Could heavy rock be just a teeny-weeny bit sexist?
We’re putting heavy rock on trial! Have your say!
As you can see from the headlines above and below, we’re asking the question…
Could heavy rock be just a teeny-weeny bit sexist?
At the end of the debate, you will have the ability to vote either “guilty” or “not guilty”, according to the evidence. And because this is a democratic process, you may also introduce your own evidence, in the comments section at the foot of the page to sway the jury.
Exhibits A: Whitesnake: Lie Down, I Think I Love You, Ted Nugent: Cat Scratch Fever, Kiss: Do You Love Me, Poison: Talk Dirty To Me, Warrant: Cherry Pie, Mötley Crüe: She Goes Down, Def Leppard: Armageddon It
From the Oxford English Dictionary: Sexism – “Behaviour, language etc reflecting the assumption that one sex is inferior to the other. Insistence on (esp. a woman’s) conformity to a sexually stereotyped social role.”
Almost all the blame for heavy rock’s reputation for sexist lyrics can be placed with just two bands: David Coverdale‘s Whitesnake, and Kiss.
BC, or Before Coverdale, heavy rock’s lyrical content was concerned with Satan (Sabbath, natch), Hobbits (Led Zep’s Ramble On) and inter-stellar space travel whilst squashing hedgehogs (Deep Purple’s Space Truckin’).
Then came Geordie Dave with his dirty limericks, and rock changed forever. He introduced the charming love sonnet Lie Down, I Think I Love You on a live album with: “Here’s what your tarts will be saying to you tonight…”
Indeed, Lie Down, Slide It In, Slow An’ Easy and Spit It Out read more like a set of instructions in a brothel than a serious attempt to break down the mysteries of personal relationships.
In fairness, rock tried to ignore this ocean of innuendo at first, with a few exceptions, namely Ted Nugent, who had a hit with Cat Scratch Fever and the aforementioned Kiss who had ploughed their own furrow in the US with songs such as Christine Sixteen, Strutter and Plaster Caster. In most of the songs, women are objects both admired and loathed. “You really like my limousine / You really like my seven inch / leather heels / and going to all of the shows,” accuses Paul Stanley to an unnamed girl. “You like my credit cards / and private plane,” he stealth brags; “Money really can take you far,” he sneers, “you like the hotels / and fancy clothes,” he continues, rather pathetically, “but Do You Love Me?”
Of course she does, Paul. She especially loves your modesty and unprepossessing lack of ego.
On Kiss’ Hotter Than Hell album, the song Goin’ Blind contains perhaps the creepiest lyric of all time as Gene Simmons croons: “I’m ninety three, you’re sixteen / can’t you see I’m goin’ blind…” Anyone want to tell us what that’s all about? *shudders*
Aside from these lone pioneers, real metalheads concerned themselves with more dignified themes, leaving soft-rockers Foreigner and Journey to dish out the mushy stuff whilst they focused on boys’ own adventures such as Iron Maiden’s The Trooper, Judas Priest‘s Breaking The Law and Blue Öyster Cult’s She’s As Beautiful As A Foot.
But then a refreshed and glammed-up Whitesnake scored a huge US hit with the 1987 album and hit song Still Of The Night which featured the writhing of Tawny Kitaen. Kiss jumped in with Crazy Nights and recognising a sure thing when they saw one, record companies flooded the market with similar videos from bands who took the baton from Kiss and ran with it. Hard. (Oo-errr.)
Poison gave us the sentimental folk song Talk Dirty To Me, Warrant gave us Cherry Pie and Mötley Crüe She Goes Down, none of which need any explanation, and are barely double entendres – perhaps we ought to label them single entendres. It was left to Def Leppard to come up with the worst pun of the eighties with the nod and wink of Armageddon It. Yes Joe, we geddit.
In the end whilst society gradually changed, it was perhaps the lack of imagination that the public grew tired of first. Just look at this breakdown of the lyrical themes in Motorhead, the first six Kiss LPs, and the debut album by Poison. It says it all…
Exhibit B: Rock’s Cherry Pie Charts: What Proportion Of These Heavy Rock LPs Are Songs About Girls?
