The #metoo rallying cry against sexual harassment and abuse showed us nothing we don’t know. Harassment of women is almost a universal experience. And abuse culture is entrenched across borders and continents.
Abuse culture is not focused on incidents, but the normalisation of the mistreatment of women. If we want examples, we need look no further than popular culture. Examples are all around us, in movies and television or in advertising.
And of course, in music. Rape and harassment culture is so pervasive, we even sing along to the lyrics.
Here’s five hit songs that are actually really creepy. These songs, written mostly in the male voice, depict some seriously disturbing relationships. If the woman concerned had a voice, they might say #metoo.
#5 Jealous Guy: John Lennon
This might appear to be a poor guy pouring out his heart and confessing to having a jealous streak. But, the lyrics are dark and worrying:
I began to lose control I didn’t mean to hurt you
There’s reference to his dreaming of the past, alluding to her sexual or romantic pasts, which is behaviour many women know as a warning sign for controlling behaviour. While this is a song of apology, he excuses his behaviour, putting it back on his partner, saying “You might not love me anymore” and “Thought that you was trying to hide”. And finally, the ultimate warning that his irrational behaviour won’t change:
Watch out baby I’m just a jealous guy Look out baby I’m just a jealous guy
Listen: We discuss whether the #MeToo campaign is doing more harm than good. (Post continues after audio.)
The story behind Lennon’s hit song is mysterious. It was once thought to be intellectual jealousy about Yoko Ono’s bilingual abilities, her inhabiting a linguistic space that excluded him. Paul McCartney once said it might have stemmed from jealousies within the Beatles. But most worrying, Yoko Ono once said that Lennon asked her to write the names of her past lovers and was obsessed with the idea that she might run off with someone else. We’ll never know the real story behind Lennon’s lyrics, but for many women it depicts an all-too-familiar story with some grave warning signs.
#4 Where the Wild Roses Grow: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds with Kylie Minogue
Did you hear that? That was the sound of Gen-X turning against me.
I get it. Nick Cave is cool. Kylie is sexy. What a mysterious coupling they were. How awesome, they did a murder ballad together. Dark Kylie. Oooh. We like.
All the while forgetting that this is a song about a man who bludgeons his partner to death with a rock, for no other reason than “all beauty must die”.
It is true that Cave’s later released album, Murder Ballads, chronicled macabre imaginative stories, not violence against women. But if we are to have an honest conversation about abuse, we must call domestic violence by its name and refuse to glamorise it. No matter how much street cred the writer has.
#3 Somebody That I Used to Know: Gotye (feat. Kimbra)
Let me say straight up that it’s a long spectrum between a murder and an uncomfortable break-up. But this song documents a familiar theme among my girlfriends.
For whatever reason, the relationship has ended and she’s decided she wants no contact. That isn’t good enough for him. That’s stooping ‘so low’.
Perhaps he should ask himself why she feels the need to send her friends to collect her things then change her number. That’s more than just a few bad dates. That’s a sign of a deeply upsetting situation where the woman needs to make dramatic changes to restore her life.
Some hints at an abusive relationship and the behaviour he minimises lie in the verse sung by Kimbra:
Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over But had me believing it was always something that I’d done But I don’t wanna live that way Reading into every word you say
As this song’s popularity attests, it’s a compositional masterpiece, using layered instrumental ostinato and the male and female voice contrasting to tell a powerful story. But a regular break-up song, this is not.
#2 Are You Old Enough: Dragon
Oh god. Where to start with the creepiness of this 1978 hit by Dragon? There’s nothing subtle or merely suggested here. There are no layers. Even the title is dodgy.
A further look at the lyrics reveals a story of a released prisoner who “just wanted to kiss someone”. The intentions of this man become clear when he asks “the lady in the street car lights” over and over again “Are you old enough for love”. And he’s not talking about the happily ever after kind.
Life in 1978 might have been different, but the same principles applied. He does ask. But if you need to ask, you should consider the company you’re keeping.
Picking up a possibly-underage prostitute was ugly in any decade. The combination of a catchy tune and dangerous lyrics had a generation of Countdown watchers singing ‘are you old enough?’, in a small way, normalising behaviour where young women are preyed upon.
By today’s standards, it makes your skin crawl. If you don’t know the song, you’re not alone. This song seems to have been abandoned by the airwaves, in favour of Dragon’s other songs such as the far more palatable April Sun in Cuba.
1# Romeo and Juliet: Dire Straits
Oh, it’s so beautiful. The star-cross’d lovers, destined to be together. Except in the Dire Straits version, this “lovestruck Romeo” hides under streetlamps and windows, stalking her. She even tells him “You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that”. His reply isn’t apologetic.
This Romeo has bought into a pervasive narrative around wooing in popular culture: Don’t take no for an answer. She’ll come around once she sees how shallow she is and how sincere he is. Sing to her. Blackmail her. Buy her. Threaten her. Do whatever you have to do because eventually she’ll see that you’re right and she’s wrong and you were meant to be together.
When Romeo doesn’t get his way, he slut-shames her:
When you can fall for chains of silver you can fall for chains of gold You can fall for pretty strangers and the promises they hold You promised me everything, you promised me thick and thin, yeah Now you just say “oh, Romeo, yeah, you know I used to have a scene with him
There’s nothing to suggest she’s a willing partner in this lovesong. Most disturbing is the line that alludes to rape “Juliet, when we made love, you used to cry”. Even if it was consensual, it doesn’t sound like a positive relationship. Over and over again, he minimises her wishes saying “When you gonna realise it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?”. Most chillingly, he states several times “There’s a place for us”.
As a woman, that’s time to call for the police. And I don’t mean Sting’s ‘Every Breath You Take’.
I’ve been stalked. It’s a morbidly frightening form of abuse, particularly when the perpetrator tries to pass it off as love. It is the furthest thing from love imaginable and you often think you might die. I can only imagine what’s going through Juliet’s head when, at the end of the song, he sang:
Finds a convenient streetlight, steps out of the shade He says something like, “You and me, babe, how about it?
It must be stressed that the songwriters listed here are not abusers, harassers or misogynists. They are telling stories through their music. Those stories happen to show the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse that women face throughout their lives. Popular culture is a mirror on who we are, what we value and what we like to consume.
Those five are by no means a definitive list. There are plenty of honourable mentions, including Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines (“I know you want it”), R. Kelly’s catcalling anthem Ignition and James Blunt’s ‘romantic’ favourite You’re Beautiful which he himself has said is a disturbing song. I’m a Hip Hop dancer and spent my formative years working with a whole genre of music that disrespected women.
There’s plenty more to add to the list. And even with the awareness created by #metoo, as long as harassment and abuse is widespread, we’ll keep singing along.
Dr Rachael Jacobs is a lecturer in Creative Arts Education at Western Sydney University