? Furthermore, what party? The last party you went to at Chuck E. Cheese’s? I don’t go to very cool parties, I admit, but the idea of a pre-teen in attendance makes me very, very uncomfortable.
But wait. It gets worse. “I gets it in mmmm yea I go hard / When they see me pull up I whip it real hard / I whip it real hard, real hard, I whip it real hard,” Smith almost shouts.
Come again? One wonders if Smith even understands the implications of going hard, let alone whipping it real hard. Yes, ostensibly she’s talking about her hair, but the post-pubescent listener certainly isn’t thinking about the singer’s tresses.
Therein lies the grotesque nature of the video. To spout a cliché, in the age of YouTube and Facebook, it seems as though the concept of childhood is fundamentally changing. What does it mean for a child to sing about parties and hate, all while flaunting her hair, one of the most obvious signifiers of female sexuality? The child is introduced into the world as sexual object, as mini-adult. I have a word for this—pedophilia.
But it’s more than that. The video is more than just grotesque, it’s terrifying. Why are we teaching young women that their power comes from their hair and not their minds? I have no problem with pre-teen rebellion, sometimes school sucks and parents suck but a kid just wants to argue back—not become hyper sexualized, not whip your hair back and forth, but talk back. I want angry young women all over the country to use their minds, not just their bodies, to feel powerful.
Perhaps the most terrifying image in the video is when a toddler, dressed in a blue jacket, leggings, and high-tops, who can barely stand up on her own, dances to the beat surrounded by a group of delighted bystanders. She dons a pink bow in her tufts of baby hair. She too can learn to whip her hair Smith seems to be telling us.
While the sexualization of young women is nothing new to the music industry, Smith seems to have taken it one step too far. While the feminist movement is about taking ownership of one’s body and sexuality, it is also about recognizing that women are more than just their hair. Furthermore, it’s about allowing girls to truly experience childhood.
Even an annoyingly catchy tune can’t hide what “Whip Your Hair” really is—the tune of yet another lost childhood.
—Columnist Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.