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Sex Work, Body Positivity and Black Power: Christina Aguilera, Mýa, Pink and Lil’ Kim’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ at 20

In 2001 few would have predicted one of the year’s most culturally significant songs would arrive in the form of a powerhouse collaboration between Christina Aguilera, Mýa, P!nk and Lil’ Kim. 20 years on it seems obvious. Produced by Missy Elliot, ‘Lady Marmalade’ not only furthered these four artist’s careers but expanded the possibilities of popular music for thousands of women who followed.

Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mýa & Pink  - Lady Marmalade (HQ)

‘Lady Marmalade’ Is One Of The Most Succesful All-Woman Collaborations In History

‘Lady Marmalade’ was recorded as part of the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann‘s Moulin Rouge. A film about a decadent Parisian cabaret club, Luhrmann’s historical backdrop gave licence for Christina Aguilera, Mýa, P!nk and Kim to push the sexual boundaries of modern pop. Standing side by side, garter to garter, they transported viewers to the turn of century Paris, luring them into a world of debauchery and glory.

The song, however, holds a much deeper cultural significance. ‘Lady Marmalade’ was first composed by songwriting team Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan during the early 1970s. They wrote the song after visiting New Orleans, a multicultural port city and famous melting pot of American musical traditions.

Founded in 1718 as a French colony, New Orleans’ mixed cultural roots contributed to the birth of the blues, jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and funk. It was also famous for its sex workers. Crewe and Nolan were widely believed to have written the song after their own experiences with sex workers in the brothels of New Orleans’ red light district.

‘Lady Marmalade’ Was Controversial

The public was first introduced to ‘Lady Marmalade’ by R&B legend Patti LaBelle in 1974. Singing about female empowerment and sex work was still taboo in the early 1970s. Most people weren’t ready for such controversial lyrics. Let alone from women of colour.

The song’s most famous line is sung in French.  In English, the song’s well known chorus line “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir ” translates into “Do you want to sleep with me tonight?” These provocative lyrics caused a stir. Accusations of glamorizing prostitution were at the forefront of public discussion of the song. Many television platforms responded by censoring and refusing to play the song’s “risqué lyrics”.

‘Lady Marmalade’ Projected Black Power

In a 1986 interview with NME, Patti LaBelle made a statement shutting down the stigma that condemned sex workers. “That song was taboo,” she recalled, “I mean, why sing about a hooker? Why not? I had a good friend who was a hooker, and she died. She never took the mike out of my mouth and I never took the mattress from under her. She was my friend, doing her thing. I don’t believe in separating people. If your job is as a hooker, more power to you.”

Persistence in the face of prejudice saw Patti LaBelle and her group Patti and LaBelle become the first Black female vocal act to land the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. They were celebrated for their glamorous look and sexual persona. “Quite possibly,” The New York Times wrote of Labelle in February 1974, “the men who run music in all its phases in the Western World are afraid of them. Because they are strong, and because they are black

‘Lady Marmalade’ ensemble shot.

‘Lady Marmalade’ Expressed Ownership Of Women’s Sexuality

Fast forward 27 years. By 2001, a lot had changed for female expression. The early 2000s were an era of constantly shifting cultural attitudes. Conservative views like the ones which had marred the career of Patti LaBelle were giving way. This had its advantages. There was now an opportunity. It was time for some of the sexual undercurrents (like the kind Lil’ Kim had been projecting in the the world of hip hop) to break through to a mainstream audience.

And so in 2001 ‘Lady Marmalade’ was revived once more. Who better to bring back to life such a controversial piece than four equally strong women? With Christina Aguilera, Mýa, P!nk and Lil’ Kim signing on to re-record the song, ‘Lady Marmalade’ would again become the anthem for pushing the envelope of women’s sexuality.

Dancing, Diamonds, Fishnets And Feathers

Lil’ Kim, a former partner of Biggie Smalls, rapped about women’s identity and sexuality. Her work does not receive broader recognition outside of the world of hip hop and pop but nevertheless, her honest lyrics have been a tremendous influence on the current generation of woman in rap. At the time of ‘Lady Marmalade’, Mýa was a pop R&B act at the height of her recording career. With artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna yet to break the mold, Mýa, alongside Christina Aguilera, was ready to push the boundaries of the Girl Next Door persona expected of women pop stars at the time. P!nk, another forerunner to this generation’s more authentic pop stars, was simply herself.

Recording the song and filming the memorable video was not without its drama. “We worked really hard that day,” Lil’ Kim informed Billboard in 2019, “I remember there was a little tension because, you know, Mya’s my girl … but a lot of the girls didn’t know each other. I knew almost everybody, but it was like everyone was in their own little corner.” P!nk had a different view claiming in a 2009 episode of Behind the Music that Aguilera had intimidated the others into allowing her to sing the song’s climactic vocals. The pair have since made amends.

We Are Women, We Are Hot And That’s Okay

The burlesque recreation of ‘Lady Marmalade’ for the single’s music video saw the four artists dancing around a boudoir in teddies, corsets, fishnets, dramatic makeup and heels. Unlike Patti LaBelle, they were not subject to censorship. The video combined incredibly talented vocals with coordinated peep show style dancing, diamonds and feathers. It was something the world didn’t know how much it needed.

They moved their bodies in a way that screamed “we are women, we are hot and that’s okay”. All while rapping lines such as “we independent women, some mistake us for whores”. Although the song’s message was clear to women, it was not well received by the predominantly male music critics who evaluated the song. Peter Travers writing for Rolling Stone in 2001 compared the song to Madonna’sLike a Virgin‘ “but instead done as a pimp dance for aging white men”. Travers played into the common cultural conclusion that these talented women were only dancing for men instead of accepting who they were. ‘Lady Marmalade’ oozes with power and ownership over their sexuality.

‘Lady Marmalade’ In A Post WAP World

Because of trailblazers like Patti Labelle and the risk-takers who made 2001’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ women now have an opportunity to explore the boundaries of their feminine glory. While the lyrics of ‘Lady Marmalade’ were once attacked as too provocative, we now live in a time where sexual innuendos forefront our modern music. Not only do we sing along to explicit songs like ‘WAP’ by Cardi B, but we are also comfortable enough as a society to approve of the slew of celebrity faces that appear in the music video as well. We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Because of this it is hard to fully comprehend the history of the fight against the oppression fought by female artists.

‘Lady Marmalade’ has now been received by a whole new generation. Growing up with the song Millennials and Generation Z took inspiration from the song’s message of sexual empowerment. However, we must not forget the obstacles that first had to be overcome by Patti LaBelle in order for these women in the early 2000s to have had the opportunity to sing in the manner they did. (And, in turn, the risk Christina Aguilera, Mýa, P!nk and Lil’ Kim took to create the more permissive atmosphere of modern pop.) Please do yourself a favour if you haven’t yet seen the 2002 Grammys, where Patti LaBelle appeared to perform alongside this powerhouse foursome, stop whatever you’re doing and watch it now.

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