Friday, March 26, 2010

Rockin' the Sexisms

My tolerance for sexism in rock n'roll music is pretty high, especially when the music is good. This is strange, considering I have almost no tolerance for sexism in advertising (chocolate commercials make me throw things), a low tolerance for sexism in humor (sitcom wife/mothers keep me away from most television), and I heartily appreciate all angles of feminist criticism (part of which is looking for sexist or "phallogocentric" language) when it comes to literature. And of course, real life sexists can eat it.

Today at the gym, while the 80s music blasted, I got to thinking about why so much rock n'roll, despite its sometimes campy sexism, its sometimes blatant misogyny, is music to my ears, while other rock music -- modern rock in particular -- pisses me off as much as the Yoplait commercial where the guy thinks his perpetually dieting wife is going to beat him with bars of soap as punishment for eating her yogurts.

Here's the shortlist of who doesn't bother me at all, and a song or two by each in case you can't think of anything sexist (kind of impossible with Van Halen):

Van Halen (Hot for Teacher, Beautiful Girls, the list would fill the screen...)
Steely Dan (Can't Buy a Thrill, Haitian Divorce, My Old School)
Robert Palmer (Addicted to Love esp. the video, Bad Case of Lovin' You)
The Guess Who (American Woman)

...and many more, whom I will never knock no matter how highly they rate a woman's knockers over her personality.

Before I get to the songs I hate -- the mostly modern rock, whiny, youth-composed anthems to all kinds of sexist views -- I'll explain why I enjoy Van Halen and Steely Dan and their ilk, and even tolerate some of their weakly sexist inferiors.

Don't tell me you take these guys seriously...

Van Halen's songs are so cheesy they can't possibly be serious. The David Lee Roth era produced some stupid yet funny songs and videos that seamlessly merge the sexist humor of their approach with the male urge to look at boobs, hair, and high-cut 80s bikini bottoms. "Hot for Teacher" is about a young boy's impotence as much as his objectification of his teacher. "Beautiful Girls" throws sex out there as something to be desired by men and women alike ("She looks to me like she'd like to fool around"), not something women have forced on them. So, even if these songs and videos express Roth's or any of the Van Halens' real-life attitudes toward women, there is nothing threatening or deeply insulting about them. They would just be the jackasses who make lewd comments, the jackasses who don't get your number. They don't really offend women, or they shouldn't anyway. They are sexy and superficial about women as much as they are about themselves. We can laugh at them, and even pity them. And when the music is fun (Van Halen is hardly my favorite kind of rock, but they are a good option if "the 80s" is all that's on the table) it just makes the lyrics extra funny. "I like the way the line runs up the back of the stocking." That's literally nothing to get your panties in a bunch about.

The words of men don't always bother me, and oftentimes neither do the images they make. I have plenty of words and images too.

So I think what's going on here is that Van Halen mostly lacks any kind of threat or hint of violence (read: rape), which is one real concern when it comes to determining whether the sexism exhibited by some form of art is actually damaging or dangerous. I did argue long ago that there may be some suggestion of violence in "Hot For Teacher," but I was comparing it to The Police's "Don't Stand so Close to Me" which is a much more two sided (but not completely), more carefully treated example of teacher-student romance. The little boys at the end of the "Teacher" video, the "future gang rapists" I think I called them, were probably not permanently altered by a couple days of shooting in pimp costumes and watching grown women do a lingerie show on desktops. It was probably fun for them, and for the women -- who got to work with little boys (who we all love, in their Oedipal innocence) instead of possibly stinky men. And it was all probably very silly.

Steely Dan is a tougher nut to crack when it comes to explaining away my deaf-ear turning and sometimes even appreciation for what some critics have called outright misogyny. I may like Van Halen, despite all their offenses, but I am enamored of the Dan. Since the first time I heard them and knew what I was listening to (it was "Josie"), I started to bounce and couldn't stop. It was like exceedingly excellent porn music, a catchy TV jingle, and a smooth jazz fusion all in one. The mid-catalog Dan is my favorite. The earliest stuff sounds too predictable, too much like rock with some extra instruments thrown in. Once they get into the funkier beats and had the constant high-hat going is where I really start to like it.

