On Pop Music and Violence Against Women

Categories: WTF

Jaime Lees
My R. Kelly necklace


I can't stop thinking about Rihanna. Her single, "Stay," came out a year ago this month and it's still omnipresent. I'll hear it on the radio, in the grocery store and played on the jukebox at a bar by some sad bastard with no concept of appropriate public drinking tunes. The song won't go away, and neither will my conflicted feelings about Rihanna, her life and her music. Just like many others, the thing I most associate with Rihanna is the horrible act of documented domestic abuse she endured at the hands of her then-boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, in 2009.

Whenever I hear "Stay," I get all twisted up inside. That's kind of the point of depressing songs, anyway, but there's an extra layer of icky-feeling that builds up inside of me. I love the song and think it's pretty amazing, actually, but it also kind-of makes me feel nauseated. I think it's because of those pictures. Whenever I think about her, I can't help but think about violence against women and some of my friends who have survived it.

Should I let the personal lives of pop stars influence how I feel about their music? No, that's silly. They're just pop stars. Who gives a dick about their personal lives, anyway, right? Well, sometimes I do. I wish I didn't, but I do.

I'm one of the few women I know who has never been seriously assaulted. I've never been raped, I've never been a victim of violent crime and a man has never to raised a fist to me in anger. While some might say that's because I'm aware of my surroundings or I'm tough or I'm too smart to get trapped in a bad situation: They are wrong. I am just lucky. That is it.

I have, for sure, faced sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances. This happens at least twice a month and it's usually in public places and is perpetrated by strangers. Inappropriate words spoken to me are usually countered with harsher words from me. And any fools who have dared to touch, grab or pinch my body parts without permission have experienced the swift smack of my hand to their face. Maybe that's not wise, but it's my automatic reaction.

And as a younger female music fan, I had plenty of women to look up to-- my generation was particularly lucky to have Riot Grrrls as our honorary big sisters. The Riot Grrrl movement was a new wave of feminism that encouraged women to be smart, strong and safe. Their "take-no-shit" message was spread through various formats: art, 'zines and, especially, music. "Riot Grrrl" eventually became a dated tag applied to any young woman out to express her opinion, especially if she was at all angry or "nervy," but the scene stands as a small, yet powerful cultural revolution.

I don't mean to be all "get off my lawn," but I don't see anything like this in modern music. Sure, there are strong women, but they aren't organized together and don't seem to support each other in the same way. It seems as though most of the current big-name women entertainers are pop stars, not rockers. But sometimes rockers pay attention to pop music, too.

Just last week a I watched a video of Patti Smith covering Rihanna's "Stay" at Smith's 67th birthday show. From the stage, Smith described the song as "the 2013 song of the year." Smith is a hero of mine, and this made my weird obsession with that song feel justified.

After watching Smith sing her heartbreaking live version, I looked up Rihanna's official video for the song. Despite hearing bits of it approximately 100 times, I'd never seen the video. (I'm a music person, not a TV person.) And guess what? The video made me feel even worse about the whole goddamn thing. It's Rihanna, vulnerable and naked in a bath tub, and there are lots of close clips of her face as she's singing. In these tight shots, what I assume to be a scar from the Chris Brown attack shows on her top lip. (It's in the same place where her lip was broken in the police photographs.) Her pretty face, all scarred up, as she's singing, "I want you to stayyyyy..."

Continue to page two for more.

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I've thought about this a lot and, honestly, I'm no closer to an answer than I was when I started. Let me ramble about this a bit, in hopes it helps.

There's a school of thought that says that any work of art, every work of art, exists independent of the artist and the artist's intent. There's another school of thought that says that when you endorse the art, you endorse the artist. I am capable of respecting people who believe either one of those things. Sometimes I'm even capable of believing both of those things at once.

I think, for me, one thing that factors into where I personally end up drawing the line has to do with thresholds: how many people have they hurt, have they allegedly hurt? Someone's been in one or two bad relationships, committed one or two crimes, and at least tried to repent, maybe I'm capable of judging the art independent of the artist. On the other hand, I can think of at least one artist, a popular writer, who spent the 80s campaigning, in public, to have gay people rounded up for involuntary human experiments to find a cure for homosexuality; fortunately, nobody listened to him, but had he succeeded, he would have exceeded Hitler or Stalin or maybe even Pol Pot in death toll; I can't look past that to see the art, I can't interpret the art without looking for evidence of that kind of sick thinking showing up in the work.

But I wonder about something else. Have you seen the medical news stories, lately, about the early results of the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey? They followed the lives of thousands of children up through early adulthood and found that the amount of trauma someone grew up with correlates with every kind of medical, physical, psychological, economic, and social dysfunction there is: everything from asthma and allergies to crime and illiteracy to teen pregnancy and unemployment. Quite possibly the single biggest health and safety hazard we have in this country may well turn out to be childhood PTSD. And I think, on some level, I may have already known that ... and that may be why I cut artists more slack if they grew up in the ghetto, or in rural poverty, than I do if they grew up middle class or above. Maybe, anyway. I don't really know.

Anyway, I hope this helps, I hope it at least gives you something to argue with or think about. Because you've asked a really good question.

dalediversity topcommenter

I stopped reading at the trigger warning. I hope there's nothing in the article of value. 

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