Expecting More: Male Musicians, Problematic Faves, and Complacency
Illustration by Carmen Li.
In an interview with Billboard promoting her upcoming album in which she returns to her country roots, Miley Cyrus stated, “I also love that new Kendrick [Lamar] song [‘HUMBLE.’ on his 2017 album, ‘DAMN.’]: ‘Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.’ I love that because it’s not ‘Come sit on my dick.’…I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ – I am so not that.”
The internet came at Cyrus hard. After all, wasn’t this the same white girl who appropriated Black culture and music and made it into a hypersexualized prop to separate herself from her innocent, all-American Hannah Montana image? The same girl who “twerked” on Robin Thicke (a white man who won awards for “Blurred Lines,” a song which famously promotes rape culture)? The same girl who collaborated with hip-hop artists for her last album, artists she condemns in her comment to Billboard?
Furthermore, beyond her blatant cultural appropriation for personal gain, Cyrus’ comment repeats the same over-worked critique of hip-hop, rap, and other Black, male-dominated genres: that they exclusively are misogynistic, materialistic, and harmful. (How funny that Cyrus would repeat such sentiment while praising Kendrick Lamar, when Lamar slammed FOX reporter Geraldo Rivera for his 2015 statement, “Hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism [has in America],” on “DAMN.”)
The fact of the matter is that Black, male-dominated genres such as hip-hop and rap are not exclusively misogynistic, vulgar, and harmful. The critique is simply focused on these genres due to anti-Blackness and racism, the very thing these genres were created to battle.
All the proof needed is stored in favorite albums, nicely ignored for decades. The Beatles have countless uncomfortable songs, one aptly titled “Run For Your Life,” in which they threaten a “little girl” if they were to catch her with another man. The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” praises the docile, subordinated, but sexualized woman. Guns N’ Roses’ “It’s So Easy” uses the condemned word “bitch” in reference to a woman whom they demand to “turn around,” because they have “use for her.” Ah, the classics.
And it’s not just on your thrifted records. This misogyny can still be found in white-dominated genres and white male-identified musicians’ songs in recent years as well. Fall Out Boy’s “Death Valley” has the shiver-inducing line, “Let’s get you wasted and alone.” blink-182’s “Dumpweed” states, “I need a girl I can train.” There are also articles about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in so many indie-rock songs, as well as think pieces on the vulgarity within the lauded genre of country.
None of this is particularly new information. As a matter of fact, as intersectional feminism gains popularity, more and more people are becoming deeply critical of the misogyny in white male-dominated genres as well. Great. But why has the conversation stopped there? So there’s misogyny in all types of music, stemming from a deep-rooted hatred of all women, despite race and class, in society. Intersectional feminists have been stating that fact for ages. When it comes to music, then, what do we do about it?
In what is likely the most popular thought in her book of essays, “Bad Feminist,” Roxane Gay states that despite being a proud feminist, she still finds herself singing along to a series of misogynistic songs. For that, she is a bad feminist; a feminist, because she is still critical of these songs, but a bad one, because she’s not critical enough to stop listening. Feminists have jumped onto the bandwagon, stating that in a male-dominated world where most music, movies, books, etc., are misogynistic, the only way to be a “good feminist,” without the acceptance of “bad feminism,” would be to hide under a rock in an effort to escape misogynistic medias.
This is, sadly, true. This is also arguably why there has been a surge in the idea of a “problematic fave,” or a character or celebrity that has said or done problematic things in the past, but remains favored by people. You’re allowed to have problematic faves. But where do we draw the line?
Later on in Gay’s book, she discusses Tyler, The Creator, who she says has a whopping 213 slurs against the LGBTQIA+ community on his album “Goblin.” He justifies it by claiming that his fans say it’s okay, and that he has gay friends – standard excuses used by many ignorant people. (Furthermore, his song, “She,” is far more visceral and violent with its misogyny, with lyrics like, “I just wanna drag your lifeless body to the forest/And fornicate with it but that’s because I’m in love with/You cunt.” The shock-value used in his music for humor fails incredibly.) At the end of her essay, though, Gay claims that supporting Tyler, The Creator allows him to “get away” with his bigotry. For Gay, she draws the line at Tyler, The Creator but not, say, Jay-Z. Despite his own misogynistic lyrics, Jay-Z remains Gay’s problematic fave.
But Tyler, The Creator might be somebody else’s problematic fave, right? The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Fall Out Boy are certainly many other peoples’ problematic faves.
Do we draw the line for “problematic faves” if their personal lives “prove” the misogyny presented in their art? In that case, The Beatles and John Lennon would be on every feminist’s personal black list, as well as David Bowie, Fall Out Boy and Pete Wentz, Chris Brown, and Tyga (among many other male-identified musicians), for cases of domestic abuse against their partners, and/or dating underage women. Moreover, shouldn’t we still be weary of those who may not “act” misogynistic, but still support misogyny in art? It’s still misogyny. It still has terrible effects.
