Broken Records

DISCLAIMER: This blog post contains EXPLICIT lyrics. As it is my final entry for The Mary Byron Project’s wordpress blog, Marcia Roth (my wonderful boss and the Executive Director of the MBP) allowed me to write from a more personal perspective. While the issue about which I am writing has vast import, I wanted to focus specifically on the effect song lyrics had on my classmates and myself this past semester. The opinions presented are my own. –Emily

Misogynist song lyrics have been around way longer than the hip hop movement. In the 1930s, blues legend Robert Johnson released a song that contained the lyrics “I’m goin’ to beat my woman until I get satisfied.” In 1975, American rock star Ted Nugent came out with the song, “Stranglehold,” which includes the lines “you ran the night that you left me/ you put me in my place/ I got you in a stranglehold baby/ that night I crushed your face.” Lyrics like these are the result of a long history of condoned misogyny and sexism. Since the dawn of time (refer to the Bible), women have been considered subhuman. At one time, people actually debated whether or not men and women were the same species.

And though things have changed for the better, there remains a stubborn misogynist streak in our culture. It is still OK to tell a woman, “don’t speak you shouldn’t be saying nothing at all/ Cause it’s hard to talk with a mouth full of dick and balls/ So put it in your mouth and blow/ Put it deep down in your throat/ Niggas like me don’t wanna hear that shit/ so do what the fuck you been told.”[1]  Maybe you think I’m exaggerating. But put those words in a song, add a cool beat, and you’ve got a platinum record.

People listen to these songs, hear these words, sing along to these words, and eventually, the message seeps in. We grow comfortable hearing these sentiments. We learn to tolerate them. The cycle continues.

———

This past April, Yale University hosted the Ying Yang Twins at its annual, all-day event known as Spring Fling. In the weeks before the Ying Yang Twins descended on campus, uproar arose over the offensive nature of the group’s lyrics. Numerous letters and editorials were printed in The Yale Daily News, various student groups called meetings, but nothing really happened. In the end, the rap duo came to campus and I’m told they gave a pretty good performance. I did not attend.

I have not always been so conscious of song lyrics. When I was in 7th and 8th grades, I went to A LOT of Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties. I was 12 years old and “partying” for the first time. The song “Get Low” by Lil’ John and the East Side Boyz came out in 2002. This song played at nearly every party I attended, and it’s still a crowd favorite at parties in college. It’s a reminder of our middle school days; it’s a familiar throwback that’s sure to get everyone going, especially when they hear the words: “To the windowww, to the wall.” But, let’s think about this for a second —This song makes us nostalgic?

Now give me my dough back and go get ya friend
Stupid bitch standing there while I’m drinking my hen
Steady looking at me, still asking questions
Times up nigga pass me another contestant
Twerk something baby work something baby
Pop yo pussy on the pole do yo thang baby
Slide down dat bitch
wit yo little bit then stop
Get back on the floor catch yo balance then drop
Now bring it back up clap yo ass like hands

Excuse me while I retroactively puke on my Bat Mitzvah dress.

 ———

 There are so many disgusting lyrics that blare over the radio speakers every day, that it would be futile to try to address them all. Though there are dozens of other musical artists that perform misogynist and sexist songs, I’m going to focus on the Ying Yang Twins because the controversy that occurred at my college this past spring really made me — as a student, as a member of the Yale Daily News editorial board, and as a woman — think about the import of song lyrics on society. Music is a part of culture. Misogynistic and sexist music reflects the culture in which it was created and the cultural reality likewise conforms to its reflection in popular music. Music feeds and perpetuates culture in a way that no other form of media can. A piece of artwork may be really powerful, but it can’t get stuck in your head like a song. Since language was invented, people have composed lyrics because lyrics didn’t need to be written down to be remembered. So often, we recall songs but we fail to see the words that comprise it. It is about time we all open our eyes and confront the message that our ears so readily accept. 

On April 19, 2010, selected members of the Spring Fling Committee wrote a letter to the Yale Daily News in order to explain their decision to book the Twins. They wrote, “Of the many artists the Committee considered this year, many were deemed offensive, in that they had at least one offensive song … Of the artists we considered offensive, most were hip-hop artists, and most hip-hop artists we considered were offensive.” Putting aside the absurd wording of these two sentences, let’s move on to the following paragraph:

“While we considered a few hip-hop artists who were not offensive, when we evaluated all of the hip-hop artists solely based on entertainment value and cost, the Ying Yang Twins were clearly the best choice. In addition, though we considered the Ying Yang Twins offensive, we concluded that the group was not too offensive to prevent our selection. Unlike some offensive artists, the Ying Yang Twins do not advocate the commission of specific criminal acts, the standard that we have generally used for disqualifying acts.”

