In Roxane Gay’s collection of wonderful essays Bad Feminist, one chapter ‘Blurred Lines, Indeed’ explores her responses to the pop song Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke (amongst other things). Until now I’ve somehow managed to avoid both the song and the video, but have been very much aware of the stir they generated. Now I know why. The song, apparently, is about women really wanting it, and, apparently, Thicke is the man for the job. He alludes to his considerable appendage, big enough to cause some damage, but I’ve never seen his willy, so I can’t comment (and also don’t care).
What interests me is this. Gay says: “As much as it pains me to admit it, I like these songs. They make me want to dance. I want to sing along. They are delightful pop confections. But. I enjoy the songs the way I have to enjoy most music – I have to forget I am a sentient being. I have to lighten up.” Her use of the phrase ‘lighten up’ is deliberate, as women are often advised to lighten up when confronted with sexism/voyeurism/misogyny.
I find this idea, that we can simultaneously enjoy and disapprove of pieces of pop culture, quite fascinating. In my old film studies days we talked about ‘reading against the grain’, of being intuitively oppositional in how we respond to some films, scenes, characters. I’ve certainly found pleasure in things not intended for me as a white, working class woman (formerly girl), and sometimes that pleasure is critical, even a little twisted. Somebody actually said to me once “You can’t like that, you’re a woman” – apparently I wasn’t supposed to like early Scorsese, it was confusing for this bloke and made him uncomfortable. I wrote about the complexities of audience responses for an In The Picture publication back in 1996. My article was called “How I learned to love Starsky and Hutch and remain a feminist” (because my life revolves around those fictional boys). Sometimes we derive enjoyment from things not intended for us. Sometimes we have seemingly incongruous responses. I discussed this with my 14 year old son, who commented that our relationships with pieces of culture are like our relationships with people – we can get along quite nicely with people we are fundamentally different to, we can agree to disagree, but still function and have a meaningful friendship or working relationship, even if we may never be ‘best’ friends.
We used to think of audiences/consumers as passive. We’re not, we know that now. I actually delight in knowing that I can simultaneously denounce and celebrate the 1970s machismo of my childhood heroes, and laugh at the pathetic way women are often portrayed or positioned. In her book Black Looks, bell hooks talks about how prejudices evident in film (of course applicable to other forms of popular culture) can be ignored, or laughed at, or interrogated. Some of us (not everyone, for sure) can take a song like Blurred Lines and interrogate the undertones of sexual violence in the lyrics, challenge the representations and ogling of women in the video, yet still have a little boogie to it in the kitchen if it comes on the radio. And other people probably feel very uncomfortable about that. Our responses are not uniform.
I’m sticking with old school here, but let’s take Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Do not be mistaken, I suspect the man is a total cock, but the majority of that film had me in stitches (and one scene in particular did not). It was a long time ago, I may feel differently if I saw it now, but at the time I wasn’t offended by the various stereotypes and horrendous rape-revenge clichés, but found most of it laughable. I took great delight in laughing at it, and therefore can say I enjoyed it. It was like Fame, but more shit, and with nipple glitter. I was not its target audience and did not consume it as intended. I think this is ok.
But we all have our moments of discomfort, right? Where, like Roxane Gay, we find ourselves enjoying something we know we shouldn’t, or we’re simply not sure of. As a teenager I loved the album Milo Goes to College by Descendents, but a lot of the lyrics made me uncomfortable. On the song I’m Not a Loser the final verse goes as follows:
You arrogant assholes
Your pants are too tight
You fucking homos
You suck, Mr. Buttfuck
You don’t belong here
No way you fucking gay
I’m not a loser!
I was never sure whether they were singing in character, mocking the American jock stereotype, or whether they really were young, brattish homophobes who needed to grow up? I wanted to believe it was the former, so I could continue to listen to it (it’s super catchy). All these years later (and listening to the album again as I write) I discover other fans discussing this issue in the comments section on Song Meanings. The band themselves say a lot of the songs they wrote were fictional, so I’m inclined to think they were mimicking and mocking homophobes. But I still can’t sing along with those lines.
Musician Nadine Shah tweeted “I’ve been innocently singing this song for years not taking any notice of the lyrics..oh dear” accompanied by a link to the song If You Wanna Be Happy by Jimmy Soul. It’s probably what we’d call ‘of its time’ as it’s basically saying marry an ugly girl if you want to be happy, they cook your meals on time and give you peace of mind, whereas pretty girls just make you feel small. Nice! Similarly, my friend Emma loves and laughs at the song Lucretia MacEvil by Blood, Sweat and Tears in spite of what she calls ‘deep misogyny’.
I’m sure we’ve all done and said things we later feel embarrassed by, even ashamed. And I’m sure plenty of artists feel that way about some of their work, whether it’s in the public domain or not. I have a very strong memory of using a racist term in the school playground aged 8. Another girl immediately pulled me up on it (this was 1978, good for her!) and I felt ashamed and apologised. I was repeating something I’d heard at home, but suspected was wrong. All these years later it still makes me cringe.
We can be naïve and/or ignorant about many things at any point in our lives. Putting it out there as a piece of pop culture means it’s always there to remind you of who you were, but also, in some instances, how far you’ve come. I’m thinking specifically of Beastie Boys. They first achieved success as brattish teenagers. They sang about girls cleaning their dishes and doing their laundry. They had scantily clad women ‘perform’ on stage with them in cages. For a long time this defined them, and how we perceived them. But over time they grew up, their song writing and performances matured, they became more socially and politically conscious and active. And in the song Sure Shot they rap this:
I want to say a little something that’s long overdue
The disrespect to women has got to be through
To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and the friends
I want to offer my love and respect to the end
So give Mr Thicke a few more years. He could surprise us. Or he may not.