On Pop Music and Violence Against Women

Categories: WTF

Stills from the "Stay" video

While we adults might have the ability to separate the artist from the what we perceive as the message (or realize that a song might not be autobiographical -- Rihanna didn't even write "Stay"), younger fans can't be expected to analyze in the same way. This song, and her defensiveness of Brown in the months following the attack, might best serve as insight into the psychology of an abused woman and the systematic and powerful methods of abusers.

Many people (mostly parents of little girls) were pissed that Rihanna seemed to make excuses for Brown in interviews following the incident. They argued that when you're an entertainer, you forfeit the right to deal with this kind of public situation in a private manner -- you may not defend or in any way stand by your abusive boyfriend. Parents argued that Rihanna was a role model and that sometimes entertainers actually do have a small responsibility to set an example for their younger fans.

I don't mean to blame the victim, but I, too, was disappointed with how that all played out. But I don't necessarily think that it's Rihanna's job to provide guidance to to young people and I wouldn't rely on any pop star to relay that message properly, either. So when this particular abuse story became public, I felt the need to talk to my pre-teen little sisters and make sure that they understood the situation. I wanted to make sure that they didn't think this was acceptable. I tried to explain to them the complicated and convoluted thought process that is common in victims of abuse. And I wanted to make sure they knew that Chris Brown is an asshole.

I can be reactionary, and if I had been a fan of Chris Brown I probably would've gotten rid of all of his music upon seeing those horrifying photos. I'd like to think that I couldn't be a fan of a man who would do that kind of thing to a woman -- but it's simply not true. Many, and I mean many, of my favorite artists are unsavory characters at best. Most of them probably have morals that aren't in agreement with mine. And if I think about it hard enough, some of them are known woman abusers.

My music collection contains absolute shitloads of jerks, creeps and murderers. In my personal life I have a zero-tolerance policy for men who hurt women, children or animals. I don't believe in rehabilitation for crimes against these groups, either. I'm of the opinion that men who cross these boundaries once will cross them again. But apparently this hard-line stance doesn't apply to my musical tastes. And if you think that every musical artist you love shares your same values, however serious or trivial they may be, think again.

I'm from St. Louis, which is probably considered a land of misogynists and apologists to outsiders because of the adoration we openly give to our hometown musicians like Chuck Berry and Ike Turner -- both known enemies of women. But still, I have tons of tunes by Berry and tracks from both Ike and Tina, separately and combined. (Tina Turner, another badass woman who was famously a victim of abuse.) Michael Jackson is in there, too. He was accused multiple times of inappropriate relationships with children, but that didn't stop him from being the biggest pop star in the world and having the majority of humans continue to hold him like the river Jordan. And though some referred to it as a "rape anthem," I've been known to shake it to Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." Shit, even Charles Manson made some good tunes.

Phil Spector had a big long history of terrorizing women, until one day he finally went to prison for killing one. But that doesn't stop me from cranking the dial up to maximum volume any time I hear "Be My Baby." I think "Be My Baby" is the best song ever written and whatever Phil Spector did or didn't do in his life seems like it will never dampen my love for that song.

R. Kelly is accused of preying on underage females, which is particularly disgusting. (The Village Voice recently ran an excellent interview with respected music critic Jim DeRogatis on the subject.) But when I hear R. Kelly I don't usually think about his scandals. In fact, I've worn a necklace repping R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)" nearly every day since I got it last year. I love that necklace. And I love that stupid song.

So what the hell is wrong with me? Do I willfully overlook an artist's abusive past if I like to "bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce" to their song? Does a necklace really matter? Why do some artists trigger a reaction in me while others seem to get a pass? What gives here? Should I be thinking harder about all of this? Should I be thinking less about all of this?

There's a common criticism of feminists that we're too serious or can't take a joke or that every "little thing" doesn't have to be a fight, but I think some things are worth fighting for and that it's always appropriate to have a discussion about the safety of women.

Logically, I don't think that a pop star's personal life should influence how I feel about their music, but clearly, it's still an issue in my life. Maybe it shouldn't be, but there's something that's uncomfortable for me here. And when I'm uncomfortable I speak out. Or scream. Many thanks to the Riot Grrrls for teaching me about the power of the female voice -- I intend to keep using it.

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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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