Why Do We Tolerate Misogyny in Music?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
French rapper OrelSan was forced to explain himself this week, as outrage over his song Sale Pute (Dirty Slut), hit the headlines. Sale Pute is an immediately recognizable type: women are described only as "bitches" or "hos"; violence is a valid response to infidelity; and -- most importantly -- there is an imperative not to take the lyrics seriously.
OrelSan's half-hearted apology ("I'm sorry if my song shocked") to French journalists was combined with an explanation that those lyrics were meant to be understood as coming from one of OrelSan's characters, an invented misogynist, not a real one. "I'm not a misogynist", OrelSan protested. "I've never hit a woman."
It seems there are several things going on here. First, the assumption that it is a minority who would have been shocked by lyrics such as, "You are only a sow who deserves her place at the slaughterhouse", "We'll see how you suck [cock] after I box your jaw", and "I want you to get pregnant and lose the baby". Second, that if something is said while "in character", this absolves the creator of any responsibility for the words. Third, that hitting women is the benchmark of misogyny -- words alone fall short of the standard.
Though we may take the fact that the outrage over Sale Pute is happening late (two years after its release) as evidence that feminists weren't paying close enough attention at the time, OrelSan's surprise at the reaction to the song is somewhat unfounded. Over the past decade, both rap and hip-hop have raised concerns about misogynistic, homophobic and violent lyrics and demeaning videos. Anyone looking for a welcome antidote to these would do well to check out Sarah Jones's parody of sexist hip-hop, Your Revolution. (Ironically, Jones's recording of the song was banned by the FCC on grounds of obscenity, while the original songs were, for the most part, played without even edits.)
It is no surprise that OrelSan is being compared to the king of these debates, the man George Bush once referred to as "the most dangerous threat to American children since polio" -- Eminem. In Eminem's songs Kim and '97 Bonnie and Clyde, he fantasizes about killing his estranged wife Kim in front of their daughter, Hailie. In Kill You, the narrator threatens, "Slut, you think I won't choke no whore / 'Til the vocal chords don't work in her throat no more?!". In the final three seconds of the song, he laughs and says "I'm just playing, ladies. You know I love you", as if to suggest that the whole song has been ironic.
The "just a joke" defense has long been used to excuse sexist, racist or homophobic outbursts. OrelSan's defense of "being in character" is also one we have seen before. Plan B's 2006 album contains songs told from the perspective of murderers, rapists and other violent characters. Citing films such as Irreversible and Baise-Moi (in his lyrics to Sick To Def), Plan B argues that he should be treated in the same way as those films' directors and writers -- as a storyteller and narrator of disturbing events, not as a confessing criminal. The point is an obvious one: talking is not the same as doing. And of course, we can no more extrapolate a confession of rape and murder from a song by a rapper than we can conclude that all country artists have seen their dogs shot, had their partners cheat on them, and finally become alcoholics.
The hypocrisy in the discussions is rarely raised. Outrage about violence and misogyny in music is almost always confined to rap and hip-hop, despite there being much to engage with elsewhere. For example, Nick Cave's fascination with murdered women (which spans his whole career) is seen as artistic expression. I Shot The Sheriff is seen as a bit of fun, but Cop Killer sparked national outrage in the U.S. The Stranglers' song Sometimes, which opens with "Someday I'm gonna smack your face", and contains the promise to "beat you, honey, till you drop" did nothing to detract from their status as a cult band. And the Rolling Stones' song, Brown Sugar, despite being a narrative of a slave owner's pleasure at raping and beating his black female slave, is still seen as something of a national treasure, used by X Factor contestants and soft drink advertisers alike. Surely we should object either to none of it, or to all of it.