Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Great Lyrics Debate

There are many tricky dilemmas that face us in this spoilt first world palace in which we live. Apple vs Android. Steiner vs Sudberry. Drinking vs driving. However, if there is a bigger conundrum facing us than how to be a feminist, pro-homo, peaceful kinda gal (or guy) who listens to and love the lyrics of pop and hip hop, I don't know what it is.

I am the most ardent of ardent feminists. If feminism were a person, I'd feed her chocolates, brush her hair and give her a good seeing to on a regular basis. I am proud to be a feminist; it makes me feel whole, excited, connected.

I am also a pop and hip hop DJ. When I'm listening to hip hop music, it feels as though it is the very blood that is coursing through my veins, giving me life, energy and joy. Good pop music invigorates me, makes me feel whole, excited, connected.

I am also a fierce collector of words. Lyrics are my greatest weakness. I mine them for meaning and see myself in their nuances. I pride myself on knowing every pop lyric I have ever heard, and a few I've only heard about. However, this creates problems for my ideological self.

For once, I am actually part of the current pop zeitgeist in terms of what is Now Playing in my head. I cannot resist the current UK number one All About That Bass by Meghan Trainor. What a fantastic piece of pop. And, I initially thought, what an empowering piece of feminism as well, fighting the popular narrative of size 0 body fascism. Go, Meghan! My two great loves married in three minutes and 18 seconds of perfection.


Having listened a little more closely, I started to become troubled. I still love the song, don't get me wrong, but I am much less of a fan of these lines:

Yeah my mama she told me don't worry about your size
She says, "boys like a little more booty to hold at night"
You know I won't be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll
So if that's what you're into then go ahead and move along

Johanna, I hear you cry - what's wrong with that? Teaching the larger ladies to love themselves has gotta be a good thing, right? Well, yes, right, I certainly agree with that. But teaching those ladies to love themselves at the expense of smaller women? Propagating the myth that women can only be thin or clever, never both? Assuring women that if their size is ok with men, it should be ok with them? None of this sits right with me. Don't be hating on other sisters, no matter what their shape or size. How is calling people 'skinny bitches,' as the song goes on to do, any better or worse than 'fat cow'?

As I said, I still heart the song, but I would heart it a whole hell of a lot more if the target of criticism was the oppressive patriarchy that enforces models of beauty, not other women who happen to look different. Thus, poor old Meghan Trainor is told off in my head and order is restored.

This train of thought led me on to a whole other argument which gets me into a right terrible tangle. It was suggested to me recently on a bulletin board I used to frequent that I have different standards for women who write lyrics than I do for men.

We were debating the merits of the frankly horrific Lady Gaga song Do What U Want. I heard the song on Jonathan Ross or some such and was genuinely appalled, in a writing-to-Points-of-View kinda manner, by the refrain of 'Do what you want to my body' repeated ad infinitum.

A closer inspection of the lyrics reveals that this is a (somewhat tenuous, I would argue) metaphor for the press; they can do what they want to her body (though surely she means image or reputation?) but they won't take her heart and soul. A commendable sentiment, when seen in its whole.

I felt, though, that it was pretty damn irresponsible of a female pop music star, whose fan base is partially made up of little kids, to be singing 'Do what you want to my body' over and over again. It seemed to me that this is encouraging the culture of women as being nothing more than sex toys for men; and encouraging it from the inside, in a way that will make little girls start to doubt their right to own their bodies and to say no if other people do things to those bodies that they don't like. The little kids aren't necessarily gonna grok the wider context. They will hear the chorus and start singing it back and all hell may break loose. Won't somebody please think of the children? I write this paragraph and fear I'm turning into Mary Whitehouse in my old age, but the song just felt so wrong to me.

(Of course, I am aware of the possibility of some bias here. I don't like Gaga. If Madonna had been singing the same song, I'm sure I would find a way to justify my love. However, I really don't think Madonna would place herself in a position of such passivity. It's not her style.)

