Monday, May 7, 2012

The Pop Music Project: 2011

This is the beginning of a project I've been building up to for a couple months.  It'll be a series of posts and will probably take quite a while, as I have 21 years to cover here.

It all started in the beginning of March when I was in the car and "I'm Just A Girl" by No Doubt came on the radio.  It got me thinking about pop music, and about some of the amazing tunes made by women back in the '80s and '90s that were pretty daring and actually feminist.  Then I started thinking about pop music today and a question formed in my head: Do they make pop music like this anymore?

So I decided to empirically answer that question.  First, I looked at the Billboard Top 100 songs for every year from 1990 to 2011 and counted how many each year were made by female artists.  I made a spreadsheet and everything!  Then I decided I was going to have to go deeper and look at content.  So I embarked on the sometimes interesting, sometimes mind-numbing, and surprisingly exhausting journey of listening to and reading the lyrics of every single Top 100 song for the past 21 years.  I'm going to compile my findings bit by bit here.

I'm going to start with 2011 today.  For every year I'm going to post some interesting thoughts, along with ten songs that I feel are exceptionally good--or bad--from a feminist perspective.  I'm trying to be objective because, frankly, the majority of the stuff from 2011 is truly awful.  There are also a lot of dimensions you could examine in these lyrics, but I'm going to attempt to stick with misogyny, at least in these deeper analyses.  So let's get started.

Bad Song: If I Die Young by The Band Perry
This song clocked in at number 35 on the Billboard charts.  It's one of those pop country songs that has become so popular over the past few years, though it's a bit more depressing than your average Taylor Swift ditty.  It is sung by the female vocalist who basically sings her will--"If I die young, bury me in satin, lay me down in a bed of roses."  That's creepy enough, but then there's these lines.

And I'll be wearing white when I come into your kingdom
I'm as green as the ring on my little cold finger
I've never known the loving of a man
But it sure felt nice when he was holding my hand.

So that's about dying a virgin and going to Heaven.  And I'm fairly certain that the second line here references a purity ring, which is not surprising but still pretty gross.  I understand that the very religious idea of women only staying pure through their virginity has really caught fire over the past few years, especially in younger people who would be listening to this kind of country-pop music, but this is blatant.  Even more blatant than in Lady Antebellum's "Just A Kiss" or in "Don't You Wanna Stay", a duet between Kelly Clarkson and Jason Aldean.  These are both songs with both male and female voices who talk about how they want to wait to have sex because this could be true love and they don't want to ruin it (from the latter song, "I don't wanna just make love, I wanna make love last").  Apparently this is becoming a trend.

Good Song: Fuckin Perfect by Pink
There were a lot of you're-special-and-shouldn't-get-down-on-yourself songs this year, very much in the vein of "Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera.  We had "Firework" by Katy Perry and "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga.  I promise I picked this for a reason, and not just because I can't stand Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.  First of all, Pink has a pretty good track record of being genuine and positive.  This song is no exception.  This song isn't some generic placating song about being special and awesome, this is a song about actually wading through shit and coming out the other side smelling like roses.  It's about telling people that even if they don't appear amazing to themselves they are, and I honestly believe that Pink feels this way from the way she sings this.  Maybe I'm biased--I've been a Pink fan ever since she was belting out songs telling men that she wanted them for how they treated her and not for their money.  Is this another inspirational pop song aimed at hormonally-imbalanced teenagers?  Sure, but for once I believe this one may actually get through.

Bad Song: E.T. by Katy Perry

 Now I'm going to explain to you why I do not like Katy Perry.  This song.  This song is...creepy on so many levels.  Basically, it's a song talking about a skilled lover and her infatuation with him using the metaphor of being an alien.  Unfortunately, Katy Perry takes it too far.  And if Katy Perry takes it out of this world, Kanye West takes it out of this galaxy.

The chorus here actually includes the lines "Take me, wanna be a victim, ready for abduction."  THE CHORUS. The first verse also includes lines about how everyone is telling her to be afraid of this guy because he's weird and possibly dangerous, but she can't stay away.  I have been there, ladies and gents, and that is never a good sign.

But if that's blatantly bad, it gets worse--these are the last lines of Kanye West's verse:

Tell me what's next
Alien sex,
I'mma disrobe you
Then I'mma probe you
Yeah, I abducted you
So I tell you what to do.

