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Different tune, same old sexism: what kids are learning from pop music

Recently I attended a fantastic fundraiser for the Women’s Support Project, at which comedian and national treasure Elaine C Smith explored the role of pop music in shaping our culture’s attitude to gendered violence and abuse, and to women’s role in society. She sang us a few examples of truly sexist songs, such as the Burt Bacharach classic ‘Wives and Lovers’, which warns women to stay attentive and beautiful to prevent their men from straying: “Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your make-up, soon he will open the door,Don't think because there's a ring on your finger, you needn't try any more.For wives should always be lovers too, Run to his arms the moment that he comes home to you.I'm warning you.”

This song was written in 1963. 50 years later, have things changed much? I’d argue that people are still singing and humming the same kind of damaging ditties – there might be a different tune but pop music still exhibits the same old sexism. Until my kids got into music, I was pretty unaware of what the kids were listening to these days. As a thirty-something indie-kid who grew up and got a job and somehow stopped listening to music all the time (more radio 4 than radio 1) I was out of touch. But we’ve had a bit of a pop party going on at home lately, as my 6 and 8 year old have got more interested in pop music and culture, and it’s been a bit of a shock to discover that much to the music marketed at and loved by kids is trotting out the same old sexist rubbish that has been a feature of pop music for decades. The top pop choice for 6 year olds about town is One Direction, who sing in ‘What Makes you Beautiful’ about being overwhelmed by the way a girl flicks her hair, and by the way she smiles at the ground  – swoon,  she’s so demure! She has no idea she’s beautiful! And that, folks, is what makes her beautiful. If she knew she was a fantastic girl she would probably be a pain and not at all attractive, is the not-so-subtle message of that number one hit.  Funnily enough they never sing, the way you got an A in maths makes my heart flip, or the way you tell jokes really cracks me up – remember girls, it’s all about being beautiful and then boys will like you and that’s what counts. Oh, and who cares if you actually find members of the same sex beautiful? – the world of teen pop is one in which gay relationships are completely invisible.

Another One Direction song that kids love is ‘Little Things’ – my daughter went to an Easter holiday club where she and her 6-10 year old pals learned it off by heart at their song and dance class. It was a lovely class, but I sad to hear little girls singing “You've never loved your stomach or your thighs” – I don’t want my kid to start getting the message that she should worry about parts of her body that are perfectly fine and healthy and functioning.  She is more than her body parts.

I was equally upset by hearing her sing along with a Justin Bieber song. He’s the teen sensation with more twitter followers than any other celebrity (more than 38 million) and a huge army of devoted ‘beliebers’. He sings Boyfriend: a song that includes the lyrics “If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go”. Erm, what if I wanted to go Justin? What then? How about we both get to choose if this relationship ends?

A common trope of the music industry is that bad boys are innately appealing. See for example ‘Bad Boys’ by Alexandra Burke, (“Yeah, the bad boys are always catching my eye, I said the bad boys are always spinning my mind, Even though I know they're no good for me,  It's the risk I take for the chemistry”), which can be traced all the way back to Leader of the Pack, from 1964 (“They told me he was bad, But I knew he was sad, That's why I fell for the leader of the pack”). I recently saw this message updated for the tween generation on kids TV programme ‘Friday Download’. On the episode that aired on CBBC on 26 April 2013, presenter Dionne Bromfield covered the Olly Murs’ song, Troublemaker: “Trouble troublemaker, yeah, That's your middlename, I know you're no good but you're stuck in my brainAnd I wanna know, Why does it feel so good but hurt so bad…My mind keeps saying, Run as fast as you can, I say I'm done but then you pull me back”.

There is something spectacularly creepy about seeing a teenage girl singing to a roomful of pre-teen children (on a channel aimed at 4-12s) that a troublemaker who hurts you is so appealing that you can’t really get away from them.  

In a culture where domestic abuse and stalking are frighteningly mundane (two women a week are killed by partners or ex-partners in the UK), singing a catchy tune about someone who’s trouble also being addictive to a roomful of kids is pretty irresponsible, not to say depressing. I used my parental rights to the off-switch on that occasion but how many parents were busy making the tea while their kids innocently danced along and have no idea what messages their kids are learning through music? If you think the lyrics are bad, try watching the videos. Troubled by the usual dilemma of choosing whether to be a ‘good mum’ who protects my kid from sexist nonsense or a ‘nice mum’ who gets my daughter one of the things she really, really wants, I caved in and bought Pop Party 10 to add to her Christmas pressie pile. It came with a DVD of videos. We watched the videos together, my horror mounting. I tried to see the positive and grab a ‘teachable moment’.  When I asked, why do you think Cheryl Cole is wearing so few clothes and everyone else has got jackets on? she thankfully said, “maybe she just doesn’t feel the cold mummy” – but such innocence can’t last forever, and the unspoken message that women need to show off their bodies for male approval must be sinking in, however unconsciously.  

I told her about my concerns, and the DVD has been ‘lost’ for the time being, but in many homes across the country girls will be watching this stuff over and over, learning the words, learning the moves, and basically learning how to be good little sex objects who need the approval of boys and men to get ahead in this world. Meanwhile boys will be learning that girls need to be sexy for their approval (though I am glad my son mishears Psy in ‘Gangnam Style’ as singing about ‘sixty ladies’) and that they will be calling the shots when they have girlfriends in the future.

There is nothing new under the sun, and worrying about the music kids listen to is an age-old problem but we live in a new world of instant downloads, lyric websites, bluetoothed video clips, connecting with our favourite celebrities on twitter and listening to music on smartphones – a world in which pop culture is everywhere and inescapable. So it seems only right to start listening carefully and watching critically and making sure that we know what our kids are learning through music. And if it’s not what we want them to learn about healthy, respectful relationships with people who we see as fully rounded human beings with qualities other than looks, maybe it’s time to reach for the off-switch. And music producers, lyric writers, and singers – please change the record – 50 years on from Burt’s ‘warning’ it’s dreary in the extreme to hear sexism and misogyny still topping the charts. - Jenny Kemp, Zero Tolerance Coordinator

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