A catchy little pop ditty or sexist – even violent – objectification of women set to music? Lucy Foster investigates the lyrical fine line between art and misogyny
Timber! You’ll know this call from your childhood, shouted as you made many things – wooden blocks, cardboard boxes, your grandparents’ antique shelves – fall down in a spectacularly destructive fashion. You know it because it’s what lumberjacks in checked shirts shout in warning as redwoods crash to the ground. And you might know it as the title of a song by a gentleman called Pitbull (ably assisted by Ke$ha), which has been wafting around the top 20 for months.
I came across this song in the UK download chart on Spotify one afternoon. It sat between Rather Be by Clean Bandit and tracks by artists such as Bastille and Arctic Monkeys. To be honest, I knew what I was in for by the single’s cover (a close-up of a woman’s bottom in skintight shorts is never going to be, say, a savage critique of the orphan crisis in Ceausescu’s Romania), but the lyrics caught me off guard. So much so, I had to play it again to make sure. And for the uninitiated, they go like this:
“I have ’em like Miley Cyrus, clothes off/Twerking in their bras and thongs, timber/Face down, booty up, timber/That’s the way we like to – what? – timber.” Ah, that canny trick of dodging the obscenity laws by shouting the word “What” rather than the slant rhyme. Enough, I’m sure, to make teens giggle all over the nation. It is, after all, very naughty. Pitbull (real name Armando Christian Pérez) ends the verse with a couplet to put Will Shakespeare to shame: “I’m slicker than an oil spill/She sa she won’t, but I bet she will, timber.”
Then in comes Ke$ha associating the word ‘timber’ with ‘going down’, and the rest falls neatly into place. Sexism, objectification, misogyny, sexual coercion, violence, rape – listen well and you will hear all these common themes in the pop music of today; the songs that women and men, boys and girls, buy, download and dance to; and if we’re not careful, the songs that will define this era.
Airing unsavoury thoughts about male and female relations is far from a new invention. “Misogyny and sexism in lyrics have always existed,” explains Jenny Stevens, NME’s deputy news editor. “And I don’t think lyrics in current pop culture are any more sexist than they have been traditionally.” She reels off a few classics that most of us, in all likelihood, have failed to dissect with suitable vigour. “Look at Under My Thumb by The Rolling Stones, or The Crystals, who sang He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) in 1962. They were written in a different time admittedly. But what’s so depressing is that misogyny is still present now – decades on and we still hear the same hackneyed cliches about women.”
A quick backwards glance and it’s clear that the arena of popular music has never been a brave bastion of political correctness. Time was when threatening a woman with violence was tantamount to foreplay. Young Girl, a 1968 ditty by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, includes the lines: “You’ve led me to believe/ You’re old enough/To give me love… Get out of here/Before I have the time/To change my mind… Better run girl”. It’s got Yewtree all over it. Brown Sugar, The Rolling Stones’ seminal 1971 hit, is about African slave women being raped in the American Deep South. Tap your feet to that one.
And what do we have today? Kanye West has been vilified for his 2013 album Yeezus, which had some sparkling imagery (“Eatin’ Asian p**sy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce”), Jay Z and Beyoncé had their hands slapped for seemingly glorifying domestic violence in Drunk In Love (Jay Z raps about Ike Turner forcing his then-wife Tina to eat cake) and then we have Robin Thicke telling us all how much we want it, while slime-ing around a studio set with three naked women, all at least a decade younger than Thicke.
Beyoncé and Jay Z at the Grammys
And it’s disconcerting. These are massive hits, brilliantly catchy, a music exec’s dream, but all intent on using lyrics that are abusive to women. The overriding question is why does it come to pass at all?
“It comes about because we live in a patriarchy,” states Stevens. “We live in a culture that traditionally and historically subjugates and oppresses women and that narrative emerges in popular culture. Look at David Guetta’s Sexy B***h (clean version: Sexy Chick).
The lyrics essentially say, ‘I’m trying to think of the words to say what I think about you without disrespecting you’ and then repeatedly calls this poor woman sexy b***h over and over again.”
But why the focus on sex in the first place? Why aren’t most of the songs at the top of the charts about breakfast, or pet dogs, for instance, or going for a lovely long ramble through a magical forest?
“Music and sex have always gone hand in hand,” explains Stevens. “Firstly, this is because music and pop culture are traditionally linked with youth culture. Secondly, it’s the basic truth that sex is an incredibly important part of human experience and has been, and will always be, reflected in art – be it film, visual art, literature or music.”
If what Stevens says is true, sex is always going to be a subject for discussion. But there are two things that are worrying here: men with international platforms from which they may disseminate any message they want, have chosen to talk about violent sex, non-consensual sex (and, in Rick Ross’s rap in the song U.O.E.N.O., date rape), how easy it is for them to get it and what they’ll do if they don’t. And perhaps more alarmingly, people go out and buy this music, happily dance to it with gleeful abandon and sing along to the lyrics, encouraging the Eminems, Kanyes and Robin Thickes of the world to create more of the same. But aside from the simple supply and demand machinations of the music industry, could these messages of enforced oral sex and male privilege, through repeated exposure, be finding a foothold in the collective consciousness?
“There is very little research in this area,” explains Dr Victoria Williamson, a music psychologist. “But, at the International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition in 2012 there was an interesting presentation, where a researcher had looked at women’s attitudes to the content of rap lyrics when they read them, when they listened to them in music, and when they had watched them in music videos. The researcher basically found that women had a much more negative attitude about the nature of those lyrics when they read them, less so when they listened to them, and even significantly less so when they watched them in videos.”
So the distraction of music and moving pictures glosses over what is actually being said, which may go some way to explain why, come Saturday night, dance floors (and pub tables) are taken over by both men and women singing along no matter what’s coming out of the speakers. But does the meaning of the lyrics still sink in, despite being prettied up by some bass and a singalong chorus? It would seem not.
“You only have a certain amount of cognitive capacity to process something, so if you focus 100% on reading lyrics, it’s taking up all your focus, all your attention, and all your mental processes,” explains Williamson. “But if you’re watching your friends dance, if you’re concentrating on your own dancing, if you’re thinking about who’s going to the bar next, and if you’re processing all these things at the same time, there just isn’t the same cognitive capacity to take in the lyrics. Inevitably, dancing to a song will give it less of an impact than if you focus 100% on the content.”
As negative effects go, then, hugely offensive lyrics put to punchy music are unlikely to transform us all into unhinged sociopaths with a penchant for violence. But seemingly the competition is still there for musical artists to be more offensive than their peers; to push it just that little bit further, to think up some imagery that is just a touch more vile than the last.
Stevens has some idea as to why that happens: “Remember the Nineties, when that explicit content tag, the Parental Advisory sticker, became a badge of honour?” she asks. “There’s a sticker that says this album is the rudest album out there and parents don’t want you listening to it, what greater way to encourage people to write lyrics like that?”
And while we may not be fully processing the words coming out of a pop star’s mouth, the next generation are. These lyrics, lurking beneath a catchy beat, teach teens that abuse of women is acceptable and girls that it is the norm to be objectified, so intrinsically woven are those messages into mainstream pop culture. So next time you find yourself singing along to the radio, it’s worth remembering these songs are, in their extremity, striking a chord with developing minds. Suddenly, it makes that poppy hook just a little less catchy.
You Are The Music: How Music Reveals What It Means To Be Human by Dr Victoria Williamson (£14.99, Icon)