At first glance, it might seem that modern pop music not only condones but also perpetuates rape culture, all while setting it to a catchy tune. Sometimes it can take several listens to a song on a radio, humming the melody and beating out the drums on your steering wheel, before you realize the theme is sexual assault.
Despite these lyrics being just downright disgusting, I have heard the argument that ‘it’s only music, what influence could this have on anyone just listening to it?’ As a clinician, I would say, A LOT!
“Put molly all in her champagne/She ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that/She ain’t even know it”– Rick Ross U.O.E.N.O
“Ask me if I do this every day, I said, “Often”/Ask how many times she rode the wave—”Not so often”/ Bitches down to do it either way, often/ Baby I can make that pussy rain, often”- The Weeknd Often
“Talk about getting blasted/ hate these blurred lines/ I know you want it” – Robin Thicke Blurred Lines
“Do what I want/ Do what I want with your body” – Lady Gaga & R.Kelly Do What U Want
Feministing is an online community run by and targeted toward young feminists. One community user posted: “the only thing we can do as a society to force a change, is to stop listening to such music that not only glorifies but justifies rape and domestic violence. We have control of what we let our young people listen to and what morals and values we want them to grow up with.” I agree with this user’s statement as my belief is similar, it is WE as a society who accept and grow to love and sing along with artists and songs that are glorifying sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to avoid and consciously not consume some of the most ubiquitous artists of this generation. Moreover, the above quoted artists are not outliers, alternative, controversial or unusual but in fact multiple award-winning performers, including Grammies, Billboard, MTV and BET awards. In fact, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines won the 2014 Billboard Award for Top Digital Song, Top Hot 100 Song, Top Radio Song and Top R&B song. This type of graphic lyricism is not atypical in receiving critical acclaim and recognition. Music with explicitly sexual themes is played not only on the radio but also in restaurants, stores, advertising, TV and movies. Popular music seems intrinsically linked to the romantic and sexual human experience, but without a focus on themes such as intimacy, consent and respect, its omnipresence could have a toxic effect on the listener.
Although it may seem a modern phenomenon, this type of explicit imagery connoting or even outright describing sexual assault is not novel. However, it is clear that sexual content in the music culture is increasingly becoming more sexually explicit and the imagery and messages through the lyrics, I would argue, are having detrimental effects on the youth in our society. A brief glance back to some notorious lyrics from the 20th century, in comparison to those quoted at the top of this piece:
“I simply must go/(But baby it’s cold outside)/ The answer is no/(But baby it’s cold outside)”- Frank Loesser (writer) Baby it’s cold outside (1948)
“Never gonna stop, give it up, such a dirty mind / I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind” – The Knack My Sharona (1979)
“You let me violate you / You let me desecrate you / You let me penetrate you”- Nine Inch Nails Closer (1994)
“Brown sugar, how come you taste so good/ Brown sugar, just like a young girl should”- Rolling Stones Brown Sugar (1971)
Much like the themes and lyrics, the impact of music culture on our society and youth is not new to academics and clinicians. However, the potential impact on perceptions of sexuality and sexual assault is too easily ignored. Music frequently glorifies promiscuity, sexual abuse, and uses degrading language. I often ponder if the repeated exposure to sexualized lyrics, images, and videos contributes to the prevalence of hyper-sexualized youth in our society. I believe this normalization of negative sexual behaviors contributes to the underreporting of sexual assault. As a clinician working directly with victims of sexual crime, I have seen countless victims who do not and can not report their abuse and even go so far as to justify their offender’s behaviors. Many victims are confused as to whether their abuse was truly criminal, for example when a teenager has been groomed by a young adult and believes themselves to be in a consensual relationship with someone a decade their senior. Others minimize their experience, stating that it wasn’t a big deal. It is my belief that, in part because of these violent behaviors now being standardized in award winning lyrics and music videos, children may not grasp the gravity of malicious acts that are being committed against them, particularly when they can sing and dance proudly to similar stories of sexual abuse by their favorite artists. Lyrics that may be intended for mature audience can be easily misconstrued by young children and developing minds, or worse, viewed as an encouragement to action. After all, ‘Parental Advisory’ warnings or bleeping songs apply to explicit language and cursing, not explicit themes and content. This closer look at popular controversial and misinterpreted sexualized songs sheds light on the creators and the controversy that follows the lyrics.