Is it if they do not acknowledge their problematic behavior? The list would simply be replicated, for none of these men have given a genuine apology or stopped their problematic behavior.
The answer is that there really is no “line” for male-identified musicians. At the end of the day, as a society, we give more leeway to male-identified musicians than to the female-identified. Take Miley Cyrus, for example. Social media and online magazines were as ruthless as they should have been when discussing her use of cultural appropriation for personal gain. More recently, Katy Perry has been under fire for her multiple offenses regarding cultural appropriation. Intersectional feminists slammed Beyoncé and Selena Gomez for culturally appropriating Indian dress and jewelry. Taylor Swift has gotten plenty of comments for her music videos for “Wildest Dreams” and “Shake it Off,” which either lack any representation for people of color or simply use people of color as anonymous, sexualized back-up dancers – all critiques come rightfully so.
But do we spend half as much time discussing how Zayn Malik is culturally appropriating Black culture through his hairstyles or his new R&B-based solo album? What about Calvin Harris, his music, and his proud comment about how he chose the name Calvin Harris, because he knew its “racial ambiguity” would help him rise in the ranks? There’s Diplo, Justin Bieber, Liam Payne – the list goes on and on. And while there may be some conversation, it’s hardly as loud as it is for women artists.
It’s not just cultural appropriation and racism, either. Women artists whose feminism is not intersectional enough, who do not come to bat against misogyny when it matters most are lauded for their failures. Taylor Swift, again, is a strong example; she is a feminist whose (white) feminism only rears its head when it can benefit her public image. Good, critique is needed if true change can happen. Women are not excused from problematic behavior for simply being women.
But on the other hand, we have male-identified musicians who are applauded for the smallest acts. DNCE, primarily frontman Joe Jonas, got a good amount of positive media for featuring plus-sized model Ashley Graham in the music video for “Toothbrush.” Similarly, Kendrick Lamar’s music video for “HUMBLE.,” referenced by Cyrus in the beginning of this article, shows a Black woman’s “ass with some stretch marks,” just as he praises in the song. He was immediately congratulated for imagining something beyond Photoshopped perfection.
Yet at the same time, DNCE’s other single “Cake by the Ocean” is a song wherein front man Joe Jonas begs a “cold” and reserved woman to stop “moving so carefully,” and, to put it bluntly, have sex with him on the beach. Despite the now common knowledge of the song’s reference to “cake by the ocean” being a euphemism for “sex by the beach,” I was unable to find a single article about how the song may be even the slightest bit disturbing.
Similarly, Lamar’s “LUST.” begs a woman to just “let [him] put the head in.” His line at the end of the chorus, “she said it’s okay,” is an afterthought at best when considering the amount of begging previous to her consent. Still, there was an entire Vice article dedicated to claiming the song is more complex than its chorus; to the article’s author, it is a song about routine, not a blatant discussion about berating women for intercourse. But the song is aptly titled “LUST.” for a reason. Due to its focus on objectifying women (that is, turning them into sexual objects to distract from boring routine), the chorus in which Lamar coerces a woman into sex becomes the climax of the song, its twisted “solution,” and thereby the whole point of it. Still, even if it were primarily about routine, a chorus with a line as the one in “LUST.” is largely harmful. Where’s the conversation about that?
Blatant misogyny in music by the male-identified has become the standard. It is then accepted rather than fought when we (sometimes) hide behind the idea of a “problematic fave.” Thus, when male-identified musicians stray from this misogynistic standard in even the slightest way, we as a society are quick to praise them, even if their track records don’t exactly scream “feminist.” And at the same time, we expect the world of the female-identified artists we listen to.
Male-identified musicians need to do better. Frankly, it is not up to the feminist movement to constantly check their misogynistic lyrics, though we likely always will. Gay and the “Bad Feminist” followers were right; to avoid and boycott all misogyny in media would mean to become a closed-off hermit. But at the same time, that is a dangerous and utopian way of thinking. To expect that we may all keep our problematic faves and see progress is a catch-22. Complacency won’t get the media to move forward when it’s still bringing in very large amounts of money.
So while we look to male artists to do better, we might also reconsider who we allow to be our problematic faves. Reevaluate where we draw the lines. Maybe skip the songs that deliberately remove women’s agency, when we can. It’s true that as feminists, we should not have to limit ourselves further in order to see change – but remaining critical in a way that will push for change is important. In an effort to change the accepted misogyny in our society that shapes our subconscious, as well as the laissez-faire attitude we hold for men but not women (like Cyrus), putting a little pressure on these male-identified musicians might do some good.