The clincher in this paragraph for me is the last sentence. “Unlike some offensive artists, the Ying Yang Twins do not advocate the commission of specific criminal acts, the standard that we have generally used for disqualifying acts.” This is an absolutely false statement. If any one of them bothered to look up the lyrics of the Ying Yang Twins, he or she would quickly find that they do, indeed, “advocate the commission” of a quite a few “specific criminal acts.”

Here are some choice excerpts from their 2003 album:

Dick so big got caught in her throat.
Do it hurt? (yeah) do it hurt? (hell yeah)
One nut, two nuts that’s what you get

That hoe don’t want no more
That bitch better have my dough
Suck it [repeat]
Lick it [repeat]
Fuck nigga that’s enough said.
See a bitch is only good for a duck head. (quacka)
Low self-esteem nigga can’t out mack her
[2]

Then again, their 2005 album shows a lot of growth. There’s a whole song (“Live Again”) about how hard life is for a stripper. How nice! Obviously, the boys have learned a lot. Or perhaps not. After all, this CD also includes the song “Badd” in which the duo raps: “I don’t wanna hear ’bout your motherfuckin’ blues/I’d rather see your ass clap clap in them shoes.”  

Apparently, their concerns about the hardships of a poor stripper were fleeting.  

But before we rashly assume that the Ying Yang Twins are complete misogynists, let’s look at the song “Hoes,” in which the Twins explain that Women are fine; it’s just the Hoes and Bitches that bother them.

Forreal bitch, don’t take the shit wrong
Thinking I’m nice I’ll break you jawbone

Cockblockin bitches
you unproper bitches
What’s the problem bitches?

And I’m gonna show you all I don’t need no help,
Just as soon as I loosen my belt
BITCH!

 

They go on to clarify that “Yeah, I love you all respectful women/Independent women/I takes ’em out all the time.”

Notice they don’t say respectable women — They don’t respect the women they love, the women they love respect them.  

In the final verse, the Twins proclaim:

This is the men’s national anthem for this year
All you real women,
You all can sing this shit too
If you a hoe and you hate another hoe,
you can sing this shit too
If you a bitch and you hate another bitch,
you can sing this shit too
So everybody’s gonna sing this shit

I can’t help wondering how the Ying Yang twins are distinguishing “real women” from “unproper bitches” but really, it shouldn’t matter how the Ying Yang Twins define women. They are just two people and all people are entitled to their own opinions. However, there is a major difference between these two people and any other two people. The Ying Yang Twins are platinum-selling rappers. This means that over a million of people have purchased their music and millions more have heard their songs on the radio or at clubs. They may be just two people with an opinion, but they are also two people with a vast audience and frightening power to disseminate their ideas and values. The media maintains major influence over society, and one cannot deny that the lyrics of the Ying Yang Twins are both a result and a perpetuator of an ingrained and historically condoned chauvinism.

The 2005 album also features the infamous “Whisper Song” with the refrain “Beat da pussy up.” A commenter on a Yale Daily News article dismisses the offensiveness of these words by pointing to the fact that the Ying Yang Twins are referring to “consensual rough sex.” But as I peruse the other songs on the album, I feel inclined to question the consensual part. For instance, in the classic “Pull My Hair,” D-Roc raps:

First start wit brain
Then imma beat the pussy up
Hit it from the back
And beat the pussy up
Girl why you fronting
Doing all that running
Be yo ass still…

These lines (particularly, “Girl why you fronting/ doing all that running/ be yo ass still) make me wonder whose idea the hair-pulling really is. Additionally, there is a distinct difference between rough sex and violent sexual assault. Sex and violence have been sadly conflated in the public psyche to a disturbing extent. Violent assaults between men and women are nearly always conjoined with intimate relationships.

We cannot point at the Ying Yang Twins and say they are perpetrators by virtue of their song lyrics, but there certainly is some level of emotional and mental abuse aimed at women in their songs. Additionally, we must consider what listeners take from their lyrics. It is more than conceivable that their songs lead some men and women to think that such language and behavior is acceptable — that women are not people, that they are just sex objects. Couching their words in beats, the Ying Yang Twins and similar artists lull the public into feeling comfortable with their attitudes. Soon, we become comfortable enough to sing along. This comfort indicates the worrying capacity for humans (no matter how intelligent) to ignore violence against women, especially when there is a sexual context.

