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The music industry has always been a misogynistic place, and despite the fact that the charts are filled with countless female artists, many of our favorite hits about female empowerment are actually written by men. So how can we even tell the difference between a true female hit about the right to sexual expression, and a song written for the male gaze? Going straight to the female song writers themselves is the first step.
Despite the flood of sexist tunes out there, we still have loads of great feminist tracks to listen to. Songs that empower the artist themselves and backhand the male gaze entirely. Slut shaming, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and other feminist issues are greatly lacking as themes for mainstream music, but if that's exactly what you're looking for then this playlist has you covered:
Many popular feminist songs use social issues in subtext, but Mini Skirt is not one of them. Issues such as sexual assault, rape culture, and slut shaming are very bluntly presented in the lyrics. The truthful song does not pander to anyone who would dare blame the victim for being mistreated and gives power back to those who wish to dress in as little or as much clothing as they like. "It's mine, all mine," Braids singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston insists while talking about the mini-skirt that is the pervert's excuse for awful behavior. At the same time, the mini-skirt is a metaphor for her own sexual agency — the right to say no, or yes, or change her mind half-way through.
The skirt reflects her life choices, and everyone's choices. Though it's debated, there's a chance that the final verses tell the story of a birth that results from a rape, which is something mainstream music often hates to discuss, particularly since music is often viewed as escapism.
This is something I feel the music industry needs more of. It can't just focus on the happy endings, the sad breakups, the anger caused by infidelity, or fun times in the club. It has to go deeper sometimes. It needs to go deep into issues of sexual assault, sexism, racism, LGBTQIAP+ oppression, ableism, classism, everything that majorly sucks about this planet to make a meaningful and emotional response that people can literally feel pumping through their ears. This is why songs like Mini Skirt are just as important as empowering and cheerful feminist music.
Machine is another song that speaks of being used and abused by the male gaze, something that can literally turn you into a robotic device for their pleasure only. Something that people often forget about the male written songs of female empowerment is that though the female singer may be dancing around happily as she talks about being a sexual toy for their main man, it's not always their choice.
Sure, there's nothing wrong with pleasing your mate, but the problem comes from whether it's for both of you or just for their sake. Sometimes society tries to make that decision for us, blurring the line between mutual adoration and becoming someone's machine-like plaything.
"This isn't what I'm like, what did they do to me?"Ayelle sings. "Make me into something else, hate that I've become just what they wanted me to be... machine."
FKA twigs takes the whole "being a sexual toy" thing I mentioned earlier a step further by literally becoming a sex toy in her video for I'm Your Doll. I spoke about the entire Mellissa EP over on Bitch Media some time ago, so it's not as if this is the only track on the album that has feminist values, but the doll segment of the short film is probably the most blunt and thematic part of the whole video. It's also the most seemingly contradictory part of the video, considering how the lyrics almost don't quite match up to what happens in the video, but 'seemingly' is the key word here.
Lyrically, twigs tells her lover that she wants to be his only one, that she wants to be his doll, yet in the video she is essentially being ignored sexually as he has his way with her stiff body. Seriously he doesn't even kiss her face he only sucks on the plastic. Before the NSFW scene, she is shown dancing provocatively, which looks completely consensual, but this is where the lyrics and the video link up. She cares for him, she is attracted to him, she dances for him and wants to be touched by him; but none, NONE, of this takes away from her right to say no to him at any point when it comes to sex, and it does not justify him deflating her spirit (and her literal doll body at the end of the video.)
It's disputed by fans and critics whether rape is taking place here, as the meaning of the sex doll could alternatively reflect twig's desire to be more present during their love making, rather than simply be an object. Either interpretation can still contribute to the feminist message that subverts the male gaze by giving us a surreal and disturbing image of a deflating sex object (AKA a woman) on a sticky mattress. Not so sexy anymore, huh?
Drake's Hotline Bling absolutely killed it when it hit the charts in 2015 and it was so catchy that every radio station practically played it on a loop. This on top of the fact that Drake has been hailed "the good guy of hip hop" made a lot of fans coo lovingly over every verse. But the song isn't romantic. In fact it's downright possessive. In the hit song, Drake talks about his beloved ex as if she has done him wrong by moving on from their broken relationship, and continuing to live life her way. He takes offense to how she casually goes out at night, wearing revealing clothes and meeting with friends she hasn't introduced him to before. He slut shames her and marks her as his territory, all because she used to confide in him and call herself his girlfriend.
The lyrics are pathetic, and so is every dude who thinks women should be treated this way. The male gaze in this context isn't so much sexualization, but the idea that Drake objectifies his ex by wishing she'd stay at home, covered up, talking to and making love to him alone.
This brings us to Ceresia, who too disliked the lyrics, yet loved the beat of the song. She sings from the ex's perspective, showing how silly Drake's intimidation is, and how hypocritical his slut shaming and free-roaming lifestyle really is. If he can roam freely in the clubs then dammit so can she. The main lyric that sticks out to me is, "so I got a reputation for myself now, everybody knows that you feel left out," which is pretty much what fueled Drake's song in the first place — jealousy and a childish entitlement for inclusion.
Folks, if your partner ever tries to shame you for having fun without them, keep dancing and don't turn back.
Unlike Cerseia's Hotline Bling cover, HEZEN decided to keep the original lyrics of Tame Impala's hit song intact. I recently had the chance to e-interview her for a project I'm working on and I learned that her reason for doing this was to show how the lyrics, set to a darker tune, could give off a violent image of male superiority. This makes sense to me because the lighter and happier sounding tune of the original Impala song almost hides the negative vibe that the lyrics hold.
"Saying sorry ain't as good as saying why, but it buys me a little more time," HEZEN sings, not her words but the words of a man who has become self aware. Though this self awareness is a good thing, it comes with a pitiful excuse: "Cause I'm a man, woman, Don't always think before I do, Cause I'm a man, woman, That's the only answer I've got for you." ...is that it, seriously? That's not an apology. That's a defensive diversion tactic.
The male gaze, like on the previous track on this list, isn't one of sexualization, but the lyrics still see the woman as something to walk all over which HEZEN highlights perfectly. HEZEN told me she likes the song, but that the lyrics spooked her so her decision to slow it down and give it a female voice is something that I think will open many eyes. Hopefully show the world that these "he's just being a guy" kind of excuses are totally out of date, make no sense, and may actually be dangerous for women in the long run.
Come on dudes, take more responsibility for your crappy actions, it's not hardwired into your manhood and it never will be.