Your problematic favs: A playlist

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Your problematic favs: A playlist

David Pradel

David Pradel

David Pradel

by Julianna Ress, Arts & Culture Editor

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There’s a long history of popular songs containing themes of sexual assault and contributing to rape culture, which might go unnoticed by listeners.

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is an oft-cited example: it was a no. 1 hit in 25 countries including the United States, it played incessantly on radio stations, kids would sing along to it on the way to school, but the lyrics provide an unsettling version of consent. The lyric “I know you want it” trivializes women’s volition in saying no to a sexual encounter — adhering to the idea that they don’t say what they really mean.

Some of these songs have even been deemed significant in music history for sonic innovation or cultural relevance, likely by male rock critics. This does not mean songs supposedly canonized in music history cannot be reassessed or criticized for their lyrical content.

While women have made great strides in the music industry over the years, many of these problematic themes are still apparent in popular songs. It’s important to evaluate the output that the industry, which has allowed countless artists with a history of abuse towards women thrive, produces and how it reflects the ways women are treated behind the scenes.

Here are some examples of popular songs with problematic lyrics worth questioning next time they come on the radio.

The Beatles, “Run For Your Life” (1965)

“I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man,” goes the jarring opening lyrics of this track off the Beatles’ renowned record “Rubber Soul.” The entire song — written and sung by John Lennon, who admitted to abusing women — contains references to aggressive jealousy and threats of violence that would be subject to widespread criticism if released today.

Depictions of this abusive behavior in music reflect its real life implications, where these forms of manipulation and intimidation contribute to toxic relationships, domestic violence and rape culture.

The Rolling Stones, “Brown Sugar” (1971)

Though one of the Stones’ biggest hits, “Brown Sugar” is also one of the band’s most obvious instances of misogynoir.

The song acts as a slave rape fantasy: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in the market down in New Orleans,” frontman Mick Jagger sings. “Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright / Hear him whip the women just around midnight / Brown sugar, how come you taste so good? / Brown sugar, just like a young girl should.”

Black women have constantly been fetishized in music, often seen as sex objects. The inclusion of slave imagery in this particular song makes it doubly unsettling.

Rod Stewart, “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” (1973)

Widely regarded as a relatively tame artist famous for his sensitive soft rock, Rod Stewart’s early-’70s hit reveals one of rock history’s ugliest problems: statutory rape.

“Don’t say a word my virgin child / Just let your inhibitions run wild,” he sings on “Tonight’s the Night.”

Groupie culture was rampant at the time, and led to numerous disturbing relationships between rock stars and underage girls: Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Jimmy Page, Iggy Pop and Stewart all likely or admittedly had sex with girls aged 13 to 16 in the ‘70s. Teenagers were often the subjects of adult men’s sexual desire in songs from this time as well.

Aaliyah, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” (1994)

Blatant sexualization of young girls in music didn’t end in the ‘70s, though. R. Kelly penned this infamous song for the then 15-year-old Aaliyah when he was 27, and it describes an underage girl attracted to an older man.

The song was criticized upon release and performed poorly chart-wise, but is worth noting due to Kelly’s illegal marriage to Aaliyah at the time and his long history of sexual abuse that has only recently been widely discussed.

Brand New, “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis” (2003)

The emo music scene of the early-’00s was deeply rooted in misogyny, and Brand New, once considered one of the scene’s most celebrated bands, was among the most prominent offenders.

“Barely conscious in the door where you stand / Your eyes are fighting sleep while your mouth makes your demands,” sings lead vocalist Jesse Lacey on “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis.” “You laugh at every word, trying to be cute / I almost feel sorry for what I’m gonna do.”

The song is detailed, harrowing description of premeditated date rape. “If you let me have my way, I swear, I’ll tell you apart,” goes one of the song’s most terrifying lyrics. Though Lacey said in 2003 that the song recounts a nightmare, it has aged extremely poorly given the context of the allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor made against him in 2017. He vaguely apologized for “the actions of (his) past” after these allegations were made public.

Jamie Foxx featuring T-Pain, “Blame It” (2008)

A common theme explored throughout music history is alcohol causing women to perform sexual acts they normally wouldn’t do sober. In the 2008 smash “Blame It,” Jamie Foxx references this trope explicitly.

“She said she usually don’t / But I know that she front,” he describes a woman on the track, saying her resistance to have sex with him is not genuine.

The refrain “blame it on the alcohol” perpetuates the myth that anything but the assaulter is to blame when women are pressured — through alcohol, intimidation, physical violence or otherwise — to engage in sexual acts they’ve expressed disinterest in. Supplying someone with alcohol in hopes that it’ll lead to sex is premeditated rape.

Justin Bieber, “What Do You Mean?” (2015)

It’s one of the biggest hits of recent years, and though it doesn’t directly refer to sexual assault, Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” operates based on stereotypes of women being indecisive and insincere, which relates to consent.

“When you nod your head yes, but you wanna say no / What do you mean?” he sings on the hook. “When you don’t want me to move, but you tell me to go / What do you mean?” These stereotypes actively go against “no means no” rhetoric used to define consent.

Suggested for You

Here are some examples of songs by women that powerfully express experiences with assault, rape culture and toxic masculinity.

The Raincoats, “Off Duty Trip” (1979)

This track off post-punk band The Raincoats’ classic self-titled record acted as a protest song in response a publicized rape trial at the time in which a British Army officer recieved lenient treatment in court.

“Woman you’re pinned up / on the wall in front of you,” goes the chorus on “Off Duty Trip.” “A soldier’s life is very tough / Needs tender loving when fighting’s through.”

The themes of this song are still relevant today, addressing deeply flawed justice systems in regards to the lack of consequences for abusive men, especially for those in positions of power.

TLC, “His Story” (1992)

In a similar vein, this track off trio TLC’s debut album was in response to a 1988 trial in which African American 15-year-old Tawana Brawley was found not to be a victim of sexual assault after she accused four white men of raping her — Left Eye namechecks her in the intro of the song.

“His story will be history / And my story is a waste of time,” the group declares on the track, referring to society’s tendency to trust men over women, especially in instances of assault. “They’re gonna believe his story.”

Liz Phair, “F–k and Run” (1993)

On her massively influential album “Exile in Guyville,” Liz Phair wrote profound stories about women navigating relationships and the world, and she paved the way for future female indie rock artists. “F–k and Run” is most exemplary of a depiction of toxic sexual relationships.

“You almost felt bad,” she sings of a man only interested in her for sex. “You said that I should call you up / But I knew much better than that.”

She describes how men lie about wanting to pursue a romantic relationship after a sexual encounter, the resulting loneliness and isolation women feel and how these behaviors are instilled at a young age.

Phoebe Bridgers, “Motion Sickness” (2017)

Indie rock newcomer Phoebe Bridgers has said this song off her debut record “Stranger in the Alps” was inspired by her relationship with prolific musician Ryan Adams, which occurred when she was 20 and he was 40.

She was one of several women who spoke out in a New York Times piece earlier this year about Adams’s history of abusive and manipulative behavior — Bridgers said he was emotionally abusive and committed sexual misconduct during their relationship.

With this context, “Motion Sickness” is a moving portrait of the ways older, established male artists wield power over young, burgeoning female musicians, and the resulting emotional distress: “You said when you met me you were bored,” she recalls on the track. “And you were in a band when I was born.”

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