Let’s return to the aforementioned letter published by the Yale Daily News. In the penultimate paragraph, the representatives of the Spring Fling Committee assert:

“This ultimate selection of the Ying Yang Twins had wide support among the Committee, including many female and minority members. No member voiced any personal offense to the lyrics of any Ying Yang Twins’ song. While we do not present this as evidence that the Ying Yang Twins are not offensive, we do think it suggests that, while the Ying Yang Twins may appear offensive, most who listen to their music, regardless of whether they are fans, understand that the songs are too ridiculous to be taken at face value. We do not believe, for instance, that any student will be swayed by their songs to degrade a woman without her consent, and, as such, we are not concerned by the offensive nature of their songs.”

I think the writers severely and dangerously overestimate the moral character of the listening public when they assert “most who listen to their music, regardless of whether they are fans, understand that the songs are too ridiculous to be taken at face value.” Anyone who reads the news knows that there are, in fact, many people who adhere to the attitudes portrayed in the Ying Yang Twins’ songs. The last line of this paragraph reads like a joke ­­­— “We do not believe, for instance, that any student will be swayed by their songs to degrade a woman without her consent, and, as such, we are not concerned by the offensive nature of their songs.” With this cockeyed disclaimer, are they implying that some women give consent to degradation (strippers, perhaps?) and in those cases, one has the right to degrade? And what exactly falls in the purview of degradation? Objectification and misogyny? Slurs and verbal abuse? Sexual and physical abuse? Rape and murder? Because all of these things happen on a fairly regular basis all over the world, and all are considered “degrading” to females. So what exactly are the authors condoning here? To show that I am not the only one outraged by this letter, here are two of the many comments made in response to the letter by my peers at Yale.

“Branford ’10” says, “I just can’t understand what’s fun or acceptable about hateful speech that advocates violence against women. And calling it “ridiculous” doesn’t justify anything.”

“Empty Words” offers this parody recapitulation of the letter: ‘C’mon guys, we worked really hard on this! Sure, YYT are offensive, but we don’t care very much. Besides, sexual violence doesn’t count if everyone knows it’s just a joke. Also, some of us are women!’”

Let’s rewind a little bit. Before the Spring Fling Committee published their letter, a member of the committee independently sent in a letter to the Yale Daily News. This letter was written as a joke, presumably with the intention of getting everyone to laugh about the controversy over the Committee’s musical choices. His letter received 61 comments, a few of which were posted by the author in attempts to defend himself. In a response directed at the writer, “Female Yalie 2010” writes:

“The fact that you think that dancing along to The Whisper Song is just a good time we should all take in stride is, in fact, part of a big, big problem.
I mean seriously, what if some guy said to your mom, or your sister, or your girlfriend, “Hey bitch, Ima beat your pussy up.”? I bet you’d be mad. I hope you’d be mad. But you think it’s okay for these guys to just get up there and say it, through microphones, to all Yale women? If that doesn’t bother you, then you are a part of the problem.
As someone who has been sexually assaulted previously, I have experienced first-hand the harm that these kinds of attitudes bring to all of us. For you to belittle the deep concern that so many of us feel about welcoming such a sexist, violent message onto our campus is deeply disrespectful.”

The above response is powerful due to the personal experience of the writer. But I think the most objectively powerful and convincing argument was posted by “Male Yale ’10”:

“Your utter disregard for the notion that media is something that influences and shapes people in society is amazing. [Name deleted], while you may be an intelligent human being as you say (though I doubt it, if your writing is any indication), your lack of compassion for people who are uncomfortable being put in a position of having their community support this music is extremely disheartening; as someone who hopes to be a role model at Yale, you’re certainly showing a total lack of empathy, inability to understand people’s concerns, and most of all, arrogance. In terms of the content of those concerns, your continual insistence that music can be separated as a piece of art from the impact that it has on people is just plain wrong; of course it offends people, but furthermore, it influences them. Think of the example set by the Ying Yang Twins, not for adults or men in the Yale community, but for young men, particularly young black men, around America. The music suggests that a lot of things are okay that are not, in fact, okay, and it idealizes those things. It has a real impact, and for you to believe otherwise is to belittle music itself, which you seem to have a lot of respect for as a form of art. I think you’d do well to think carefully about your opinions, why you hold them, and why you need to express them in the future. Or at least be willing to have them changed if other people are right.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

———

By hiring the Ying Yang Twins, we not only condoned their work, we applauded and promoted it. And in doing so, we condoned, applauded and promoted sexism and misogyny. Yale students are supposed to be intelligent, forward-thinkers. We should have known better.

