Soapbox – Sexist Lyrics

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #146 (April 2019) p97. Download a pdf here.

Alexandra Petropoulos worries that she’s a bad feminist for still liking music with sexist lyrics

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last two years, you have probably noticed that women are having a moment. Between festivals pledging to implement 50/50 gender split line-ups by 2022 to hashtag movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, women are constantly in the news and making their voices heard. Even Doctor Who got a sex change.

However, whether our moment will be positive or negative is yet to be seen. As noted feminist Susan Faludi highlighted back in 1991, every step forward is met with backlash. In September, Dr Christine Blasey Ford was given the chance to testify against US Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh (who raged with self-pity and entitlement against Dr Ford’s calm and collected testimony) and yet, he was still confirmed. In August, Serena Williams’ catsuit (worn for medical reasons) was policed by the French Tennis Federation. I guess that being the best female tennis player in history and even winning the Australian Open while pregnant isn’t enough because, you know, vaginas. The past couple of years have also seen a marked rise in violence connected to the ‘incel community,’ an online subculture of largely young, white, heterosexual males who claim to be ‘nice guys’ perpetually stuck in the friend zone. Now, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure you won’t find a definition of ‘nice’ anywhere that includes mass killings like the one that happened in Toronto on April 23 2018. And what ever happened to International Men’s Day, amirite?

I am a proud feminist and there are few things that rile me more than injustices against women. My pink pussyhat is always at the ready and at house parties I can usually be found clearing rooms as I rage about the patriarchy. I’m particularly critical of how women are represented in media and the arts. I’ve spoken on international panels about women in music, calling for better representation. Women need to see themselves reflected positively in order to help foster female empowerment and creativity.

While the music industry has a long way to go, it has taken steps in the right direction, with festivals leading the way. There are other excellent initiatives that are helping to change the scene, like PRS’s Women Make Music and In Place of War’s GRRRL. It is great to see more and more women take to the stage, but representation in music goes beyond who’s making it. Women need to be positively reflected in the music as well. Equality will never be reached if as a society we continue to consume music with sexist videos or lyrics.

It’s no new revelation that pop music is rife with sexist lyrics; thankfully though, a lot of it is very easy to boycott. I can live happily ever after never listening to another track by The Prodigy in protest against ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Boycotting ‘Blurred Lines’, the track by Robin Thicke that makes a mockery of consent, is a cinch because it’s just budget Marvin Gaye. Thicke certainly doesn’t help his case in interviews; when asked about whether the song was degrading to women, Thicke told GQ:What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.’ Oh. Well, in that case, as you were.

“How can I call myself
a feminist and like
this music? It’s a good
question and I’m not sure
I can answer it”

Let’s be honest though: it’s easy to rage against music that you’re not really a fan of, but how am I supposed to deal with good music that also treats women like dirt? Am I a hypocrite if I still listen to Fela Kuti? His endless grooves are irresistible music, but he made no attempts to hide his misogyny. He once told Songlines contributor Peter Culshaw that he was ‘proud to be a sexist’ and treated his 27 wives questionably.

Or what about Amadou & Mariam, who controversially collaborated with convicted girlfriend-killer Bertrand Cantat? Yup, you read correctly, convicted, not suspected or alleged. He is a convicted murderer. Or Robert Johnson? I love his rough-and-ready bottleneck blues. And that voice! But those lyrics… There are tracks like ‘Terraplane Blues’, which strips a woman of her humanity by comparing her to a car. Or there’s ‘32-20’, whose title refers to the bullet with which he’s going to kill his woman. How can I call myself a feminist and still like this music? It’s a good question and I’m not sure I can answer it. The more I think about it, the harder I find it to justify.

There’s certainly an ‘of the times’ argument for a lot of it. Misogyny in some lyrics is just reflective of how women were treated in that time and place. It does not absolve artists like Johnson of their sexism, but it does account for why. And this makes me feel a bit better for still listening. Desensitisation is also to blame. Most of us grew up with music like the Rolling Stones or AC/DC, who are not known for female-positive lyrics. So, we’re just kind of used to it. And I hate myself for saying that. I’m outraged. But will I stop listening to the Stones? Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.

Mostly, there’s a lot of compartmentalising when it comes to this music. This is especially easy for a lot of the music I like, as so much of it is in another language. I can easily ignore sexism in the lyrics if I have to go looking to translate it. I had no idea what the stunning track ‘Nwahulwana’ by Wazimbo was about until someone translated it – it’s basically a Mozambican ‘Roxanne’. For me, it’s always been about the music rather than the lyrics anyway.

Is this all enough to justify listening? As long as we take time to re-evaluate, and are aware of the pitfalls of the music, maybe we can continue to consume with a (mostly) guilt-free conscience? The more I think about it, the more I’m determined to leave the misogyny behind. It’s time to champion artists who help promote a positive space for women. There is so much amazing music being made that I’ll never be able to listen to all of it anyway. So why not cherry-pick the stuff that not only sounds good, but that makes me feel good as a human too? 

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