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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Responses to Domestic Violence in Popular Music

By Liz- Guest Writer

Suzanne just posted the video and lyrics to Eve’s “Love is Blind,” so I thought I’d go a little deeper into how violence in music and music videos by women is treated. I'm just looking at songs by women about violent responses to abuse. There are a whole host of songs, some awful, some poignant, about domestic abuse as experience by women, but I'm looking at how retributive female violence is expressed in music and music videos. Here we go.

Lil’ Kim is perhaps best known for her ultra-sexual lyrics and image. Her lyrical style is biting, and often features sexualized lyrics that have been called both revolutionary and highly self-exploitative. In his article, ""Unladylike Divas": Language, Gender, and Female Gangsta Rappers," Jason Haugen situates women in gangsta rap within a series of complex narratives about violence, agency, and dominance:

It is perhaps here that the appearance of females, given dominant notions of gendered expectations for women, is most unexpected, in that femininity is widely associated with vulnerability and masculinity with dangerousness, which is often reflected in disjunctive levels of perceived threat. Not only do the women of gangsta rap engage in the discourse about violence that occurs in the narratives of their songs; they place themselves within those narratives and often at the heart of the violence (437).

Haugen cites Lil’ Kim’s song “Spend a Little Doe,” in which Kim positions herself as a proud gangstress and kills an ex-boyfriend over his indiscretions while she was in jail as pushing the envelope of gendered expectations. This sort of retributive attitude and appropriation of masculine gangsta power by female gangsta rappers is not only used by Lil’ Kim. In her revenge-anthem, “Love is Blind,” Eve addresses her dead friend’s ex-boyfriend/ murderer asking him rhetorical questions like, “How would you feel if she held you down and raped you?” and referencing his various sustained abuses against her friend as justification for her growing resentment and homicidal fantasies. She begins each verse by saying “I don’t even know you and…” with the each “and—” escalating from “—and I hate you” to “—and I’d kill you myself” and finally, “—and I want you dead.”

The violent and highly sexual imagery used by hardcore female gangsta rappers can be interpreted as a direct response to the degradation women experience through the words of male gangsta rappers--a sort of "eye-for-an-eye" mentality.

But violence exists outside of gangsta rap. The Dixie Chicks’ song “Goodbye Earl” peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and #13 on the country charts. The music video for the song employs black humor, and despite the serious nature of Wanda’s abuse in the song, the feel of it is pretty upbeat. And with lyrics like, “Let’s go out to the lake/ We’ll pack a lunch!/ And stuff you in the trunk, Earl,” it’s hard to categorize the song as a downer. Zombie-Earl even makes an appearance in the end of the music video and dances along with Wanda and Marianne, whose friendship has triumphed over Earl’s abuse.

In the same genre, Martina McBride’s hit “Independence Day” peaked at #12 on US country charts, and has an entirely different feel than “Goodbye Earl.” Perhaps the chorus will illuminate the difference:

Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing
Let the whole world know that today
Is a day of reckoning.
Let the weak be strong,let the right be wrong
Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay
It's Independence Day.

Independence Day, for Martina McBride, is about straight-up justice. In the last verse she sings, “Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong/but maybe it’s the only way/to talk about your revolution/it’s Independence Day.” (As a side note: I went to the 4th of July celebration in Boston this past year and Martina McBride was the headlining singer and sang this one. Although I like the song, it seemed like an odd choice.) McBride frames the woman's decision to fight back against her abusive husband and light up the sky by burning him to death as a patriotic move. She sings alternatively in front of flowing American flags and images of a burning house, clearly positioning "independence" as an act of agency that is relatable--after all, country music is all about patriotism.

And I think here we see a common thread in modern songs by female artists about responding to domestic abuse. Female violence in these songs has a purpose: to punish the men who have wronged them. And certainly there’s a spectrum—Kim’s vendetta is against a man who cheated on her and abandoned her while she was in jail, Eve commits violence in the memory of her friend, the Dixie Chicks sing about friends banding together to seek revenge on an abusive husband, and Martina McBride sings about a young girl’s experience watching her mother hit the breaking point.

Miranda Lambert sings another song about responding to domestic abuse in "Gunpowder & Lead." Here's the chorus: "I'm goin' home, gonna load my shotgun/Wait by the door and light a cigarette/ If he wants a fight well now he's got one/ And he ain't seen me crazy yet/He slap my face and he shook me like a rag doll/ Don't that sound like a real man/ I'm going to show him what a little girls made of/Gunpowder and lead."

Violence against men by women in all of these--fairly mainstream-- songs (with the exception of "Spend a Little Doe") is very clearly framed. These women were being severely abused. They were pushed to the breaking point, and their own lives were in danger.

Rihanna paints a more ambiguous picture in "Man Down." The most obvious interpretation is that her psychological anguish is about killing her rapist. When the video was released in June, the shit hit the proverbial fan. Which, is your average week post-release of a Rihanna music video. If there isn't some group or another complaining about her music videos, then clearly the world has ended. Brittney Cooper of the Crunk Feminist Collective made the good point that, "...[C]ritics say that Rihanna perpetuates violence rather than urging young women to get help. The most ignorant and illegitimate of these critics argued that ’If Chris Brown shot a woman in his new video, the world would stop. Rihanna should not get a pass. The video is far from broadcast worthy.’ That statement is what one would call 'an exercise in missing the point.'"

"Man Down" is not the same kind of black and white justice-grabbing video or song of the Dixie Chicks, Eve, Miranda Lambert or Martina McBride. Cooper also said, "this video shows a young Black female rape victim, vulnerable and hurt, struggling with how to make sense of the act of violence perpetrated on her. She makes a choice that many would and have made, and rather than banning this video, we need access to grapple with its moral and political implications as a community." We tend to like our justice in plain terms, and the fact that Rihanna is singing about feeling bad for the her rapist and his family after she shoots him complicates the narrative of good triumphing over evil.

Cooper also makes a good point in saying that she doesn't think there would be the same critical reaction of the video if Rihanna were a white woman. Sure. People complained about "Goodbye Earl" or "Independence Day" when they came out, but not to the same degree of hand-wringing and pearl clutching that "Man Down" got. Rihanna's position as a WOC definitely makes her a bigger target for criticism, but probably realistically, Rihanna has the most complex depiction of retributive female violence in her song. "Goodbye Earl" is more like a fantasy, and most songs about retributive female violence end abruptly after the death (narratively, at least).

"Man Down" at least gives the interesting perspective that matching violence with violence does not immediately solve all problems. Talking to a therapist doesn't really make good subject matter for the pop charts, but we as listeners get a look into her portrayal of a woman in the middle of a really complex healing process.

Ultimately... all of these songs are escapes. 1993's Defending Our Lives and 2009's Sin By Silence both document the experiences of women who kill their abusers and end up in jail for it. Which is not even to get into how violence perpetrated by women against men versus violence perpetrated by men against women is treated in the media. Women get a lot more airtime and sensationalistic coverage. Even if these songs are not true, I'm glad they're being sung because having this kind of discourse (was it right? what is real justice in this situation?) is a reminder that there are lots of women (and people in general) who experience violence and are pushed to one breaking point or another, whether or not it results in violence toward another person, and we should be talking about it.

Liz blogs about feminism, current events, pop culture and teens at Our Turn: Feminism for Newbies.

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