Three recent pop songs that seem to be pro-woman actually illustrate different types of anti-feminist ideal. Here I am using the definition of feminism as a philosophy that strives for gender equality. The songs are Beyonce’s ‘Irreplaceable’, Carrie Underwood’s ‘Before He Cheats’, and Pink’s ‘You and Your Hand’.
Pop music has always wavered between the two extremes of 1) pure entertainment, good for a nice Sunday drive with your Grandmother, and 2) passionate message statements that define the current mood. I’m thinking of the difference between Bob Denver and Bob Dylan. There are songs that make you sing-a-long with feel-good glee (‘Candy Man’ by Sammy Davis Jr.) and anthems that protest current conditions (‘Ohio’ by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young).
Granted, I acknowledge that people don’t really listen to the lyrics when they hear a song. They chant along mindlessly while they’re thinking of more important things, like which fabric softener to buy, or whether Lindsey Lohan will ever grow up.
While some people may acknowledge memorable lyrics and be a fan of certain messages – “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister, “Fight For Your Right” by Beastie Boys – the majority do not really live their lives around a song’s popular message. After all, while I know I like it, it really is only rock ‘n roll.
Punk was the first genre to come along where the artist made no attempt to sound catchy and novel enough for the radio. Each punk song was derivative of every other rock song ever made to that point, stripped down. It all sounded pretty much the same. Yet each singer had his (or her) own private protest message (all the way from ‘The KKK Stole My Baby Away” by The Ramones to proto-punk/grunge’s famous line by Nirvana ‘I feel stupid and contagious’).
Punk was the avant-garde of a new type of pop that was confrontational without necessarily making big political statements. Even before this, though, as Jamaican Dancehall music morphed into Rap/Hip-hop, there was this music that came along and brought with it the same type of personalized lyrics giving exposure to whatever was on the artist’s mind.
For Beyonce, her mind is preoccupied by a breakup in her song ‘Irreplaceable’. The main line is:
You must not know about me
You must not know about me
I could have another you in a minute
matter fact he’ll be here in a minute – baby
As she sings, she is telling the story to the man who cheated on her how inferior he is, how he has to take a taxi home since she own the Jaguar that he’s been using to have an affair. It’s the classic girl-meets-boy, boy-meets-other-girl scenario. Fairly common, but see, he doesn’t know about her. She can replace him in two shakes of a lamb’s tale.
The time has come and gone that we call women ‘whores’ who simply live by the standards that men set for themselves – serial lovers being the thing. But Beyonce’s message has less to do with women’s liberated sexuality (and economic status) and more to do with a shallowness, an emotional emptiness.
We are used to hearing both men and women sing songs of how their hearts were broken by their latest lover’s unfaithfulness. Now we hear – no problem, I’ve ordered another one of you and the delivery boy will be bringing him in a couple of minutes so be kind enough to get yourself going. This passionless song makes the breakup seem like a walk in a park. Were it not for the emotion of the many, many women who listen to this song and wish they could have that lack of emotion, thus eliminating the pain of the break-up, the song would fall flat and hollow.
Beyonce Knowles is a rich, pop star. She established her fame in the group Destiny’s Child. Then, hooked up with mega-producer Jay-Z. The lyrics to ‘Irreplaceable’ were actually written by artist Ne-Yo (a male) with a virtual committee of song-writers including Ne-Yo and Knowles (melodies and arrangement) along with Norwegian songwriters Amund Bjørklund, Espen Lind, Mikkel S. Eriksen and Tor Erik Hermansen. This carefully crafted pop song was a Billboard Hot 100 number-one single for ten weeks. It was the last #1 in 2006 and the first in 2007. It has sold over a million copies.
Beyonce has said about the song: “[Irreplaceable] is a secret weapon…It’s a celebration of a breakup and makes women feel like they’re worth more.”
But the true feminist test (remember, we’re talking about gender equality) is whether the song would come across the same way if sung by a man. If you listen closely to the lyrics, ‘Irreplaceable’ seems to be about how one person took in a less-than-rich live-in lover, found out that person was unfaithful, and then kicked the person out out on the street. If you take the song literally, it sounds like, using vast riches, the singer had the lover cloned and will be having a new model delivered within 24 hours. Either that or the singer has themselves been unfaithful and can get another person to move in within them at a moment’s notice.
This is not an ‘I Will Survive’ message of perseverance in the face of a bitter breakup. It’s not a song demanding R.E.S.P.E.C.T. It’s a song about an elitist who has little emotional investment in love dalliances but from whom there is nevertheless clear demands of strict loyalty. The singer wants a robot rather than a lover. If sung by a man, ‘Irreplaceable’ would sound cold and hollow, not exactly a ‘secret weapon’ celebrating a breakup.
Carrie Underwood takes a different approach to a lover who refuses loyalty. In ‘Before He Cheats’, Underwood decides the solution to the man’s cheatin’ heart is to destroy his truck. She sings,
…I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped up 4 wheel drive,
carved my name into his leather seats,
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights,
slashed a hole in all 4 tires…
This type of violence would sit well in a punk anthem (ala’ the Ramones’ ‘Beat on the Brat’), but all good punks know it’s only tongue-in-cheek. Underwood takes her violence seriously and I’m pretty sure women feeling empowered by ‘Before He Cheats’ will end up in jail on various charges having to do with destruction of property. Hardly the vision of gender equality most of us look forward to.
If, as a society, we’re simply going to use violence as our solution to petty problems, what stops the cheating guy from retaliating by busting up one of her prized possessions? If sung by a man, the singer of ‘Before She Cheats’ would come across like a stalking, abusive, thug. It would never get air play.
Maybe if the protagonist in Underwood’s song took Beyonce’s ‘celebration of the breakup’ motif to heart, she would take a simpler stance. Just replace the bum.
Pink, on the other hand, in ‘You and Your Hand’ doesn’t address a relationship at all. She, and her girlfriends, don’t want the boys around. So she’s out dancing and getting drunk. For the guys her simple message is:
Keep your drink, just gimme the money
It’s just you and your hand tonight
Our ‘if a guy sang it’ test immediately falls flat. If a guy wrote a song – ‘Just You and Your Dildo’, it would make a screeching thud on the streets in front of Billboard magazines offices.
This song, as it is, rather than being a pro-feminist anthem of female equality, simply celebrates the sexual power women have over men. It’s just a big tease song. She sings:
We didn’t get all dressed up just for you to see
So quit spilling your drinks on me
She’s the hot, alluring temptress. He’s the clumsy oaf. But it’s not any particular oaf.
It’s just all guys who hit on her in general who she doesn’t find attractive.
‘You and Your Hand’ comes across as a mindless male-bashing song that may empower women to ‘just say no’ to casual sex (a good thing), but at the same time reduces a woman to either putting out or just strutting around, in terms of relating to a man.
Never mind the fact that she’s making the vain assumption that she and her girlfriends are the only desirable females in the joint. Simply because she and her friends turn the unnamed fellows down, doesn’t mean that other drunk-off-their-ass girls won’t give in. I mean, it’s a club, for christsakes.
If Pink is just bemoaning the perennially problem of unsolicited attention, and all the girls want, as Cyndi Lauper (and Cheryl Crow) once wrote, is to have some fun, doesn’t she have a stereo and booze at home?
My message to her: pull back the carpet, call up your girlfriends and dance the night away. If you’re trying to avoid men, you may also try a lesbian bar, but you still risk the unsolicited come on.