Amal Awad laments the lack of meaningful lyrics in today’s music, and fears the repercussion of negative lyrics on the impressionable young.
I recently read an article bemoaning that meaningful lyrics are a ‘mythical beast’ in modern pop, with the writer noting the ‘stupidity’ of the new James Bond theme song, sung by Adele. Exceedingly talented she may be, but not even Adele can make ‘… you may have my number, you can take my name, but you’ll never have my heart’ sound particularly original or clever.
Yet, while modern lyricism does appear to signal a decline in musical standards (just tune into MTV), the mournful Adele and fads like Gangnam Style are the least of our problems. The bigger issue is how negative and disempowering portrayals of females are becoming standard and wield significant influence over young listeners – of both sexes.
I’m chuffed that we have singers like Yuna emerging in the Muslim world (and a hijabi to boot) sticking to old school love song lamentations and yearnings. That, in stark comparison, to singers like Wynter Gordon, whose song ‘Dirty Talk’ you’ve probably heard blasting out your gym’s speakers:
I am no angel, I love it when you do that stuff to me
While many of us sing along to music without realising what we’re saying, it’s worth noting that Dirty Talk also features such colourful lyrics as:
Latex, champagne, bubble bath, whipped cream,
Cherry pop, tag team, can you make me scream?
Forget a lack of meaning, substance or cleverness in lyrics – pop, hip-hop, R&B and rap are delivering a hypersexualised world, which also embraces violence and misogyny. Research shows that instances of ‘degrading sexualisation’ in lyrics tripled between 1999 and 2009. And it’s a global issue.
The bigger issue is how negative and disempowering portrayals of females are becoming standard and wield significant influence over young listeners – of both sexes
A cursory glance over just a few mainstream hip-hop lyrics reveals women are frequently addressed as ‘hoes’, ‘b*tches’ and ‘hoochies’. Often they’re being ‘smacked up’, beaten up, or judged and vaunted according to their ‘booty’ and ‘boobs’. We’re either innocent and waiting to be plucked; temptresses making guys hot; or cheaters who’ll get what’s coming to them. (Just choose your genre.)
More frightening is how being treated like crap by a man is glorified, with misogyny amounting to some tragic form of romance. In Love The Way You Lie Pt II, Rihanna, somewhat remarkably given her personal experience with violence, croons that her aggressor will always be her hero, acknowledging that their ‘battles’ are what keep her satisfied. That’s all fine and well if that’s her story, but given the demographic she appeals to, it’s hardly an ideal or empowering message for the young ones who admire her.
Meanwhile, her reported (returned) paramour Chris Brown – newly inked with a rather charming tattoo of what appears to be a woman’s beaten face on his neck – deserves an honourable mention for misogyny. Brown has not only been criticised for his rap sheet, but also for lyrics that descend into many people’s version of hell. In Till I Die, Brown sings:
I super soak that ho
Show’em no love
Throw’em a towel
In another song, he warns the girl he’s ‘romancing’ that: No is not an option.
Sweet. If you think it’s just innocuous background noise, check out Buzzfeed’s recap of just 25 of the tweets diarising how getting beaten up by Chris Brown would be ‘just, like, the best thing ever’!
If R&B is your thang, consider your garden variety superstars like Usher, whose latest offering features such erudite titles as ‘Scream’ and ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’. His songs are frequently about sex – and getting girls who look at him a certain way to have sex.
Got one life, just live it, just live it
Now relax, sing it on your back
Somewhat classier is Ne-Yo, who goes from desiring Miss Independent to – in a nod to the classic damsel-in-distress deal – offering to lurve his girl until … until … she learns to love herself, dammit.
Hate speech against women isn’t just coming from male artists – just take a look at Nicki Minaj…
On the seedier misogyny front, the hip-hop universe is the biggest culprit. And perhaps the biggest travesty in all this is the lack of female role models for young listeners. Hate speech against women isn’t just coming from male artists – just take a look at Nicki Minaj’s florid repertoire, which points to a female chauvinism we should be deeply worried about, given her appeal amongst younger audiences.
Remember that cute appearance of two little girls on Ellen a while back? I do, and like just about anyone with a pulse, I loved it and thought Minaj came across as warm, kind and super clever. It was completely at odds with her violent, woman-hating alter ego, Roman Zolanski. Now I just wonder when we’ll see little Sophia Grace take on Stupid Hoe, which not only refers to other women as b*tches, but features a resounding chorus of, not surprisingly, ‘You a stupid hoe’.
As Jessica Shreindl of the website, policymic, notes, female artists are tearing women down – and we should be asking ourselves why.
‘Why would such a talented, smart woman turn on her own sex and feel the need to tear her sisters down? Why would such a strong, powerful woman need to develop a violent, sexist male alter-ego named Roman Zolanski to get respect?’
In Minaj’s words, you’ve got to be a ‘beast’.
‘That’s the only way they respect you. When I am assertive, I’m a b*tch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss.’
Yet, far from her predecessors’ example (eg Salt ‘n’ Pepa), empowerment isn’t Minaj’s schtick; because she’s competing with the men, she feels she has to act like one. And the men aren’t behaving nicely towards women.
Perhaps, as Feministing’s Sahmita suggests, Minaj’s role as ‘the only woman in mainstream hip-hop’ is ‘patently unfair’ and one that ‘probably dictates a lot of her creative choices’.
Indeed, what are women up against, when modern song lyrics feature scantily-clad, weak-willed girls, who aren’t strong, independent or able to exist sans heroic man giving her a little somethin’ somethin’? You’d be hard-pressed to find a video clip that doesn’t involve some serious booty, lots of skin, and a woman grinding up against a man looking powerful and all ‘WTF, y’all!’.
Not even Beyoncé has successfully navigated that minefield, switching as she does between harnessing manufactured girl power in a leotard and ‘running the world’, while cataloguing songs that preach ‘keeping it tight’ for her man in Cater 2 U. Christina Aguilera hovers between inner beauty and getting down and ‘drrrty’; Rihanna sings about S&M; and Katy Perry shoots whipped cream out of her breasts.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, country darling Taylor Swift embodies America’s Sweetheart, with the ‘virgin versus tart’ trope embedded throughout her songs and music videos (think lots of white dresses). And while she’s widely condemned as propagating anti-feminist ideals, Swift’s romantic views of relationships are indicative of a much larger issue in popular country music.
If all that’s not enough of a red flag that females are getting a bum deal in music representation, consider how young, impressionable listeners seek comfort – and guidance – from their favourite singers. And while they shouldn’t be elevated as role models, they’re often charged with providing the soundtracks to our lives.
It’s not surprising, then, that studies show there’s not only under-representation of women in various forms of media, but that sexual violence is du jour when we are portrayed. Consider the ubiquitous echoes of pornography that infiltrate every day entertainment – namely sex, violence and the dominant male.
I’m all for love songs, but today’s ‘ideal’ is one that, quite frankly, scares the crap out of me, given the way in which they glorify male dominance over females – who, incidentally, are tempting men and begging to be ‘sexed up’. The fact that violence and misogyny are themes kids (and adults) can cheerfully sing along to should be cause for alarm.
Please, can someone bring back not only meaning, but humanity to music?