Gender politics and contemporary music

ne-yo

Sometimes striving to be an enlightened 21st century white guy is tough. Not properly tough, like being a woman facing sexism or a racial minority trying to navigate their way through a structurally racist society, but you know in a petulant, speaking from a position of obvious privilege kind of way. Sometimes that left-wing, politically correct badge that I proudly wear can sit a little uncomfortably on my lapel. While spinning the most recent Ne-Yo album the other day (and when I say “spinning” I actually mean “on my phone” but I wanted to suggest I had some hipster cache by implying vinyl), I was feeling the groove – feet tapping, head nodding – to a track called ‘She Knows’. Cue rapper Juicy J’s opening verse:

“I keep me two hoes like that nigga Jack Tripper

I shoot in they face like that boy Reggie Miller

And I kill that pussy like my name Jack the Ripper”

Yikes.

I love analysing music, soul and r&b especially and tracing the journey from the crooners of yesteryear to the present, Marvin to Miguel. This is the slightly obsessive way my brain has worked for anything I like; take it apart and see how it works. Black music has always been at the forefront of studio innovation; while the Rolling Stones were imitating James Brown, Stevie Wonder was already moving black pop onto the next thing by using synthesizers. There’s also multi-tracking and sampling, the list is expansive. But for all its progress in terms of production, there is a nagging sense that r&b attitudes towards women aren’t quite as progressive.

In this day and age I find it harder to excuse casual sexism, leering gazes and derogatory language amongst my personal interactions so why should our pop stars not be accountable too?

Detouring into the world of rap for a moment, arguments about misogyny in hip-hop culture are dense and seemingly never ending but they usually amount to representing a particular way of life, one that while not pretty is accurate and the result of black men being marginalised in every other aspect of society. But what happens when the landscape for the performer has changed? The Weeknd’s album, Beauty Behind The Madness, won this year’s Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary album. It’s a strong record with great vocals and some memorable melodies, it also contains lyrics like:

“I’m a villain in my city, I just made another killing
I’mma spend it all on bitches”

Context is everything but The Weeknd isn’t hustling to make a living anymore, he’s rich and has a fan base that will memorise his lyrics because his songs are catchy. Helen Brown in her review for The Telegraph flat out calls the album “Misogynistic” and that’s a shame because The Weeknd would otherwise be the recipient of one of my sporadic “Future of R&B” posts on Facebook and who doesn’t want that? In this day and age I find it harder to excuse casual sexism, leering gazes and derogatory language amongst my personal interactions so why should our pop stars not be accountable too?

A quick poll amongst my female colleagues at work, suggested that while troubling if thrown under the microscope, when they’re in a club and feeling the groove, sexism is permissible. And therein lies the problem, it sounds good, it feels good and in every other scenario those attitudes wouldn’t be cool but “I wanna get my dance on!”

If we travel back in time for a moment, consider one of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, Dirty Diana. It is more subtle but a song entrenched with a distrust of women, Michael Jackson is fearful of the devious groupie that is trying to sabotage him and destroy his relationships by using her sexual powers over him:

“She’s says that’s ok
Hey baby do what you want
I’ll be your night lovin’ thing
I’ll be the freak you can taunt

And I don’t care what you say
I want to go too far
I’ll be your everything
If you make me a star”

On the one hand the artist is telling their truth through song, when someone goes through a breakup when do they ever think they’re the guilty party? Yet the flipside is that we’re placing an awful lot of responsibility at the door of those manipulative temptresses. Enter Usher, who managed to produce a whole album, Confessions, about how he ruined his relationship but still sort of pass the buck:

“Just when I thought I said all I can say
My chick on the side said she got one on the way
These are my confessions
Man I’m thrown and I don’t know what to do
I guess I gotta keep part II of my confessions
If I’m gonna tell it then I gotta tell it all
Damn, near cried when I got that phone call”

Awww poor thing.

I’ve only singled out r&b because it’s my thing and for every Ne-Yo there is a Janelle Monae, making massive leaps towards equality of the sexes. There are innumerable examples of dodgy gender politics down all musical alleys, heck Taylor Swift advocates slut shaming in ‘Better Than Revenge’:

“She’s an actress

But she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress”

It’s just this guilt ridden liberal would like to be comfortable without falling silent in the conversation when the hypocrisy of some of his musical taste is pointed out. I would also never advocate erasing our musical past, nor am I passing judgement if you just don’t care about the depiction of women in music because you don’t listen to lyrics (okay maybe I am judging a bit). All I’m saying is the next time Jay Z wants to brag about his lack of problems, he doesn’t need to highlight the lack of bitches.

 

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