Women have slowly moved to a more equal position in society, particularly in terms of employment and educational opportunities. In the popular music industry, however, the objectification and exploitation of the female body continues to grow. Some claim that the music industry is becoming less male-dominated and sexist and that women are empowered as artists and promoters. Nevertheless, the music produced by many popular artists continues to contain misogynistic and dehumanising representations of women.
Popular music is not the only form of contemporary media to express patriarchal ideas. Sexist and degrading views permeate all elements of the contemporary media, including so-called ‘lads mags’ such as FHM, Nuts and
Zoo. Sales of these publications are now in steep decline, so it is saddening that the music industry, which arguably wields power and influence over our language and the expression of identities and opinions, has moved to fill the void. Most troubling of all is that many music industry products are marketed at, and accessible to, younger audiences. What is the impact on vulnerable and naïve young people who adopt the demoralising representations of women portrayed in popular music?
Sexism is not a recent issue in popular music; it is a longstanding problem evident in many genres. From blues, country music, and rock to pop to heavy metal, misogynistic lyrics are not hard to find. Take, for example, the track, ‘It’s So Easy’, sung by the ‘legendary’ heavy metal band Guns N’ Roses, more renowned for the anthem, ‘Sweet Child of Mine’. ‘It’s so Easy’, sits alongside ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ on the 1987 album, Appetite of Destruction. The lyrics are dramatically different, and have nothing to do with ‘childhood memories’ or ‘eyes of the bluest skies’. Instead, there is the promotion of sexual coercion, violence and possible rape. Here there is evidence of face threatening, which potentially undermine both the positive and negative face of the listener. The chanted lines, which include the imperative, ‘Turn around, bitch, I’ve got a use for you. Besides, you ain’t got nothing better to do, and I’m bored’, threaten physical harm and the listener’s self-esteem.
Becoming aware of the attitudes and representations of women in the closely-linked genres of R&B and Hip-Hop has been the most shocking and distressing for me. The genre I initially associated as a young teenager with love, good times and dancing, endlessly introduces artists whose tracks voice with casual ease that the oppression of women and sexual violence is mainstream and acceptable.
A particularly vulgar example comes from Rick Ross’ verse on Rocko’s track, ‘U.O.E.N.O’, which also features well-known rapper, Future. The song, first released in February 2013, shows Ross condoning sexual coercion and ‘date-rape’, as he says ‘Put molly all in her champagne, she aint even know it, I took her home and enjoyed that, she aint even know it’. Another current example is Devilman’s song ‘Drum and Bass Father’. I first heard the track, which consists of a catchy beat and some humorous lyrics, a few months ago.
From the first listen, all I gathered was Devilman ‘aint got no animals’ but he’s a ‘farmer’ and he ‘Don’t wear Gucci, Don’t wear Prada’. It wasn’t until I had listened to the song several times, that I discovered the grotesque and objectifying lyrics alluding to violent sexual abuse of women. One of Devil Man’s lyrics includes the lines, ‘When I have sex I like to push it in harder’ and ‘strangle the bitch with her I-Phone charger’. As if this brutal imagery wasn’t enough, the video, which now has over three million views on YouTube, features women, clearly heavily under the influence of drugs and alcohol, thrown around like pieces of meat.
What strikes me most about the sexist terms and phrases, so frequently used in music and consequently more prevalent in our everyday language, is the absence of equivalent abusive terms for men. Instead, in cases of inter-artist rivalry, the abuse hurtled at one another will involve curses directed at a competitor’s current or past intimate partners. Although, in twenty-first century music, women are unlikely to be named a ‘spinster’ or ‘harlot’, the same misogynistic values remain in language, with lexical choices such as ‘bitch’, ‘thot’ and ‘hoe’ being used to address and belittle women instead. This connotes to the ‘difference model’ in which Tannen describes men as using certain language to achieve and maintain high status. It could be suggested that male artists use particular lexical choices to describe and label women in order to be seen as more dominant, living up to the masculine stereotypes they hold dear.
Whilst analysing lyrical content for my own research, I noticed my findings highlighted semantic derogation with the animalistic term ‘bitch’ being used in both Guns N’ Roses and Devil Man’s lyrics. This supports my suggestion that abusive terminology directed towards women is a prevalent in both contemporary and older artists across many various genres. Some positive changes in values and opinions have meant that it less acceptable to use many sexist terms in our everyday language. However many artists have learnt to disguise their medieval views through the feigned tenderness of falsetto. Their abhorrent views often only become apparent after repeated listening. By this point the song has become accepted and familiar, potentially brainwashing the listener.
There have been some hopeful signs of change, however. As popular music continues to develop and attempts to adapt to a wider audience, some would argue that the lyrical content has become less explicit. It could be suggested that the ‘watering down of ideas’ in some genres of music is due to the further development in technology and broadcasting being aimed at younger pre-teen audiences. If this is the case, explicit content, sexual violence and degrading language should not only be removed from popular music because it is harmful to children. It is also offensive to women and promotes patriarchal control through an art form which should celebrate both genders.