Time to admit it: I’m clearly too old to listen to Radio 1 in the car as I drive to poetry gigs. If I had a digital radio in my Ford Fiesta, it’d be 6 Music all the way. But, as it is, I’m bored by Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4 are both too soothing to keep me awake behind the wheel and I’ve played to the CD my friend Alan burned for me so many times I know ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ by heart. So I keep clinging on to Grimmy & co’s banter and memories of learning to drive when I was 17.
But this morning on my way back from the gorgeous Ty Newydd centre in Wales, I felt relieved not to be younger. Why? Because I don’t know if my teenage self would have had the critical faculties and confidence to process the conflicting messages the charts feed us about women’s bodies.
I’m not sure where I stand in the occasionally tedious ‘are song lyrics poetry?’ debate, but, as a writer, I can’t help but notice words, even if I’m not listening out for them. On the Radio 1 playlist at the moment, refreshing songs like Ray BLK’s ‘Doing Me’ (“my dressing is expression so don’t judge me by my clothes…”) rub shoulders with Little Mix’s faux-empowering hit ‘Power’ (“baby, you’re the man, / but I got the power”) but also with ‘Wild Thoughts’, the previous number 1 from Rhianna, DJ Khaled and Bryson Tiller.
When I first heard ‘Wild Thoughts’, I couldn’t really pay too much attention to the lyrics because I was so distracted by DJ Khaled shouting his own name (he must love it in Starbucks when they call out his coffee order – I hope they do it in the same style). I thought it was kind of catchy. Then, I noticed what Bryson Tiller was saying in the obligatory rap interlude and had to google the uncensored lyrics. If you’re really interested, you can read the lot online, but I’ll just mention a couple of gems:
“I heard that pussy for the taking.”
If you look at it one way, it’s almost a synecdoche: the woman is represented by her pussy. It’s a word I hate anyway, for reasons summed up much more eloquently by the brilliant Caitlin Moran:
“It’s got all that unpleasant physical-disconnect bullshit — women separated from their vaginas — that I find un‑hot in bad pornography, PLUS it gives the constant, unsettling impression that the gentleman might actually be referring to the woman’s cat, which is sitting just out of camera shot, glaring balefully. One day, I think idly, all the cats who are watching porn being made will rise up, revolted by all the uncouth dialogue ostensibly being aimed at them, wander onto the set, and ostentatiously vomit up a hairball in the middle of some bumming.”
The other half of the line, ‘for the taking’, with all it’s connotations of conquest and availability, doesn’t really need comment. The next lyric that I noticed was this short-yet-still-strangely-overextended-metaphor:
“Fuck you ’til you’re burned out, cremation.”
It’s a nice little afterthought, adding ‘cremation’. Nothing turns me on like the prospect of being figuratively torched. I mean, it reminds me of the good old days when women used to be burned as suspected witches. ‘The Crucible’ is such a sexy play, right?
When Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ hit the charts a few years ago, it sparked a debate around the song’s lyrical content (including some parodies – the video I call ‘The One With The Goat’ is my personal favourite). I’m more interested in the way worrying messages creep into other songs in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of way, how subtle and pervasive it is when you listen to the radio for long enough. When he played Kyle’s ‘iSPY’ on his show a few months ago (“I spy with my little eye / A girlie I can get ’cause she don’t get too many likes…”), Greg James was brilliantly withering about the song’s content. But he still has to play it. As The Guardian’s article about the ‘Blurred Lines’ controversy noted, quoting Lia Latchford:
“In music videos across the board there’s widespread racism and sexism, specifically the sexualisation of black and ethnic minority women,” says Lia Latchford of Rewind&Reframe. “Young women have told us that it has a real impact on their day-to-day lives. They’re tired of messages that depict women as highly sexualised passive sex objects. Getting rid of one song won’t solve the problem. It’s a culture of racism and sexism that we need to change.”