“If one were permitted to make all the ballads,” said the eighteenth century Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher, “one need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” If he were transported to our time, even Fletcher would be surprised by how much music influences our culture. He would be even more amazed—and thoroughly appalled—by the degenerates who write our nation’s songs.
Over the past six weeks, the top pop song in the land has been Love The Way You Lie by Marshall Mathers III (a.k.a. Eminem) and featuring Rihanna. Mathers is the type of musician that Plato warned us about, and the best argument for following the philosopher's lead in banning them from the Republic.
On one of his earlier albums, Mathers rapped about raping his mother, arranging the gang rape of his sister, and murdering his wife. His defenders explained that he was merely expressing a fantasy. In this song, he raps about beating a woman and setting her on fire. His defenders explain that he is merely reflecting reality. Apparently, for people like Mathers and his apologists, violence against women is acceptable, since it’s a man’s fantasy and a woman’s reality.
Even though Mathers is approaching middle-age (he’s 37), he hasn’t outgrown his dreams of torturing and murdering woman. On Love the Way You Lie he says:
I know I’m a liar
if she ever tries to ******* leave again
I’ma tie her to the bed
and set this house on fire
In response, the object of his violence coos about how she not only loves his dishonesty, but loves being set on fire:
Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
Well that’s all right because I like the way it hurts
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry
Well that’s all right because I love the way you lie
The woman singing about how she loves being hurt is twenty-year-old Rihanna—the same woman who made headlines last year when her boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown, violently beat her about the face and neck.
Many listeners assume that the song must be against domestic abuse. Why else would Rhianna agree to sing on the track? But no amount of creative eisegesis can read into the lyrics what isn’t there. The song is an unapologetic glamorization of lethal violence against women.
Lest anyone be confused about this, the video—which has already been viewed 24 million times—sends an even stronger message that being smacked around is sexy. Although it includes Eminem—wearing, naturally, a “wife-beater” t-shirt—they couldn’t show him striking a black woman—our society isn’t quite that post-racial yet—so the main characters are portrayed by actors Dominic Monaghan (Merry in The Lord of the Rings) and Megan Fox (the love interest in Transformers).
The sepia tones and lens flares put a sheen on both the abuse and the post-pummeling make-up sessions. The pushing, pulling, and punching are merely passionate foreplay, the pain before the pleasure. At the end of the video, the lovers lie spent and sleeping, curled up together peacefully on the their bed. The immolation in the lyrics apparently just a part of the sadomasochistic fantasy.
Love the Way You Lie isn’t the only recent song about domestic violence. In the same iTunes store, though in different moral universe, is Miranda Lambert’s Gunpowder and Lead. After its debut in early 2008, the song was downloaded over a half a million times and rose the ranks of the country charts.
The female narrator tells of her plans to shoot her abusive husband once he returns from jail:
I’m goin’ home, gonna load my shotgun,
Wait by the door and light a cigarette.
He wants a fight — well, now he’s got one
And he ain’t seen me crazy yet.
Slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll.
Don’t that sound like a real man?
I’m gonna show him what a little girl’s made of,
Gunpowder and lead
What sets this song apart from Love the Way You Lie is the way it takes a distinctly moral point of view. No police are involved in Eminem’s world, while Lambert’s man was arrested for his crime. Eminem acts as if hitting a woman is macho, while Lambert makes it clear it’s the act of a coward. And unlike Rhianna, who enjoys being slapped and shaken, Lambert’s narrator views the abuse as a killing offense.
Other country songs by female artists, like Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks and Independence Day by Martina McBride, have dealt with the topic of domestic abuse in the same way. Hit a woman in a country song and you’re not likely to be alive when by the last note.
Kill-the-abuser songs, while not praiseworthy, certainly reveal the moral perspective of country fans: You don’t turn a blind eye to a woman’s bruised cheek. While rap and rock lyrics often declare what their audiences should find acceptable, country musicians are expected to conform their lyrics to the worldview of their fans.
Country music shows that not all musicians find violence against women to be acceptable. So how did we reach the point in pop music where bragging about busting a woman’s face could propel an artist to the top of the charts? Partially it is my fault, for the blame rest primarily with my generation. The musical innovators of Generation X created the genres of rap and hip-hop and the rest of us made excuses when it degenerated into rampant misogyny. We pretended the treatment of woman as sub-human was a mark of authenticity and accepted the racist assumption that women-hating was part of the true “black experience” (even when the rapper was white).
While we are still part of the problem (on behalf of all Gen-Xers, I apologize for the perpetually adolescent Mathers), we are too old and out-of-touch to rectify the damaging legacy we’ve created. We empowered the vicious and the wicked we the power to write the ballads for our nation, and now we have to live the knowledge that we share the culpable when our sisters and daughters are battered.
My hope is that our nation’s youth will be wiser than we were. I hope they’ll follow the lead of country music fans in saying that violence against women won’t be tolerated. Most of all, I hope they will convince society’s vulnerable young woman a truth that what we failed to convey when we tolerated and promoted music like Mather’s: That being beaten and kicked and treated like trash is not the price you must pay to be loved.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.