Music, sexism and the young
Discussions at Hugo's blog about rap lyrics and dancing to hip hop have got me to thinking and so I'm dragging my opinions over to my own blog. I know everyone means well, and I definitely sympathize with the alarm that it might cause to see some teenage kids dancing in what we see an overtly sexual way. (Which makes me feel bad for the teachers who had to supervise our high school dances, since we danced the same way then, too.) That being said, some of the quotes, especially the hand-wringing over the dancing, could be verbatim from the fussing that went on over rock and roll in the 1950's and Elvis with his pelvic thrusting.
I'm not going to do what some do and pretend it's not sexual acting out. It is. I've always sided with the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world--rock is the devil's music. Granted, a peculiarly American devil, who mostly stands in for the American notion that if it's fun it must be sinful. And jazz was the devil's music before it. Now we avoid sounding like total hicks and racists besides, but the naughty-fun side of hip hop still makes people downright queasy. I know I'm not going to make any allies by saying that I don't see what the harm in embracing a little of the bacchanalia will do, but I think I can address larger worries about the need to protect girls particularly.
There's no doubt that much of rap is sexist and explicitly sexual. I think the first step on getting a hold of what's going on is to remember that sexist and sexual are not the same thing--many female artists use explicit sexual imagery to denounce sexism, in fact. Which leaves us with the problem of the sexism, which can be pretty bad in rap music, as it can be bad in every single other kind of music. Music reflects our social values, and our society still values sexism. There's not a kind of music that's not totally rot with sexism, and I would even venture that hip hop isn't even close to the worst in the damage it inflicts in perpetuating sexist attitudes.
For one thing, from what I can tell, hip hop has more powerful female voices at the forefront than any other kind of pop music. It's certainly better off than what's popular in what passes for rock music nowadays. Flip on your local "alternative" (gag) rock station. What do you hear? Yep, some droning, whining guy singing over deadening bad guitar. No life, no spark, and certainly no women. Hell, even if a woman tried to sing the crap they are trying to pass off as rock on mainstream radio, she'd fail for being too interesting. There are a few female musicians working in the mainstream, but usually they are in bands that are not in the copycat, bread and butter stuff that fills the airwaves.
I'm guessing that's because hip hop still hangs onto a semblance of the meritocracy that dominated it in the early days. A woman with imagination and skills can still attract attention. Much of mainstream rock seems to be aimed straight at young men with massive self-esteem problems who are easily threatened by women. (Underground rock is still female-friendly. The more localized and underground you get, the more women you'll see.)
Hugo seems to understand that it's not rap as a whole that is to blame, and I hope that message comes across to the youth in his stead, because otherwise they'll probably just feel that their culture itself is under attack. And I can't say I'd blame them. Singling out hip hop for its lyrics and attitudes is completely unfair.
You would be hard-pressed, for instance, to find a more sexist attitude towards women in a music scene than that of the highly adored 60's rock scene. There was pretty much a "No Girls Allowed" sign on the door, and the few that walked through were expected to hand themselves over as sexual playthings, like Janis Joplin and Marianne Faithful. Bands like the Rolling Stones are notorious for openly misogynist lyrics, but the entire era is poisoned by a cavalier attitude towards the very idea that women are human beings with feelings. A modern day version of Angie Bowie is hard to even picture, so some progress has been made.
And consider the country music that manages to escape the controversy that's heaped on hip hop. You'd be hard-pressed to find more damagingly retrograde attitudes about a woman's place than in some country music. (When I worked for a bank, they played "Angry All the Time" by Tim McGraw like once an hour, a song that's only purpose seems to be to remind women once a fucking hour that anger is just so unfeminine.) And since country musicians are put forwards as actual role models for their fans, you're likely to see more people taking country lyrics very, very seriously. And unlike hip hop, if a woman releases an album protesting sexist attitudes, she is fixing to stir up a shit storm. When the Dixie Chicks hit it big with "Goodbye Earl", a song about two women bonding over killing a man who beats his wife hard enough to put her in the hospital, you should have heard the grousing and complaining at my local karaoke bar about stupid man-haters every time women would get up to sing the song. I mean, it was controversial to protest domestic violence, for god's sake. (Well, that and the killing, but getting away with murder is just a rhetorical device in country music.)
Thank god for the Dixie Chicks for exposing some of the frustrations of the female country fan. And there are tons of women doing that in hip hop and have been for a long time now, including huge record movers like Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill. The main way to combat the overwhelming sexism in music, as I've said a hundred times before, is not censorship but getting more female voices and pro-feminist messages from both men and women out there. As fans, something as simple as seeking out female artists and purchasing their albums. But most of us can do something more, like recommending these albums to friends, making it a priority to put plenty of women in the mix for DJ's, and not falling behind on blogging about women we like.
I dedicate this post to all the women mentioned above, but particularly Missy Elliott because she has a snotty attitude and I like it.