In which I admit guilt
Popular music is fraught with problematic songs. There’s just no way around it. They express a sentiment which was commonly accepted in its day but hasn’t aged well, or they start out edgy by expressing a risky sentiment which really hasn’t aged well, or something else feels off-color or icky or uncomfortable. I’m not talking satire; that’s a genre meant to prove a point or highlight an issue, as any fan of Randy Newman’s solo work will tell you. No, I’m talking tunes that reinforce those issues or try to play them off as no big deal. Inexcusable, right?
Put simply, yes. And yet some of these tunes are encased in such an enticing sugarcoat that, changing public taste buds notwithstanding, they’ve contrived to keep their flavor. The protocol I’ve observed is to proceed with caution: acknowledge the inherent flaws in the structure and resolve that enjoying the art will not (should not, cannot) make you complicit in the system which once, if ever, normalized this type of expression. Here are a few of my picks for awareness-raising, always-qualified bops.
“Run For Your Life,” The Beatles (1965)
John Lennon had not a little anger in him, for perfectly legitimate reasons. Some of his early contributions to the Lennon-McCartney catalogue hint at that underlying aggression (“I’ll Cry Instead,” “You Can’t Do That,” even “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”), but it rears its head unavoidably on the closing track of Rubber Soul. “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, / than to be with another man” is the first and repeated line. He’s adopting a persona, but it’s a persona which amplifies his own more unpleasant and dangerous traits. You can hear it in his voice: the performance is snarling, searing, compelling in all the scariest ways.
“Island Girl,” Elton John (1975)
I have been known to lavish praise and appreciation upon Bernie Taupin, and even so it’s clear that he missed the mark on this one by a long shot. Some of the descriptions of the titular girl are questionable, but it’s the broken English throughout—horribly stereotyping the speech patterns of her Jamaican roots—that makes me cringe. Sir Elton’s bouncy arrangement is a welcome distraction, though nowhere near a fix. Rock of the Westies as a whole is lyrically dicey (see “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” if you doubt me). To those seeking less morally ambiguous material from these two, still dated 1975, I recommend Captain Fantastic.
“My Sharona,” The Knack (1979)
What a crying shame, this one. It’s set up to be the most unstoppable bop—drum hook, guitar hook, and all—and then the lead singer slides in with a sleazy lyric about a real-life seventeen-year-old girl whom he met (and became obsessed with) when he was twenty-six. Doesn’t look good. Certainly causes reluctance to sing along. Throwing matters into even starker relief is the blazing guitar solo toward the end, in a different key, which lasts ninety seconds—the band just really lets loose—and accomplishes more than anything the singer could hope to have done. Ninety seconds of distance and relief. Almost like their way of rebelling against a lyric that might have tanked the song. The only upside I can see is that the muse took the opportunity to get some power for herself: she now sells real estate at mysharona.com.
“White Knuckles,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1981)
For a guy who has spent much of his career claiming (justifiably so, I think) not to be a misogynist in life or in songcraft, Elvis walks a thin line on this one. The lyric depicts a pattern of domestic abuse, mostly physical and a bit verbal besides. Hallmarks of his material include psychological manipulation and power plays aplenty, but this (from his fifth studio album, Trust) is the first display of outright violence that I know of. In accordance with another hallmark, I didn’t get all the words at first, and even after I did I wasn’t clear on what everything meant. What hooked me was the chord progression: if you couldn’t tell this about me by now, I’m a sucker for a creative chord progression. Give a girl a good set of chords to cling to amid a stream of sometimes-garbled lyrics—well, not really garbled, that’s just his voice—and she’ll become attached before fully grasping the scope of the narrative damage. So maybe don’t sing the text, but you can compensate by singing along to Steve Nieve’s “twinkle-twinkle” keyboard variations.
“No One Else,” Weezer (1994)
Guys, don’t turn your girls into kept women. Out of touch in 1994, out of touch over a quarter of a century (!) later. Also, don’t you dare “and if you see her” them; break up with them to their faces! (This particular garden weed of communication has only proliferated with the advent of texting.) Still, I have to appreciate Rivers’s rigid grammatical structure on “My girl’s got a big mouth / with which she blabbers a lot.” Giving a Harvard education a good name, giving masculinity…not so much.
