The Trouble With Your Favorite Bops

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by Alex Quayle

Pop music is ubiquitous; you hear it every day in your car, at work, at the grocery store. A lot of pop music is also — which may or may not come as a surprise — problematic. While your favorite tunes may have the right kind of beat to wake you up in the morning or psych you up to hit the dance floor, a lot of troubling messages work their way into the lyrics we all nod our heads to.

Music can be vital, not just during our angsty teenage years, but literally — songs like “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees have perfect beat to perform CPR to. Music can also be very healing and therapeutic, evoking a wide range of emotions within us. However, not all music is created equal. While pop music is just that, pop music, I think it’s still certainly worth opening up a conversation about the negative implications, particularly the anti-feminist ones, within these songs and the effect they can have on impressionable teens and even adults.

I’ll Be Over Here

Alessia Cara’s “Here” was an extremely popular hit during 2015/2016. Revered as the introvert anthem — and honestly, I believe there are some aspects of the song that certainly capture the social anxieties tethered to parties — the main figure in the song spends the entire time on a couch at a party, refusing to engage with anyone, and basically judging the other party-goers. The main character also seems to really focus on the other girls at the party, with the cliche “I’m not like other girls” mindset.

It’s worth noting that the main character seems very aware of their attitude with lines like, “Excuse me if I seem a little unimpressed with this/An antisocial pessimist but usually I don't mess with this” however, does that excuse the behavior? Does being self-aware of your cold, judgemental, and rather anti-female demeanor make it better? Definitely not. Mostly this kind of message carries the idea that as long you’re aware of your negative attitude, you’re excused — which we all know isn’t true. This kind of attitude is quite similar to the sexist, outdated excuse of “boys will be boys.”

Instead, the main character in the song could have spent this opportunity to meet new people, learn something new, or simply have a good time. Another option could have been simply saying no to the invite. Ultimately, the song may seem relatable on the surface, but digging just a bit deeper, you come across a song which tries to excuse away a rather negative, judgemental attitude with lyrics like: “Some girl's talking 'bout her haters/She ain't got none/How did it ever come to this/I shoulda never come to this”

The Nice Guy Syndrome

Shawn Mendes’ “Treat You Better” is another problematic bop. In a supposedly romantic way, the main character in the song spends their time trying to convince a female love interest to leave her current relationship and be with him instead. It’s implied that the love interest isn’t happy within her  current relationship with lyrics like, “Tell me why are we wasting time/On all your wasted cryin'” which then is followed by the song’s title lyric: “When you should be with me instead/I know I can treat you better.” However, there are a lot problems hidden behind these “romantic” lyrics.

First, it seems as though the main character thinks of himself as a knight in shining armor — the love interest clearly needs to be rescued from one man by another man. It’s not enough that the girl shouldn’t be in a toxic or bad relationship but that she should instead date the main character because, well, he just knows he’d be a better partner.

Furthermore, the main character in the song focuses more on why he’s the right choice rather what the girl actually needs or wants. Granted, it’s fair to say that when you do have a crush on someone, it’s hard not to want to push them in that direction, but does this main character even know if his crush likes him that way? It’s almost as if that consideration hasn’t crossed his mind — that his crush still wouldn’t want to date him even after ending her current relationship.

You could even argue that the main character is just assuming his crush is in a bad relationship, which might not even be true! He could very easily be blinded by his feelings for her, causing him to essnetially revoke her of her agency. Ultimately, he is saying to her: “No, no you’re in a bad relationship because I said so; that’s why you should be with me instead.”

At the end of the day, as catchy as this song is, “Treat You Better” certainly sends the wrong kind of message, especially to those young teenage girl listeners.

Singing a Different Tune

Of course, this issue within pop music is certainly not worth getting up in arms about considering how arbitrary it is in the grand scheme of things. However, with that being said, it is worth encouraging ourselves (and others) to focus on our media literacy. It’s important, especially for young consumers, to begin learning how exposure to negative or even harmful messages within the media can have a powerful, lasting effect on our mood, thoughts, emotions, and more.

The problem with songs like Shawn Mendes’ is that it can give teens and young adults the wrong impression of how relationships with partners and friends should be. As George Washington University explains, the way teens learn to navigate their relationships now can contribute to the health and structure of their future relationships — for better or for worse. They explain that, “Making the transition from childhood to adulthood can be challenging, so sometimes, teenagers experience struggles with their emotions.” As those emotions manifest it makes sense that many teens turn to music as an escape, but teens are also highly impressionable.

GWU goes on to further say, “Healthy relationships [should] be based on mutual respect and trust between all parties. Whether you’re in a dating relationship or you are navigating the relationships you have with your friends and peers, healthy and respectful interactions will be very important for everyone.” Of course, songs about healthy, respectful, and trustful songs tend to not make the top ten list. This means that some teens may turn to the unrealistic lyrics found within their favorite songs as a sort of outline for their own life. Similar to how social media can affect our well-being, other forms of media, like music, videos, and even YouTube influencers, can impact the way teens and adults think of themselves and others.

Luckily, it does seem as though many female artists are making an effort to put out more feminist and empowering music while also advocating for intersectional feminism in their day-to-day lives.

At the end of the day, working to be a more conscious listener and teaching the younger generations how to use a more thoughtful lens to examine all kinds of media is extremely important — especially when it comes to anti-feminist ideas and messages hidden within our favorite bops. Overall, enjoy what you enjoy. Music is a wonderful escape and a unique form of art and expression, but it never hurts to try a new perspective and encourage future songmakers to do the same.

MusicErin Bagwell