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Lyric Epiphanies

Despite how aware I am of rape culture and the effect that it can have on our lives, I am sometimes woefully slow to pick up on the violence that is prevalent within much of the music that I listen to.  Most of the time, I have it on in the background while I am reading, working, driving, crafting, or any other activity.  I am quick to pick up the words, melody, and beat of a song, and I am often singing along before I realize what the song is about.  This kind of unconscious consumption can show how pervasive rape culture can be—it happens as a matter of course, and even those of us who should know better can miss it.

In full disclosure, I danced and sang along to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” for weeks before I realized what all the lyrics were.  I didn’t want to know the lyrics because I knew that the song was extremely problematic .  The hook is insanely catchy, and I was definitely dancing along and listening to it while I drove.  However, since it is has come out, there have been many blog posts discussing the lyrics.  BARCC even composed a new version of the song that was more consensual and posted a video of the song on YouTube.  Robin Thicke claims that the song is a parody and feminist , but can we really be so sure about these claims when such stereotypical sexist ideas are put forth in the song and the music video too?

The song’s chorus constantly repeats “I know you want it,” a haunting refrain when one considers that many survivors hear these exact words during or after an assault as perpetrators try to justify their actions.  Thicke also refers to the object of his desire as an ‘animal’. Research amply shows that violence (of all kinds, not just sexual violence) often depends largely on dehumanizing the person being attacked, making it easier to commit and then justify assault.  This song begins that process  by reducing the person to an animal rather than recognizing her as a full individual.  When we watch the video, we see women posed as sex objects scantily clad next to fully dressed men, a typical pop culture technique that emphasizes the full personhood of the man while reducing the woman to a sex object   Futher, throughout the video the women are put into submissive positions and are objectified as they become footrests or roads for cars to drive down.  Despite Thicke’s belief that he achieves high-level satire, there is nothing progressive, feminist, or healthy about this song. Predictable utilization of women as objects is so ubiquitous and ingrained in culture that merely repeating these images is not enough to satirize them, as rape culture accepts their existence as normal.  Satire requires a higher level of signification—repetition with a meaningful twist—which the song never approaches.

One recent song that did outrage me on first listen was Justin Timberlake’s “Take Back the Night.”  I heard it introduced on the radio one day as his new single and was speechless when I heard the name.  Take Back the Night (TBTN) has been an international movement since the 1970s to speak out against sexual violence and rape and to reclaim space.  How could no one on Timberlake’s no-doubt massive marketing team have figured that out?  Evidently they don’t Google-- it is the first thing to pop up when typing in “Take Back the Night”.  Justin’s response was that he has taken the time to learn more about TBTN and considers it to be an important movement and that he hopes his song’s title helps to bring additional attention to the issue.  For a couple weeks, the song was the first thing that came up during a Google or Wikipedia search.  However, now the TBTN Foundation and SV movement is back to the top.  Hopefully that is the work of activists, Justin, Google, and Wikipedia to ensure that a decades-long movement is not cast into a shadow by a song that will last a couple months. 

I have had similar moments with other recently popular songs. Take “We Are Young” by Fun .  There were a few lines in this song that I really liked because they were (excuse the lack of creativity)… fun. A feel good jam about youth and ‘burn[ing] brighter than the sun’ is awesome to hear cranked up in the car.  However, there are undertones of abuse throughout the song.  Mentions of a scar that the singer caused are repeated throughout (whether it’s emotional or physical is not specified, but we of course know that abuse comes in a variety of forms).  This combined with lyrics wherein the singer offers to carry the person home if they’re too drunk, could be read as potentially sexually aggressive.  After thinking about these ideas when listening to the song, I went home and watched the video.  There are lots of ways that lyrics, much like poetry, can be interpreted.  However, music videos often give some insight into how the band or artist interprets their work, and they usually have some creative control over what is portrayed.  It is a rather disjointed video featuring a confused, sometimes frightened, and visibly distant woman sitting alone in a bed carving an apple for the full four minutes.  I am rather confused about the apple , but it is a symbol that frequently refers to the biblical story of Eve and original sin.  These images only add to my suspicions of violent undertones, taking any of the innocent youthful joy of the song out of consideration.