If anyone ever says those words to you, scream and run away.  Please.  Pepper spray him, if you have it on you.  Ick.  Apparently, not enough people know that that SHOULD be the response to those words, because this song was the number 4 song in 2011.  Think about that for a minute.
Good Song: The Show Goes On by Lupe Fiasco
There were a lot of club songs last year.  There were a lot brag songs last year, too.  There are a lot of songs in rap in general that talk about coming up from nothing to being a star.  And this is all three of those, and none of them at the same time.  Again, it's about being genuine.  When I listen to the lyrics of this song, I hear him actually telling kids in the hood to stand up and keep going.  And there's a line about teachers!  And the Gaza Strip!  How often do you hear that?

But this list is about women, and their place in these songs.  But here's the thing about this song: it doesn't mention women once.  Not in a completely ignoring them way, just in a not singling them out to be objectified way.  Most brag songs aren't just about how much you drink or the cars you drive but how many women you've slept with.  There is absolutely none of that in this song at all.  And that makes it exceptional!  I know that is a low expectation but I promise you every single other brag song that made the top 100 last year had at least one line about fucking lots of women.  That, mixed with the positive message of this song, earns it a pretty good grade in my book.

Bad Song: Bottoms Up by Trey Songz and Nicki Minaj
Only part of this song is on this list, so if you're going to watch this video skip to 2:25.  

I wanna talk about Nicki Minaj for a moment.  She's a big deal these days, and it's awesome that there is a really talented female rapper hitting it big.  But her lyrics are often problematic.  They go beyond bragging into woman-on-woman hating:

If a bitch try to get cute I'll stomp her
throw a lotta money at her then y'all fuck her
fuck her, fuck her, then y'all fuck her
then I'mma go and get my Louisville Slugger

I'm not quite sure what is happening here, but I'm fairly certain that she's talking about beating the shit out of a woman.  To add a cherry to that crap sundae, she follows this with "Excuse me, I'm sorry, I'm really such a lady."  At the end of her verse she inexplicably applauds Anna Nicole Smith and then goes back to talking about drinking.
Here's the thing about Nicki Minaj: I want so badly to like her and some of her verses are good (check out her verse in the Kanye West song "Monster" for a good example) but she seems to have a major case of Special Snowflake Syndrome.  She had two other big hits this year, "Super Bass" and "Moment 4 Life", and in both of them she referenced "jealous hos".  And in the beginning of 2012 she released a song called "Stupid Ho".  Not exactly Girl Power-y.  Let's hope for better in the future.

Good Song:   Best Thing I Never Had by Beyonce
There are a lot of great breakup songs made by women, and Beyonce has made them into an art form.  This one is no exception.  I suppose this isn't technically a breakup song, since it's more about realizing that a guy is a total asshole before getting too involved.  This is one of those songs that you can dance around your bedroom to, drinking a beer after a bad heartbreak.  She's pretty empowered here--she realizes that she can do so much better and that she doesn't feel bad for this guy's hurt feelings after he hurt her.  It's a shame this one only made it to number 86 because I think it's pretty damn relateable.

Bad Song: 6 Foot 7 Foot by Lil Wayne
This song is just...gross.  Like I feel like I have to take a shower after I listen to it.  It's just a brag song but it has some of the most disgusting lines I've read in looking at all of these songs.  I'm just going to leave them here for you, without comment.  There's not much more to say.

Two bitches at the same time, synchronized swimmes,
got the girl open 'cause she open when I twist her,
never met the bitch but I fucked her like I missed her.
Life is a bitch, and Death is her sister.

Then, later...
Had my heart broken by this woman named Tammy,
but hoes gonna be hoes, so I couldn't blame Tammy.

Good Song: Just The Way You Are by Bruno Mars
This song does not contain a sentiment that is new. In fact, the title is straight-up ripped off Billy Joel.  But it's refreshing to hear this these days as so many pop songs by male artists are either degrading or condescending towards women.  But here, Bruno Mars tells the girl he loves that she's great as is.  What a novel idea.

When I see your face, there's not a thing that I would change
'cause you're amazing just the way you are.
And when you smile, the whole world stops and stares for awhile
'cause, girl, you're amazing just the way you are.

This song ISN'T perfect just the way it is--most of the things that he compliments are physical traits and not, say, her intelligence or her interests--but at least he's saying that he would never ask this girl to change and that he thinks she's perfect, right?  It's a breath of fresh air amongst all the "I don't fall in love, I just fuck" pop songs of recent history.

