Sure, it's violent, but can you dance to it?

A British scholar examines abuse narratives in pop music


Kate Harding
November 26, 2009 2:26AM (UTC)

I've long had a theory that, to whatever extent my generation of heterosexual women is messed up about men -- and if the self-help industry has taught us anything, it's that we are! -- a substantial portion of our messed upness can probably be traced back to the "Footloose" soundtrack. The two big hits by women on that album (not counting Ann Wilson's half of "Almost Paradise") were Bonnie Tyler's "Holdin' out for a Hero" -- about settling for nothing less than a ridiculously idealized man (literally, "He's gotta be larger than life") -- and Deniece Williams' "Let's Hear It for the Boy," about how awesome it is to date an inarticulate, slovenly, broke, tin-eared loser ("Let's give the boy a hand!"). When I think about the countless hours my friends and I spent developing awkward dance routines to those conflicting messages in the days before puberty struck, I think it's not so hard to understand why many of us went on to spend our twenties alternating between dating worthless jerks and being hypercritical of perfectly decent guys (who are distinct, I hasten to add, from Nice Guys). "Footloose" is to blame! You heard it here first.

However tongue-in-cheek my theory is, it came out of my genuine surprise upon hearing "Let's Hear It for the Boy" as a grown-up. For the first time, it hit me that the song is not necessarily a sweet paean to a lovable doof; it could as easily be read as the story of a woman with no self-esteem who will rationalize any crap behavior from her boyfriend with "But he loves me!" -- despite the almost total lack of evidence to support that conclusion. When I was 9, I wasn't aware of any women who did that, but by my early twenties, I knew enough of them that Williams pleading "You gotta understaaaaand" took on a whole new meaning. What I didn't know was how long and rich the history of women singing pop songs in defense of not just lousy, but downright abusive, partners is.

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Deborah Finding, a scholar at the London School of Economics, has written a dissertation called "Give Me Myself Again -- Sexual Violence Narratives in Popular Music." The title comes from a song by feminist favorite Tori Amos, but Finding's work also includes charming little ditties like The Crystals' 1962 "He Hit Me (And it Felt like a Kiss)." Chris Arnot at The Guardian describes the lyrics: "'If he didn't care for me,' warbled one of the most popular American 'girl groups' of the day, 'I could have never made him mad. But he hit me and I was glad.'" Oof. (That one was produced by Phil Spector, no less.)

"I knew that I wanted to do a PhD that would contribute something to the overall understanding of the way sexual and domestic violence was represented in our wider culture and how that influenced the way people think about the issues personally and politically," Finding told The Guardian. And although the 1980s and early '90s saw a lot of pop songs that raised awareness about domestic and sexual violence -- in addition to Amos' work, she mentions contributions by Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crowe -- "We've gone full circle in the post-feminist era." Finding points to Florence and the Machines' 2008 single "Kiss with a Fist" -- the lyrics of which inform us that such a kiss is "better than none" -- a catchy, bouncy song that presents mutual violence as no big thing ("You hit me once/I hit you back/You gave a kick/I gave a slap"). Is this what female "empowerment" looks like in the twenty-first century? Being abusive right back to an abuser?

And then, of course, there are the songs by men. Arnot asks Finding about "'gangsta' rap and hip-hop, and their alleged encouragement of aggressively misogynistic attitudes," but she notes that that's hardly the beginning and the end of popular music that demeans women -- and the reasons why it's often the first genre to leap to mind deserve closer examination. "It worries me that there's usually a racist element to these discussions," she says. "Black artists are condemned, while white bands like the Rolling Stones and the Stranglers get away with deeply unpleasant lyrics." In any case, Finding "was more interested in analysing the way that women were narrating their own experience of sexual violence or how they imagined other women's experience."

Reclaiming the worst narratives from men doesn't hurt, either. Over at Jezebel, Latoya Peterson points out that Amos subverted the breathtaking misogyny of Eminem's "'97 Bonnie and Clyde" -- in which a man takes his daughter on the road after murdering her mother -- by covering it in her ethereal, distinctly feminine voice. It's not for nothing that Finding calls Amos "the patron saint of sexual violence."

Finding has spent a lot of time travelling to gigs in the US and the UK with Amos's fans and carrying out online surveys into how they respond to her music. "I expected 50 or so responses to my questions," she says, "but received over 2,000. Some 98% of the respondents said that they used her music as a means of emotional support."

Songs like Amos' "Me and a Gun," in which she candidly recounts her own rape, can help survivors feel less alone and more comfortable opening up about their experiences. Writes Peterson, "Finding's work is amazing because it illuminates the role of narrative in healing from assault or abuse by speaking these stories into existence." But popular narratives can also serve to normalize and/or trivialize abuse. According to Wikipedia, Florence of Florence and the Machine has explained on her Myspace page that "'Kiss with a Fist' is NOT a song about domestic violence. It is about two people pushing each other to psychological extremes because they love each other." All that hitting/slapping/plate-breaking stuff is just metaphorical, apparently. Except, the song is based on a couple she knew "who were so cool, but so visceral and so intense. The guy never hit the girl, but I saw her lamp him a couple of times, and she'd always give as good as she got. But it wasn't really physical violence, it was more about the fact that their animal passion for each other was the thing that was attractive for them. It was how joyful destruction can be, and how alluring it is to be in a relationship so fiery."

Uh, since when does "lamp" as a verb mean something other than physical violence? Does it just not count when a woman does it to a man? And has it occurred to Florence -- or the band's fans, reading that explanation -- that domestic violence often goes unseen by people close to the victims? Or that emotional abuse often leads to physical abuse? Or that there's a big difference between a pleasantly spicy relationship and "pushing each other to psychological extremes"? Despite the singer's disclaimer, Finding says rightly that the song equates "violence with passion in a way that sounds depressingly familiar." It sounds a lot like it did in 1962, in fact. I'm not saying women need to hold out for unrealistic heroes, but it would be nice if we'd come a little farther than that by now.

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Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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