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"Tryna to find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful" - Sexism in music lyrics

When Robin Thicke released his song Blurred Lines in 2013 it became an instant hit and spent 5 weeks at number one in the UK chart (Official Charts). Not long after criticism emerged and the song was dubbed ‘the most controversial song of the decade’ (Guardian). Many people accused the song and accompanying video to be promoting rape culture. Many student unions banned the song and UK rape charities spoke out against the harmful messages. However despite the uproar, the song continued to be played. This song is also the exception, many songs with sexist themes and words exist without scrutiny. It’s so easy to get swept up in the music and the rhythm that you are singing things you wouldn’t say in ‘real life’ or overlook the meaning and sentiment behind certain songs. Many songs contain lyrics that perpetuate stereotypes, objectify women’s bodies and use derogatory language towards them. In this piece I’m going to be taking a look at this misogyny and sexism in lyrics and the reasons they are so prominent and accepted in music. It’s important that lyrics are looked at and scrutinized for their content. Music is considered a type of art that reflects certain customs and beliefs of the society within which it is produced (Rodgers). Music permeates through all parts of our lives, from the songs played in shops to adverts and radio. Also, these words are chosen by writers because they believe that society as a whole will accept these messages and words and that they can make a profit. One of the reasons that these songs still exist and are given airplay is that we live in a patriarchal society. Jenny Stevens NME’s deputy news editor says that “We live in a culture that traditionally and historically subjugates and oppresses women and that narrative emerges in popular culture.” (Stylist) There are key ways that song lyrics can be sexist. Some of these include:

  • By using (slang) words that portrait women as inferior

  • By implying that a woman’s worth is determined by her appearance

  • By portraying women as a group with negative stereotypes

  • By referring to forcing sexual acts on a woman (Rogers)

Many examples of these can be found in popular songs. For example in David Guetta’s Sexy B***h, although he says he is ‘trying to find words to describe this girl without being disrespectful’ he still goes on to repeatedly call this woman a ‘Sexy B***h”. Or when Jason Derulo in Talk Dirty explains that he’s “been around the world, don’t speak the language. But your booty don’t need explaining. All I really need to understand is when you talk dirty to me”, reducing women to sexual objects.


And these sexist messages aren’t just portrayed in recent music, Under My Thumb by the Rolling Stones has a sexist message, and the Backstreet Boys in 1997 when they confessed that they didn’t care “who you are, where you're from, what you did, as long as you love me”. As Jenny Stevens, states: “Misogyny and sexism in lyrics have always existed” (Stylist).


The occurrence of sexist language and messaging is also something that crosses genres. Rap, Hip Hop, classic rock, pop and country music all contain misogynistic language. A recent study found that when analysing the lyrics to more than 400 top Billboard songs released 2006 - 2016 that nearly one third of the popular songs contained references that degrade or demean women by portraying them as submissive or sexually objectified.


It’s easy to think that these songs are harmless, that these lyrics have no real world implications. However messages portrayed in lyrics can affect behaviour. Music listeners are registering these words in their minds even when you don’t realise it. If the song is labelled a ‘banger’ and it does well in the chart ‘it has been validated, regardless of its lyrical meaning’ (Harding -Roberts). Indeed some people actively listen to certain songs because this music affirms and reinforces the ‘long held beliefs that they have about culture’ (Rogers).


As these messages are so ingrained in our popular culture it has the potential to teach people that this behaviour towards women is acceptable. Many songs talk about consent and appear to dismiss womens agency or choice. Songs such as Let Me Hold You by Cheat Codes and Dante Klein (“if you think you're gonna get away from me, better change your mind, the Henny got me feeling right, you're going home with me tonight) and Timber by Kesha and Pitbull (“she says she won’t, but I bet she will) are just a couple of examples of this. It’s worth noting that many of these songs that touch on consent are framed around going out to a club or a bar and have references to alcohol. Harding -Roberts notes that this perpetuation of the idea that consent in a club is different to other settings, and that women can be treated very differently when alcohol is involved is very concerning when they are so frequently played in this environment.


It also need to be acknowledged that misogyny can be found in songs by female artists. This internalised misogyny found in these songs often takes the form of ‘I’m not like the other girls’ or shaming women for their sexuality. Songs such as Misery Business by Paramore, Girlfriend by Avril Lavigne, You Belong With Me by Taylor Swift and Stupid Girls by P!nk see the artists shaming other girls for their decisions and competing over male attention. These songs exist because these ideas are ingrained in our society and these artists exist in a 'culture that thrived in female insecurity, that drove women to pit themselves against each other' (Panaligan).


So what can we do?


In her piece ‘Can I be a feminist and listen to hip hop’, Olive Pometsey grapples with this dilemma. She explains that if we want to make real progress towards gender equality then “it would probably be beneficial to stop listening to music that hinders that process in any way.” But she acknowledges that our society was built on misogyny and ‘to reject all the products of this is to reject a great deal of our culture’, including music, TV and film. However as long as music with sexist messaging makes money for producers and labels, more of the same will be produced. What we can do is be more aware of the lyrics and messages in these songs, and support and champion respectful artists who support women and spread positive messages.

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