There was once much talk of Steely Dan's lyrics, because of the "perversities" their characters indulge in, and the supposed irony with which many of their lines are delivered, whether they are singing about women, drugs, or some "scene." The Yacht Rock series explains it all, if you are interested (It takes a lot of arm twisting to get good music fans to watch this show, but believe me it's worth it! My own arm was twisted into watching it a couple years back -- I resisted for months -- and I'm so glad I gave in.) Or there's this vintage '70s review of Aja that I treated a while back, wherein the Dan's misogyny is labeled downright "violent" and the author goes so far as to point out all the phalluses on the album. At any rate, the lyrics and the music go well together, but the lyrics and the music are two very distinct topics for discussion when it comes to what makes Steely Dan awesome (or awful. I think they're a love-it or hate-it thing). As for any violence that might lurk in Dan-land, I think it's the characters' and not the musicians'. The review I linked to explores the connection between the men and their madmen.

So I don't have a good excuse for them or myself. It was the '70s. I am entertained by the lyrics. I am moved (or at least my butt is moved) by the music. It's the Dionysian effect! I'm outside of myself and don't need any explanation. Or maybe, for me, it's Steely Dan's being pretty intelligent compared to their peers -- it's been called pussy rock (pertaining to both the wimpy listeners and the female subjects I guess), dork rock, etc. because of its appeal to some segment of smart people. The Eagles (mainstream, not incredibly bright) wanted to kick Fagen and Becker's dork asses. There was a feud. So exciting. Maybe this is why I like it. The stories.

I would defend some other rockers in a similar fashion to how I defend Van Halen. It's rock music -- it's not serious. Sometimes it sounds a little serious, but in many cases the male rockers are just acknowledging women's power over them, and their own impotence and helplessness when faced with a certain kind of "mama." By the 80s, I think a men's movement had begun.

Some more bits of not-so-bad and a-little-worse sexism... There are some classic rock artists who bother me, but they don't really make me angry. I think they are just not intelligent or creatively gifted enough to work properly with the sexisms they are trying to pull off. Three of them, Mellencamp, Springsteen, and Seger, create an ugly trifecta of burly American motorcylcing rock jerks in my book. I'll run'em down quickly.

John Mellencamp needs a lover that won't drive him crazy (don't get me started on people who purposefully use "that" instead of "who" to refer to other human beings), and his desperate cry for that lover, a cry with which we are supposed to empathize, is backed up by anthemic female voices and a wailing guitar riff that's supposed to stick with you, and either make you agree with Mellencamp or acquiesce to becoming someone's very agreeable doormat. The closing line of the chorus says it all for Mellencamps red-blooded outlook. He needs "Some girl who knows the meaning of/'Hey hit the highway!'" I think Mellencamp got caught up in copying The Boss's undying anthem approach to music, and accidentally used it for a song about something that should really be sung a little more coyly or tongue-in-cheek.

I could never figure out if Bob Seger is singing about prostitutes or just loose women in "The Fire Down Below." He finds her in the street every time, so we can probably assume the worst. I think this song might have been meant to make us aware of the problems of sex workers, but it comes off as sounding like they really want to be sex workers because they too have "got the fire down below." The message is unclear, the "they" is always unclear, and I worry that he wants us to feel sorry for the men who pay for sex. Second on Bob's list of shame is "Roll Me Away," where he picks up a girl, carries her halfway across the country and dumps her somewhere because she starts crying too much. No one can contain him, or his motorcycle. Grunt! I think Seger's sexism is kind of innocent, and he's trying to make us aware of situations that come up in American life, in cities and on the road (like he does successfully in "Turn the Page") but he's just not very adept at telling a woman's side of the story.

The Boss has the worst musical offense of the three motorcycle jerks I think. "Born to Run" is a pretty awful song. It's not purposely charged with sexism (at least his blind lust is aimed at a specific female target), but it's pretty tasteless. Maybe that's these guys problem -- no taste. From "Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims/And strap your hands 'cross my engines" to the juvenile attempts at Kerouac-like descriptions of life in the street (that make for a most rambling, monotone line delivery with moans and grinding teeth in between), it's just bad.