Another song that took me a little while to figure out was “The A-Team” by Ed Sheeran.  The first few weeks of listening to it, I focused on the gentle and sweet melody and soft-spoken words.  Then I started putting the lyrics together: “white lips, pale face, breathing in snowflakes” and “sells love to another man” was two indicators of the song’s subject.  Despite how comforting the tone and melody sound, it is actually about a woman who relies on prostitution to pay for drugs and eventually dies. 

Despite the sweetness available in the confines of a pop song, prostitution is nothing to romanticize. Last year, BARCC hosted a training by the founder of My Life, My Choice, an organization that focuses on girls who at high-risk for being pimped out and forced into prostitution.  Among other things, we learned that the average age for a young girl to begin prostitution work is 12.  She does not choose this life, but is forced into it as a means for survival or through the coercion of family members, boyfriends, and others.  These young girls begin using drugs after entering prostitution as a way to cope with the countless rapes they endure on a nightly, weekly, and monthly basis, since those who are sexually exploited experience rape at a significantly higher rate than the general population.  Further, they are also less likely to report, receive support services, and be believed.  One of the missions of  My Life, My Choice is to remove the glamour culture associates with The Life, as they call it, and to give girls the opportunities, skills, and self-esteem that will provide a buffer between them and those who seek to exploit them.

There is a real dissonance between the musical composition of Sheeran’s song and the realities that many people face when in prostitution.  Sheeran describes in his song that the subject of his tune has “been this way since 18,” perpetuating a misleading assumption about prostitution as a merely another life choice made by a legal adult.  This belies the statistical reality of forced underage sex work.  Sheeran’s song is not reflective of reality, as further evidenced by his lyrics “sells love to another man”.  In actuality, there is little love in the world of pimping and prostitution.  In this song, all the focus is on the woman in question and her seemingly poor choices rather than the reality that a pimp, society, oppression, and poverty all play roles in how women become involved in sex work.

Featuring sexual violence in a casual and offhand manner is not a new  phenomenon in pop music.  The Rolling Stones’ song “Brown Sugar,” written in the 1970s, features the rape of a slave. However with its catchy beat and music, many people overlook the incredibly disturbing images and messages beneath the musical veneer of the melody.  In reality, people of color experience higher rates of sexual violence and are also less likely to report these crimes and be believed by those they tell, and much of the reluctance to report to formal networks is based in America’s history of racism and white colonialism.  When it was legal to own slaves, the concept of rape was inconceivable, since slaves were property, bearing no human right to consent or self-determination. The song Brown Sugar minimizes the violence that slaves endured and the long-ranging effects of this violence in American culture .  Additionally the Rolling Stones, and similar songs, take autonomy away from women of color to tell their own stories and stories of their ancestors in their own voices.

This discussion does not mean to suggest that singing about rape and sexual violence is completely off limits, but it is important to recognize that the messages put forth in these songs have cultural impact..  Much like making jokes about rape, it is important to focus on the social structures and inequalities that allow sexual violence to exist, the people who are perpetrating sexual violence, effects on survivors, or the use of music as a healing tool for survivors.  For example, Korn’s Jonathan Davis wrote a heart-wrenching song about how a family friend raped him and that he wasn’t believed when he told his family. This kind of disclosure can be an outlet for other survivors, especially males, to recognize that they aren’t alone and that it is possible to heal.  The Pixel Project also compiled a list of 16 songs that are empowering, focus on strengths of survivors and how violence is a community problem . 

Note: I purposely used only white artists and song writers when creating this post.  I believe there are many posts and articles that are quick to talk about the degrading language and violence in the music of people of color while failing to mention how prevalent it is in music created by white people.  While it is a problematic topic regardless of the writer and artist, it is important to recognize the implicit racism that is present when we only focus on sexual violence in the music created and performed by people of color .

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Posted by stacey

Stacey formerly served BARCC as the coordinator for Community Awareness and Outreach. Prior to BARCC, she worked for the Navy as a sexual assault response coordinator and volunteered for the DC Rape Crisis Center. She got involved with anti-rape work during college and has enjoyed doing both direct services and educational work.

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