Everyone should know better.


[1] “Georgia Dome,” Ying Yang Twins 2003

[2] “Georgia Dome”

A Note

To all those who have been reading this blog and wondering, “Who’s writing this stuff?” allow me to introduce myself.

My name is Emily, and I have spent the past 10 weeks interning at The Mary Byron Project in Louisville, Kentucky. I am originally from New York, and I am currently an undergraduate at Yale University in Connecticut.

I am from the suburbs. I attend a top-tier university. My parents are still married. I am white. I don’t do drugs. Yet, I see sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence and domestic violence all the time. It’s everywhere. If you just open your eyes and unclog your ears, you will start to see and hear it, too. Intimate partner violence affects all of us, no matter our age, our race, our socioeconomic status, our religion, or our region of residence. And it affects every aspect of our lives.

An advocate in the Jefferson County Domestic Violence Intake Center, Cammie Sizemore, told me that working in DV changes you. She told me I ought to think really hard before I decide this is what I want to do. She told me to consider what I like about myself, and ask myself if I’m willing to let that change. Cammie, the perceptive woman she is, knew within five minutes of meeting me that I am a cock-eyed optimist. She knew within five minutes that I like to think everyone has good intentions. She knew within five minutes that I simply cannot figure out why people can be so mean! And maybe she thought to herself, this girl is not cut out for this sort of work. After my first day at the Intake Center, I certainly had that thought, anyway.

But my thoughts didn’t stop there. Who’s to say that my hopefulness and sensitivity are necessarily disadvantages? And who’s to say that working in this field or that field will change me? Despite the placid picture I painted of myself above, I have gone through some rough times; I have faced adversity; I have struggled with my identity and my purpose; I have been passive and let bad things happen to me; I have seen bad things happen to other people and stood there knowing there was nothing I could do.

I am aware of the world around me. I never outgrew the childish tendency to ask too many questions and try to truly understand and relate to everyone I encounter. I like to analyze people and their interactions, whether they are characters in novels, my own family members, or strangers on the subway. Relationships have always fascinated me. The connections that people make with one another are vast and complex. As I’ve grown older, I have become both more independent and more involved with other people. I have been in healthy and unhealthy relationships, and have learned the difference the hard way. Not all relationships are rooted in love and trust. Many are much more twisted.

Domestic violence is nothing new. Men are physically more powerful than women and they historically have been given more societal power than women. This unbalanced power dynamic is at the crux of most domestic violence cases. Intimate partner violence is not about a need for anger management; in fact, batterers are in full control of their anger. Batterers manage their anger quite well; they deliberately direct it at the person or people most vulnerable to attack.

Additionally, outsiders (like the police) tend to stay out of private affairs more so than public ones. If you threaten a stranger on the street, people will intervene. But if you hit your wife in the home you share, people will not only fail to intervene, but they will often go further and blame the victim. They will ask “well, why doesn’t she just leave?” Domestic violence victims are the only class of victims held responsible for the abuse they suffer. People are more willing to fault the woman for staying with her abuser than fault the man for being abusive. No one ever asks why, if the man hates his wife so much, he doesn’t just leave.

Let’s back up for a second. Let’s take a look at people my age, the ones who don’t typically cohabit with their intimate partners. There’s a different name for the violence that may occur in these relationships: dating violence. And dating violence is where it all starts. After all, those women who are deemed victims of domestic violence were once dating the guy.

Dating is rife with insecurities, leaps of faith and second-guessing. And yet, most everyone dates. To be in a relationship, you need to date. And we’re brought up to believe (and it seems to be our biological destiny) that we should be in romantic relationships. And the worst part is that once emotions are involved, it is quite difficult to perceive whether or not your relationship is healthy or not. Who is to judge whether or not he loves you or he loves controlling you? Who is to determine when he crosses the line from protective to possessive? It’s a cycle. When you’re dating, you may not realize the pattern. And when you’re married, it may be too late. You can’t change someone else any more than you can totally understand someone else. He chooses to hit you. He chooses to demean you.

You can’t make his choices; you can only make your own.

My final blog entry for my internship is about song lyrics. I did not plan for this post to coincide with the rising popularity of an Eminem song that features Rihanna, but it has worked out that way. The song, which is now #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, focuses on domestic violence, a topic with which Eminem is quite familiar (see his autobiographical songs “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” and “Kill You”). In “I Love The Way You Lie,” Eminem very accurately breaks down the cycle of violence, but I have no idea what sort of message the song is supposed to send. The music video premiered Aug. 4 on MTV.