Many famous music artists who are praising and singing about sexual abuse are considered role models by our youth. Popular female music artists such as Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and Miley Cyrus are often criticized for being negative role models for young females because they promote promiscuity and sexualized behaviors. Some even argue that these pop stars are worse for children than pornography. Positive role models can have a profound influence on young children’s development socially, mentally, and physically. Unfortunately, when working directly with young people, clinicians often see the barriers children face with identifying an appropriate example. Despite many multi level approaches within communities to increase availability of mentors (educators, community programs, church leaders, sport coaches, insurance based therapeutic mentors) young people remain vulnerable and gravitate towards famous people such as musicians. Those who connect and identify with a superstar at the expense of a more appropriate and engaging role model are left with negotiating life utilizing the guidance and messages from these artists. Needless to say, the morals of a Grammy award winning pop singer who focuses on sex and sexuality stand quite apart from those of a local community leader such as a pastor or counselor. For youth without a strongly developed foundation of morals and beliefs, or friends and family who can guide them through life, lessons can be erroneously taken from their favorite works of art. Content in lyrics that youth are listening to contain distribution of knowledge of a range of mature topics- from sex, to violence to drug use to mental health issues. Without a guiding hand, naive impressionable youth can be lead down the wrong path and left without the necessary social skills and boundaries to protect themselves, their emotional wellbeing and their bodies.
This is not to say there is no backlash toward graphic imagery in music. There is controversy over who is responsible for protecting children from inappropriate media. Many families believe that artists are accountable for the things they say and do, whether or not they are set to music, and answerable for any consequences due to interpretation or misinterpretation of that message. Many artists and musicians would argue that ultimately it is up to a parent or guardian to police and monitor a child’s media consumption as well as their approach toward society based on the lessons they have learned from any source- not just music or television. For example, parent-led media watchdog group The Parents Television Council (PTC) has criticized music artist Rihanna on multiple occasions. Contrary to being proud to be seen as a role model for youth, Rihanna tweeted back an argument that she does not perceive herself as a role model nor does she want to be one: “We have the freedom to make art, LET US! It’s your job to make sure they don’t turn out like US. U can’t hide your kids from society, or they’ll never learn how to adapt! This is the REAL WORLD”. Her tweet was in reaction to the PTC who argued through social media that Rihanna’s video ‘Man Down’ sends the wrong message to female victims of rape, encouraging victims to retaliate via premeditated murder. PTC argued that artist Rihanna, as a role model for youth, had the opportunity to send a positive message to victims of sexual abuse but rather chose to take an alternative approach. In the following video- The Friday Hip Hop Report lounge debate if Rihanna does have some sort of moral responsibility.
Despite music portraying sexual abuse in a positive light, it often fails to communicate the consequences. Because of our first amendment right to freedom of speech, artists are legally able to speak as they desire without palpable repercussions from the community as a whole. Artists are not held accountable for glorifying rape and even encouraging it. In a top hit song Blurred Lines by artist Robin Thicke, “I know you want it” lyrics insinuate men understand a woman’s desire better than she does and cannot be held accountable for rape when woman tempt them. However, sexual misconduct cannot be excused due to song lyrics, even when the perpetrator is a misinformed young person.
When will we begin recognizing the influence of music culture on sexual violence amongst our youth? As a listener of mainstream music I often fail to recognize the ill-considered music lyrics I am actually singing too. I believe continual exposure to the hyper sexualized music culture has profound negative impact on not only our youth, but also our society as a whole. Hence, we must consider the full complexity of how rape culture develops and is perpetuated by media. The question of morality and ethics verse monetary gain highlights this complexity. We must consider not only the artist’s influence as an individual, but the role our society plays in enabling and encouraging this theme in music and media. Members of our society choose what music videos become top hits. Radio stations choose what to air and similarly, music labels promote artists with a perception of what they feel society is most likely to consume. This is not a completely blind process- after ABC television network aired a sexualized performance by Rihanna and Britney Spears PTC, president Tim Winter said in a statement “The overtly sexualized performance by Rihanna and Britney Spears was no accident or mishap, but a deliberate effort to target teens with images and lyrics that glamorize whips, chains and other sexual fetishes”. If all sexualized themes in music were so explicitly acknowledged and identified as part of an intentional performance in order to appeal to young people, perhaps society could be more mindful and conscious of the ways in which music is created and consumed and in doing so combat those negative messages, which can be so pervasive and harmful for young people.
Top 10 popular sexually explicit videos including scenes of sexual bondage, dominance, sadomasochism, and rape promoting culture.