You can read my nasty remarks about Jimmy Buffet's offense, "Fins," here.

And then there was Kiss. I do hate Gene Simmons, and I won't make excuses for him like I did for the other American boys who just lack a little taste or intellect. Simmons is a first class dick. And he would interpret that as a compliment. So let's call him a jackass instead. If you have any doubts, here's an NPR interview he tried to suppress.

There are also a lot of classic songs that put me on the fence, but the silliness of the messages in them (if that's what they're supposed to be) make me like them anyway and sing along in a mocking voice. They are not part of substantial catalogs, so they don't necessitate any rearranging of the rock canon or anything. "Don't Fall in Love" is a good example of this kind of song that's so bad and inconsequential that it's OK. I mean who really needs to sing to his friend (or himself?) about why he shouldn't love a stripper? "If ya do yal find out sh'don't love yooo!" Hilarity. Also The Outfield's hit "Your Love" makes me wonder, with that line "I like my girls just a little bit older." Does he date young ones to keep up appearances and then sneak around with the older ones who can show him a trick or two? I guess it's ok, 'cause his girlfriend Josie is away having her own fun. She's back in Steely Dan's neighborhood being a raw flame and a livewire.

So now that I've either defended or waved away the sexisms of classic rock into the 1980s, I have to explain why I think there is no excuse for the sexisms of today's rock.

Nickelback: Take us seriously or we'll fuck you up, and then whine about it.

One of the disturbing things about today's music is the youth, and consequential lack of tact or forethought, of its lyric writers. Maybe some of our classic favorites were young when they wrote their first songs, but being 19 years old in the 1970s was a far different stage of life from being 19 years old in the 2000s. Our adolescence has grown sickeningly long, and I don't mean by that that I think everyone needs to grow up fast. I'm not even grown up. But I do know how to be independent. I think part of the problem with "these kids today" is they have their asses wiped for them, so when they get hurt they think they can say whatever they want about women (or men). They're not used to not getting their way. I think a couple generations back, young people not only got pushed around a little more and had to make their own way more often, but they were paradoxically more idealistic and had a healthier (even if it wasn't always optimistic) outlook despite their trials. I think of Neil Young writing "Sugar Mountain" at the turn of 20. You don't get that kind of thought and sincerity from young people's music today.

Another factor in the proliferation of rock sexisms is our desensitization. Now that the hip hop scene has made all kinds of sexisms mainstream, the rockers have carte blanche to do the same thing, only they put their tongues in their cheeks a little so we don't question their motives or accuse them of actually believing what they sing.

One more factor in these songs' disturbingness is that they get personal. Van Halen, for instance, addresses women. A woman, an individual, can shake that off. The motorcycle dudes address idealized women in their stupid innocent way. A modern rocker douche sings to a specific girl about the specific offenses she's supposedly perpetrated against him, and sometimes about the specific punishments he'll administer. It's creepy. We have come far enough, women, that blanket statements slide right off. Personal, directed violence will probably always be offensive and disturbing to us, and rightly so.

I was getting my hair cut the other night and I heard "Girls Like Cars and Money" by Good Charlotte. The song, if you listen real close at the end, it supposedly lamenting the fact that so many girls like cars and money("losing their souls in a material world"-- we've heard it all before, whiny Charlotte), but by the time you get that far the damage is done. Good Charlotte just told a whole lot of girls they're only good girls if they like cars and money. They sing it like it's truth. Maybe the reason girls like those things is because everyone's telling them to? Even the "rock" music, which is supposed to rock the boat.

There are plenty more where that came from, but then their are also all the break-up songs nowadays that call women (girls, at their age) bitches in so many words, and mask the violence of their lyrics by whining away so poignantly to muffled, bass-heavy, digitally compressed guitar churning. Puddle of Mudd has continual hits with songs where the speaker is "drowning in a pool of misery" where "she fucking hates me," or "she's fucking someone else." In one gem off their 2003 album some girl is told "you better shut it...or you'll be sorry." We have to wonder what this guy does to all these women that they so often sleep with other people and leave him quickly enough that he can write ten or more songs about their successive abandonments (he really wants us to feel sorry for him) to fill up an album every year or so. I first saw a video of theirs in 2001, and I knew some bad shit was going to rain down. (Why, it's not mudd at all! It's sewage!)

