Catchy or Controversial: Popular Songs with Controversial Lyrics

TW: Mentions of sexual assault and violence.

We’ve all listened to the Rolling Stones – Satisfaction, Gimme Shelter, You can’t always get what you want – nearly everyone knows them. Your parents love them! You’ve almost definitely heard them, even if you didn’t realise it. They are band that define “rock n roll” and enjoy their music or not, you’re bound to hear them again – they’re embedded in our musical fabric. Recently, one of their most controversial songs Brown Sugar was dropped from their set list following the announcement of an upcoming tour. First recorded in 1971, the highly problematic song discusses slavery and “how black women taste so good”. The sexism and racism in this song is rife and blatant and yet is has taken until now, 2021, for the Rolling Stones to question its appropriateness for performance. So much for progression. 

Unfortunately, the argument surrounding problematic song lyrics, whether their censorship is justified or an attack on musical freedom is ongoing and multi-faceted. Songs can be the product of certain time period and therefore certain ideologies – something uncontroversial in 1960, could be wholly inappropriate to a listener now. Some argue that censorship limits music – why should a song with an incredible base line or guitar riff be absconded and censored for the sake of a bad lyric? Maybe the song is just enjoyable and shouldn’t be banned because some people are offended by it – it is just a song after all.

In the case of Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit Blurred Lines the problems are endless. Produced to be a catchy club hit, the lyrics are repeatedly demeaning towards women – the insinuation, that Robin Thicke “knows you want it” is completely undermining of the concept of consent and re-iterates the archaic idea that a women cannot have agency in her sexual endeavours; Only a man knows what she really wants. The reference to Thicke liberating the woman is also painfully misogynistic – can a woman not sexually liberate herself? The entirety of the song is objectifying and quite frankly behind the times. And yet it debuted at number 1 in the UK charts. There is no escaping that the lyrics are catchy and the song is ‘enjoyable’ – clearly the population of the UK enjoyed listening to it. So perhaps we should overlook the song’s highly problematic content, in favour of its evident popularity. The problem with this attitude is that songs like Blurred Lines perpetuate and normalise issues that already exist – issues that encourage and justify, casual sexism, archaic attitudes towards sex and most dangerously, normalise things like rape culture, all for the sake of men like Robin Thicke being able to express their sexual desires. Whether or not the song is “catchy” and popular there has to be an awareness to the attitudes it encourages and who they damage – it is not fair to trivialise issues for the sake of a good song. 

In following this line of thinking there is a space to criticise lots of genres of music for the issues they discuss. Drill music, for example, has been heavily criticised for it glorification of violence, especially in light of an increase of gang violence in London in recent years. There has even been a movement by police to have the music taken down from streaming services like Youtube due to its sometimes particularly violent content, the lyrics often referencing shootings and stabbings – the genre’s name itself comes from a slang term for murdering or injuring someone. Whilst there is no denying that drill music is immensely violent, it is important to consider that drill music often refers to lived experiences by its creators and real-life gang rivalries. Blurred Lines and Brown Sugar discuss the sexual desires of men who are already in a powerful position. Their song lyrics demonstrate their position that they choose to abuse, whereas the violence and gang culture referenced by drill artists are a part of wider social issues and often are inescapable for those discussing them. 

So, catchy or controversial? A song can be both – in fact many are. In criticising or defending a song it is important to consider its contexts’ – a piece of music may have controversial content, but it may also be a political statement and highlight issues that other groups may not encounter – the incision of conversation is always important and is often very effective through popular culture. In other contexts, it may simply be time to force powerful musicians to consider and correct their choice of content – it is never really just song after all.

– Ruth Hetherington

Featured Imagen Source: Pexels

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