There have been urgent lessons about bad behavior in the news almost every day, as more and more men in various realms of public life are being held to account for a range of charges of sexual misconduct and abuse. As the father of a 14-year-old young man, a high-school freshman just beginning to learn how to handle himself in the adult world, I’ve been taking in the swelling ugliness with a hope that my son will see the gravity of transgressions that would have been hushed up or shrugged off when I was his age. My wife and I reinforce this message directly with him, of course. He’s seeing and hearing a lot that should help him learn to do much better than the men in the news feeds. At the same time, what he seems to watch and listen to most closely is pop music, on YouTube and through his streaming subscriptions, and what teenagers like my son are likely to find there is a set of lessons of a very different kind.
Like a great deal of pop music for a long time, most of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart today are narratives of romantic or sexual fantasy, aspiration, success, or frustration. It’s 30 years now since the Chicago noise-rock band Big Black made its duly acclaimed album Songs About Fucking, and the title still applies to most popular music, in one way or another. The main purpose of the form has always been to serve as an outlet through which young people can experiment freely in an imaginative space, sorting out the options for functioning as social and sexual creatures in the adult world.
As far back as a hundred years ago, Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths were turning out songs such as “Give Me the Moonlight, Give Me the Girl” and “Send Me Away with a Smile,” which weren’t about astronomy and telling jokes. Over the decades, pop songs have steadily grown bolder and more particular in their treatment of eros, to the point where allusion and indirection have now largely given way to language that portrays sex acts bluntly, casually, without gloss or shame. There’s not necessarily any harm in such straight talk, theoretical damage to the poetic muse notwithstanding. To rob pop songs of their power to shock and outrage grown-ups by defying the norms of older modes of practice is to deny them their privilege to speak to young people in the language of their time.
The great surprise in the treatment of sex in contemporary pop is not that it’s radically advanced, but that it’s so shockingly regressive. With the recent and ongoing wave of revelations of male transgressions in mind, I undertook a systematic review of the top 20 songs in every Hot 100 chart published in Billboard over the course of this year, and found striking similarities in the way men talk about and deal with women in the pop songs of 2017. The attitudes in the music are straight out of 1957, with women portrayed more often than not as prey, as interchangeable objects of fleeting gratification, or as malevolent temptresses bent on exploiting men for material gain.
The number-one hit on the most recent Hot 100 chart is “Rockstar” by Post Malone, a rising hip-hop performer with a pop orientation. The opening words of the song establish its theme: “I’ve been fuckin’ hoes and poppin’ pillies/ Man, I feel just like a rockstar.” Like countless other songs in and out of hip-hop, it’s a dream narrative of stardom as the fulfillment of fantasies of male privilege, including power over women.