Nickelback will be my last specific example (just turn on the radio -- I don't want to keep looking up the horrible lyrics to these things). They have a huge fan following among those impressionable teenaged girls. I know they are impressionable because I was one once. Only my '90s heroes were too depressed to constantly hate on women, and while they may have contributed to my tail-end-of-GenX cynicism, they didn't make me want boys with cars or destroy my feminine self-worth like these jerks nowadays seem to want to do to their female audience. The Cobains, the Staleys, the lot of them, had bigger problems.

So then there was Nickelback. I think their mainstream, radio-friendly songs have been crafted to draw attention away from some of the filth they hide in their deep tracks. Filth about burning buildings and vandalizing places while getting shitfaced. And there's no humor to it, or social message even. The Ramones could sing the same thing and have it be funny or commentary. But wait, that's not about sex -- here we go. Nickelback has a song (I didn't bother to keep looking once I found this putrid thing) called "Figured You Out" that says it all for what we are to believe (some) young men expect from (all?) young women today. I won't put any of it here, you can click on it, and shudder away. Maybe today's rockers (the Nickelbackers are getting up there in age) have figured the young ladies out so well because they told them how to act in the first place. Leaving men isn't good -- Puddle of Mudd details the consequences. So I guess girls are supposed to stick around, get "figured out," and...wait...are they supposed to like the cars or will they get in trouble for that too? Shit!

I was just relieved to find this article on people not taking Nickelback seriously.

In my band I sing "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" back to back with "I Hate Myself for Lovin' You" and I introduce it as our feminist rock block. These come off as our best songs because, yeah, I get into them. I don't put notches in any lipstick case, but that line always brings out the feisty in me ("Put me in my place, muthafucka!" Haha.). The energy from Benatar's lyrics rolls right into the grunts in between the verses of the Joan Jett number (I heard that at the gym today too, and I think I like my extra bitchy version better -- we've permanently change the lyrics to "can't break free from that SHIT that you do"). These women were reacting to the sexisms they heard and experienced in the 1980s. If they could write those songs over today, I bet there would be a lot more anger there. Jett and Benatar's songs (as they are) seem like a healthy, measured reaction to dummy '80s boys being boys, and I don't feel like a she-sexist when I use their music as the same kind of reactionary outlet.

A final question. Where are the reactionary songs from today's lady rockers? Perhaps they're all too busy looking good and singing nonsense, or being good, by singing very quietly.


  1. This is a nicely timed blog entry. It's fun to contemplate your rendition of "I Hate Myself For Loving You" while anticipating the Runaways movie. (Let's hope it's good.)

    There are some great reactionary songs out there by lady rockers. The Donnas sing playfully aggressive songs like "40 Boys in 40 Nights". Girl in a Coma are on Joan Jett's label and their rock songs are amazing. I actually think Courtney Love makes great records, and she is supposed to have a new one coming out soon. If you've got some time to spare, Venus Zine did a retrospective article on-line about the Greatest Female Guitarists of All Time, and they included many video links:
    There's amazing stuff out there, but FM radio and music television are pretty out of touch with it.

  2. Thanks for the links Heather! It's always good when women know their guitars too.

    I figured there must be some good stuff out there somewhere, but like you said, they sure don't feature it on the radio or advertise it all over like they do the man-music.

  3. Love this post.
    I'm sure there are plenty of reactionary songs from today's girl rockers, but I doubt they make the radio as their records don't seem to warrant the cross marketing that the "pop tarts" gather.
    I think the most recent answer to sexism in music videos was done very well by Pink (aka Alicia Moore who I can't deny I love) in her son "Stupid Girl".
    On a side note I pretty much agree with your post all together. I especially love the Springstein bashing since I can rarely find someone who will say something bad about him or his music.

  4. P.S. I concur with the link your other poster sent. A great list and I do love me some Ani.


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