Let’s start with Motorhead. A look at a breakdown of lyrical themes shows a wide variety of subjects, and about a third of songs (taken from their best of) being about women. Not great, but not ridiculous either:
However, when we look at Poison’s debut album, we can see that there’s a shift to nearly two thirds of songs being about women (NB this might not mean that they are all sexist. But as it happens they are):
However, an analysis of the first six albums by Kiss show a very different picture. Indeed, there are albums where 100% of songs are about women – and only about women in a lascivious way. With Kiss, nearly eighty percent of their songs are about women:
And on that bombshell, the prosecution rests…
For the Defence
Exhibit A: Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever
This song’s lyric includes the line “I make that pussy purr / with a stroke of my hand”. The suggestion is that this is somehow prurient. We counter that if you think there is anything untoward in such an innocent statement, you just have a filthy mind. Unless the recipient is extremely gifted and has vocal chords in an unusual place, this is clearly about a cat.
Similarly Warrant sang only of a fruit-based dessert with Cherry Pie, Cinderella’s Push Push is about a girl whose car has broken down and Mötley Crüe merely spoke about half the duties of an elevator attendant with She Goes Down…
Risqué lyrics have a long tradition in rock and pop. A close examination of the lyrics to The Coasters’ Poison Ivy reveals this is a song about an STD. When Robert Nighthawk sang on the 50s Chess Records classic Sweet Black Angel, “I’ve got a sweet black angel / I like the way she spreads her wings” the listener was left under no doubt his thoughts were not entirely theological. Whilst not everybody has the neat turn of phrase of the R&B and blues greats, the result is the same. So heavy rock is not unique if on the odd occasion it is somewhat er, ungallant.
Not all heavy rock is or was sexist either. There is little sexism in the songs of the Big Four thrash bands, and not just because they are far too concerned with death and Satan. Indeed these bands have all written politically charged songs rather than dwell on the female form.
Is sexism why people might think heavy rock is outdated? Perhaps not. The preponderance of sexist lyrics in one of the most currently popular music forms – hip hop – would suggest that whilst sexism is unpalatable, it is alive and kicking in music. Even if heavy rock has been guilty of sexism, it is far from alone – and blatant sexism has been far from harmful for (say) Robin Thicke‘s record sales…
But the final point we want to make is to show what music might be like if it cleaned up its act.
Exhibit B: Depeche Mode – Somebody
I want somebody to share / Share the rest of my life / Share my innermost thoughts / Know my intimate details / Someone who’ll stand by my side / And give me support / And in return / She’ll get my support / She will listen to me / When I want to speak / About the world we live in / And life in general / Though my views may be wrong…(ad nauseum)
This is a ballad which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, was sung by Martin Gore in the studio in the nude. Girls love this song, despite it being the sort of earnest written-by-a-sixth-former slush that even Barbara Cartland, having woken from a scrummy dream about ponies, and just tucking into a breakfast of marshmallows and chocolate would have rejected as too sickly sweet and sentimental.*
There’s no doubt that in some respects this is groundbreaking. Gore treats his lover as an intellectual equal and with dignity and respect and love, rather than focusing on the size of her décolletage. This is all too rare in pop and is to be heartily applauded. The trouble is, he also sounds wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume. Any song that makes you want to dust yourself down, scratch your cajones and listen to Kiss isn’t really achieving it’s aims…
* Yes we know he tries to write a kicker at the end to show he’s not really like that, but by then it’s too late.
- It’s time to vote!
- Was (and is) heavy rock hugely sexist? Or, as Spinal Tap would have us believe, is heavy rock sexy?
- Vote GUILTY if you think it is sexist.
- Vote NOT GUILTY if you think it is sexy.
- SWAY the jury by sharing your views below!
* Written by Steve Carr and originally published on his blog everyrecordtellsastory.com