My friend put it to me that I expect women to be role models in their lyrics and expect no such thing from men. This is not equality. I argued against it when the accusation was made, but I have to admit there is some truth to it. I listen to Pharrell Williams ('Mister! Look at your girl! She loves it! I can see it in her eyes'), Jay Z ('I got this model chick that don't cook or clean, but she dress her ass off and her walk is mean'), Beenie Man ('I want a dude who will tie me to the fan, a thug that can handle his biz like a man')*, Booty Bass ('Shake that ass, bitch, and let me see what you've got') and so many more. And I (uncomfortably, for sure, but still) write these words off as being funny; too ridiculous to take seriously. But let's be real; whatever the crimes of Meghan and Gaga are, they are clearly as nothing compared to that collection.

Several explanations occur to me here.

Firstly, I wonder if there is something about such blatantly misogynistic lyrics coming at me from men that I have normalised and just come to expect. Not that any of the men in my actual life talk to me in anything approaching this way, I should point out. But hatred of women - violence against them, objectification of them, minimising of them - is so prevalent in the wider culture that perhaps I have internalised some of this hatred and just think it's ok for men to talk to about me and the missus in this way. Certainly, if I hear music that is homophobic, I don't laugh it off. I hated myself for my love of Guns n Roses as a teenager and always skipped past One In a Million with a sick feeling in my heart. I had to turn Jedi Mind Tricks off the other day because all I could hear was hating on the homos. And the gay thing really blots my otherwise unending love of Eminem, whereas Kim, his song about killing his wife, I can forgive. Homophobia? Hell no. But a bit of light sexism? Ach, what does it matter, between friends.

Secondly, it can't ignored that all the men whose lyrics I have listed above are black, whereas the two female pop stars I've listed are white. At least, I'm assuming Booty Bass are black... I don't actually know. This may be partially cos I like a lot of black music and am less keen on the sort of white male music where one might encounter sexism - metal, I imagine? Punk? I dunno. There's not a hell of a lot of sexism in Simon and Garfunkel or Jack White. (Nick Cave, Guardian readers' darling, is another matter with his murder ballads, of course.)

However, I am also forced to confront the uncomfortable fact that it might be an ugly form of prejudice within me. Do I think it's ok for black, male musicians not to be as sophisticated in their thinking as I expect white female musicians to be? If so, what the hell does that say about me? Really, nothing good.

I haven't reached a conclusion. I welcome your comments, although I'm a little scared of them as well. But in the mean time, perhaps I'll try to concentrate my DJing efforts more on the artists who make me dance and make me proud, because they are out there. Ms Dynamite, Public Enemy, Lily Allen, Mike Skinner, Kate Tempest, KRS-one, Nas. Male, female, black, white... those guys - I salute them.

*It should be noted that this is a female backing singer on Beenie Man's song. Although given his other prejudices, it's rather amusing me that it sounds like he wants to be tied to the fan and given some biz by a man.


  1. Great post, remember the conversation on the other message board very well. A lot of the songs I like aren't exactly PC, the Stones have some very sexist lyrics, for example, but you kind of forgive them because a) the Tunes are great and b) it was the 60s, everyone thought like that. And Nick Cave is a God who can kill off (in song) whomever he damn well pleases. Pop music is, at his best, the id gone mad after all.

    As for Meghan Trainor, she needs to listen two two old rock groups who handled the female body image thing with way more sensitivity and panache. I am of course talking about Queen and Spinal Tap with their loving hymns to curves, Fat Bottomed Girls and Big Bottoms.

  2. Thanks Freddie! I think about that conversation often... you are very good at making me think about things a bit harder than I would do otherwise.

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  4. I often ponder what it says about me that I don't take umbrage at the subject matter of 'Cocaine Blues' when I listen to Johnny Cash performing it. Man kills woman under the influence of drugs and alcohol and goes on the run - maybe it's the fact that he gets caught and sentenced to 99 years in jail and that the pay off line cautions the listener to lay off the intoxicants? What about 'Delilah'?

    I fell in love with Iron Maiden as an impressionable 12 year old when 'Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter' gatecrashed the charts at number one (banned by the BBC! A chart rival to Saviour's Day! What's not to like?), the lyrics being an, um, interesting interpretation of teenage hormonal development. I don't mind because I love Maiden. Is that wrong? Probably.