On Popular Music: Feminine Sexual Empowerment?

No Generation X-er could fail to have noticed the thematic changes in popular culture over the last thirty years. Styles of music change, of course, as do styles of movies, books, and other media, but these stylistic differences are not necessarily related to the themes which underlie popular culture. A sappy love song is a sappy love song whether it’s done in the style of rock, or country, or disco, and there are plenty of these still being created and popularized every year. However, over the last several decades, American society has become far more permissive in what it will accept on the subject of sexuality. Those who were offended by Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” when it was released must surely suffer nowadays, being only able to find refuge in the ever-dwindling number of oldies radio stations, which, if you have not listened to one lately, now often in fact play music from the eighties. But even Cyndi Lauper’s ode to masturbation “She-Bop” appears tame compared to the expressions of female sexuality prevalent in the popular music of today.

The theme of David Guetta’s recent hit “Turn Me On,” provides an interesting example. The main lyrical premise of the piece, sung by Nicky Minaj, can be adequately summarized by its refrain:

Make me come alive,
Come on and turn me on.
Come on, save my life
Come on and turn me on.
I’m too young to die
Come on and turn me on.
You’ve got my life in the palm of your hands.
Come, save me now, I know you can.

At first listen, this sounds like a bold stroke of female sexual empowerment. The female is the aggressor; she demands sexual attention, perhaps even satisfaction. But listen a little more closely, and it becomes clear that even here, the woman is utterly dependent upon the man, not only for her sexual needs, but for her very life. “My body needs a hero,” she cries; “Don’t let me die young.” She literally cries out to the man for salvation, almost as if her sexuality is a burden, a drag on her very existence.

The issue is similar in Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been?” in which the singer declares:

I’ve been everywhere, man
Looking for someone
Someone who can please me,
Love me all night long…

You can have me all you want
Any way
Any day
Just show me where you are tonight.

Again, the female singer’s sexuality is at stake here, and not the male’s, yet again, there is a sense of dependence on the man. Although Rihanna’s tune does not imply that death is imminent if the singer fails to find the lover who can satisfy her, it does suggest that she has been searching rather endlessly (“all my life”) for this magical being that she suspects is hiding from her. The image of a woman who’s “been everywhere” hunting for the right man can hardly be called empowering, and furthermore, her desire for a man who will “love her all night long” is unrealistic and bound to end in disappointment, particularly if this is what is required to please her. Once in a while, okay, but people need to sleep, after all. At bottom this is a song of frustration, not of desire, which actually makes it very similar in theme to “Turn Me On,” if different in form. Finally, there is nothing in the least bit feminist about the singer’s desperate cry of “You can have me all you want!” which rather only implies that she’s willing to strike a bargain, offering sexual complicity in the man’s desires in exchange for fulfillment of her own.

Of course, there’s at least some sense of fairness in that, particularly when contrasted to the odiously pathetic “Brokenhearted” by Kashmir, a nearly fifties-themed anthem of the dependence of feminine happiness on the behavior of men. This seemingly harmless, lighthearted tune features the following reprehensible refrain:

I’ve been waiting all day
For you to call me, baby
Come on, finish what we started
Don’t you leave me brokenhearted tonight.
Honest baby, I’ll do
Anything you want to
Let’s get up, let’s get on it
Don’t you leave me brokenhearted tonight.

Can you picture Jane Fonda sitting around waiting all day for a man to call her, and then blindly agreeing to do whatever he wants? But this point is so vital to Kashmir’s theme that she even repeats it in her spoken-word interlude:

Anything you want to do
I’ll be on it, too.

Which leaves one wondering whether men really like women who bow to their every whim. Popular musicians certainly seem to think so.

Interestingly, it is Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones” that, to me, portrays feminine sexuality as most nearly on an equal footing with masculine sexuality. The opening chorus is sung by the female, Sia:

Hey, I heard you were a wild one
If I took you home, it’d be a home run
Show me how you’ll do
I wanna shut down the club with you
Hey I heard you like the wild ones…

The male voice then interjects with verses which expound upon the man’s interests (“I like crazy, foolish, stupid, party goin’ wild, fist-pumpin’ music” and so on) and then the female chimes in again:

I am a wild one, break me in
Saddle me up, and let’s begin
I am a wild one, tame me now
Runnin’ with wolves, and I’m on the prowl…

Very interesting. Now the song is not about the particular desire of either the man or the woman; rather, it concerns two like-minded people, “wild ones” who happen to find each other. Both parties are the pursued and the pursuer; neither the man nor the woman is dominant. However, the same theme of submission as an expression of feminine sexuality that dominates Katy Perry’s “E.T.” is also present here: the female singer wishes to be “tamed” and “broken.” If we’re uncertain about this, we only have to listen to the second-to-last line of the male singer in response to the female’s refrain:

Tear up that body; dominate you till you’ve had enough.

The language is harsh, borderline offensive, yet it’s along the line of what the woman appears to want; he promises to fulfill her desire (“till you’ve had enough”) by putting himself in control over her body. Think of the similarity to Christina Aguilera’s line in Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”:

You wanna know how to make me smile
Take control, own me just for the night.

Which, again, leaves one wondering whether men really like women who bow to their every whim. Or whether women really wish to be the ones to bow.

In other words, even in the popular music of today, the sexually-desirous woman is still submissive; hopelessly subject to the whims of a man, and furthermore, seems to want it that way. The only difference appears to be that in the new century, she begs for sex instead of love. Not what I would call empowering. Ultimately one must conclude that although the sexual content of popular culture has increased, and the sexuality of women in particular has grown in acceptance, that the songs of today are no more liberating, and possibly even less so, than those of a generation ago. They’re just more graphic. 

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