“Semi-Charmed Life,” Third Eye Blind (1997)
A fantastic song that doesn’t even pretend to be about anything other than doing crystal meth. Now, this may not be the most salutary use of one’s time, but it is Stephen Jenkins’s choice what to do with his body. That isn’t the point. The real issue is his narrator-self’s exploitation of his girlfriend during their shared high—because it isn’t his choice what to do with her body, and he doesn’t appear to recognize that. If she’s “face down on the mattress” in the comatose state suggested, she probably isn’t in the mood to do stuff. Also, she probably didn’t wear “those little red panties” merely to “pass [your] test.” And for the love of God, don’t cast her going down on you as any fun for her. The sense of entitlement to male pleasure is palpable here. Moral of the story: do what you want on your trip as long as it doesn’t involve coercing someone else into doing things they don’t want to do. All that said, attempting to resist those “do-do-do’s” is a losing battle.
“A Night to Remember” from High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)
Make no mistake: in a three-quel whose songs largely disappoint, I know this number by heart, and it’s a staple of my workout playlists. But it also entrenches gender roles in a way we should have progressed past by 2008. (I mean, long before then, in an ideal world.) Overall there could be more diversity in a franchise centered on teens who do theatre, especially concerning LGBTQ+ representation—let Ryan come out already!!—but this number takes a step back even from that and makes prom preparations all about the girls “dressing to impress the boys.” And of all people, who should get this line but Taylor McKessie (played by minor deity Monique Coleman), the intellectually fearless science geek who is all Gabriella could aspire to be? It’s uncharacteristic to the point of being jarring. Meanwhile, the guys adopt a straight-male aversion to fancy occasions, which is not only stereotypical but just plain false: many guys I knew in high school were really excited to clean up good for prom. At the end of the day, I’d think a cast of characters who were usually All In This Together would be focused more on getting gussied up to make themselves feel good and celebrating jointly as opposed to fretting over the reactions of their individual partners. The obvious exception being Ryan and Sharpay, who prove yet again that a sibling duo can be the only true power couple in school.
“Ignition (Remix),” R. Kelly (2011)
I need not go into much detail as to why I shouldn’t endorse this song, but it’s just such a jam. Mama’s not the only one rolling her body. But this is it! This is our one R. Kelly allowance! Otherwise, let’s stick to Ginuwine. (Actually, “Pony” could be the angel to this song’s devil.)
“Sweet but Psycho,” Ava Max (2018)
This one’s a kicker because its main hook can sustain you for days. But it diminishes and oversimplifies mental illness, and what’s more, it does so pretty nonsensically. The singer’s portrait of a so-called ‘psycho’ character has none of the sensitivity of, say, “Psycho Killer,” whose narrative occurs within the mind in question (I’m sure I’ll talk about it at length sometime; it’s one of my favorites), nor the fleshed-out detail of Rihanna’s “Disturbia,” another first-person meditation. The narration of this song is muddled: the singer sometimes seems to identify with the character and sometimes not. On top of that, said character strikes me as neither particularly sweet nor particularly unbalanced. Screaming “I’m-ma-ma out my mind” does not mental illness make; rather, it’s cartoonish and insultingly reductive. (The artwork for the single helps nothing, featuring a young woman affecting a sexy pose atop a gurney in a pink-lit padded room…pink being representative of…sweetness?) Saying things like “she’ll kiss your neck with no emotion” and “she’s poison but tasty” leads me to believe this girl is simply a mean person who gets away with it via her conventional attractiveness. This trope has plagued visual media forever, and the current fight against it—led by small independent studios—does not need to be set back by messages like this one. Not to mention that material and/or emotional destruction can in no way be categorized as endearing; it requires real medical attention. So, if for no other reason than that we’ve reached the tail end of Mental Health Month, spare a thought next time you listen.
Songwriters are constantly pushing boundaries; if they didn’t, music would at some point cease to be interesting. But this is the nature of the beast. It’s beneficial and important to recognize societal sea changes as reflected in our pop culture. Be sure to give a nod to what has or hasn’t held up about your favorite relics—it enriches and humanizes the experience.
P.S. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list: in fact I’ve left out a couple noteworthy offenders which I will address soon in a different context.
P.P.S. That last entry is the only fully female representation here, which must not come as a shock, but there is the one! Girls can propagate unethical codes too!! #feminism