When in a thrift store in New York some years ago I came across a trough full of old studio portraits ranging, I think, from the 1930s to 1980s. I’ve had a vague idea since then to create images that provide a funny juxtaposition of tame and dangerous, and I started asking friends for their favourite lyrics from rap and hip hop, that are decidedly vulgar or offensive, in order to create an illustrative series. Let it be known that a) these are not genres that I generally listen to, and b) in no way am I an expert. But the more lyrics I read and the more videos I watched, the lower my tolerance became in terms of the attitudes and language towards women, when I would expect my tolerance to increase. I am a feminist; I recognise that women taking their clothes off sells products, although of course I strongly disagree with it. I am used to being under- and mis-represented in the media, and used to fairly forward-thinking friends of both sexes saying things like ‘man up’ and ‘don’t be a pussy’. In short, I detest being called love or sweetheart, let alone being told to grab my titties and swallow for B.I.G. I don’t want to, Biggie. Come on.
However, I also have a sense of humour, and don’t spend my days sticking pins in figurines of Tyson Fury and Donald Trump while boiling my own menstrual blood in a cauldron. The lyrics I was reading threw up an odd contradiction: can you enjoy and endorse, and ultimately make money for, musicians whose careers revolve partly around representing women as lesser citizens? I know I am hardly the first person to come up with this bold and revolutionary question; I’m also not the most erudite. But for me it’s not something I’ve thought about much up until now. For example, I enjoy dancehall and bashment music, despite the general consensus being that the majority of it is homophobic. I would not buy records by someone who has made sexist/racist/homophobic remarks publicly – but is watching a video of theirs on YouTube ok? Can you listen to the sexist lyrics of a hip hop song and distance yourself from it, and just appreciate the music and songwriting, and is that still ok?
The line that I have semi-conclusively drawn while I’ve been watching the 300th oiled bum jiggle around on my monitor is whether or not the songwriting is clever. To give you an idea: I am someone who appreciates the mundane, very British aspects of lyrics by bands such as Half Man Half Biscuit and Arctic Monkeys – niche references to shit English nightclubs and high streets and bus routes, that are very funny. And rhyme well. I am not naturally drawn to songs making obvious references to money and/or bitches, because to me it feels tired. However, if the song is about money and/or bitches, and it’s got witty rhymes and specific references, my interest is piqued. That’s why I’ve included the bottom image (Nasty Girl by Notorious B.I.G.) – ‘…and give me what I need while we listen to Prince’. Haha! Biggie wants to get dirty to Prince! We all love Prince! Sure, Prince is probably turning in his doll-sized grave, but it’s a neat reference, so I can overlook the lyrics throughout the rest of the song (‘and I don’t stop til I squirt/jeans, skirt, butt naked, it all work’) … sigh. Maybe.
I’m not sure I can make a conclusion one way or another. You might be surprised to learn I am neither a journalist or a professor. I am, however, a gender expert, being that I am a human being who has a gender. I am just interested in what I’ve come across in this tiny, tiny section of the music/gender Venn diagram, and I’d be interested to know what other people think. I wonder whether trolls frequent illustration blogs? Now’s the time to find out, I suppose.
Images, from top: Bitches Ain’t Shit – Dr Dre ⋅ Shake That – Eminem ft. Nate Dogg ⋅ Nasty Girl – Notorious B.I.G.