Too bad he had to just go ahead and blow up all that good will with a...

Bad Song: Grenade by Bruno Mars

It's really just such a shame.  But this song is terrible, and I'll tell you why.  I haven't mentioned the concept of the "Nice Guy" on here yet, so allow me to explain.  "Nice Guys" is a misnomer, because guys like this are actually jerkoffs.  They are the kind of guys who believe that if they do enough nice, sentimental, sweet things for a girl she will reach a point of saturation and be obligated to have sex with them.  And when she doesn't, she's a bitch who only dates assholes.  They see girls as giant sex vending machines and throw temper tantrums when they don't get their way.  And this song is their anthem.  

I'd catch a grenade for ya, throw my hand on a blade for ya,
jump in front of a train for ya, you know I'd do anything for ya,
I would go through all this pain, take a bullet straight through my brain,
yes I would die for you, baby, but you won't do the same.

First of all--and this is not an original observation--these are some pretty extreme lyrics and there are very few circumstances under which a guy would actually have to do any of these things for any constructive purpose.  Secondly, if you have the feeling that you like a person this much and they don't like you at all, it's probably time to just move on and not tell her that she's a "bad woman" or say that she's from Hell.  That doesn't really help matters.  But this song charted up at number 6 for the year, so maybe I'm alone in seeing this.
Good Song/Bad Song: Rolling In The Deep by Adele
So here's the thing about this song.  I want to be able to put it as a good song because it was the NUMBER ONE SONG OF THE WHOLE YEAR and it was by a woman singing powerful lyrics and doing it with a lot of talent.  Unfortunately, that would be hypocritical because this song is, in many ways, the female equivalent of Grenade.  It is about a woman after a breakup who is incredibly angry and honestly just wants a lot of revenge.  And she gets it by tearing this guy to shreds in this song.  I don't think I'm okay with that, even if it is a "Yeah, tell him!" kind of song that we've all felt at some point.  

Turn my sorrow into treasured gold
and pay it back in kind, you reap just what you sow.

So I conclude the best--and worst--songs from 2011 with a toss-up.  Which is fair.  Lyrics are a form of poetry and poetry is never black-and-white.  Maybe we'll see some more stark contrasts in 2010.

Some General Thoughts on 2011's Top 100
  • 44 of the top 100 songs were by female artists or collaborations between male and female artists.  Six of the top ten were either female artists or female/male collaborations.  
  • If you haven't figured this out yet, that really catchy Foster The People song, Pumped Up Kicks?  With the whistling and the kinda indie-rock feel?  Definitely about a kid bringing a gun to school.  We all on the same page with that?  Cool.
  • I found a Lady Gaga song I like!  It's called You And I and it is absolutely nothing like the rest of her work.  She has such an amazing voice and she actually uses it in this song.
  • Chris Brown is a disgusting human being, both musically and in reality, though I'm sure this isn't news.
  • There were a lot of electronic dance jams this year, and that wasn't something exclusive to male or female artists.  In both cases they used the opposite sex like props--Ke$ha (I hate typing that) talks about hitting on dudes hard while they drink and almost every male dance jam talks about women as if they are giant asses walking around the dance floor.  I kind of hope this trend ends.
  • As much as I want to like Black and Yellow by Wiz Khalifa I can't, there are some really terrible lines in there.  Could he rep Pittsburgh without talking about how women love him because he sleeps with their best friends?
  • I couldn't include this song in the list because I don't think it goes one way or another on the feminist thing, but everyone please go listen to Fuck You by Cee Lo Green.  It is an amazing song, I promise you won't regret it.
The 2010 list is coming soon!  


  1. For 2010, I'd like your thoughts on Rihanna's S&M. I think she's, by far, the most interesting female pop star in regards to how she's harnessing her sexuality in music (her personal life and choices notwithstanding).

    I'd also argue that E.T. gives much more of an S&M relationship vibe to me, but I don't disagree with your analysis. It's so blatant I only hear sexy power games times though.

    1. I thought about covering S&M in this post, as it was also on the charts in 2011, but I have really mixed feelings about it. On the other hand, I am very, very excited to write a very detailed analysis of Love The Way You Lie, the Eminem/Rihanna song from 2010. That'll be interesting.

      E.T. is interesting, and I don't disagree with you either--I just cannot see past that ridiculous metaphor that seems to be completely ingrained in every line. But music definitely lends itself to being heard differently by different people.

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