Messages of domestic abuse in music

Photo courtesy of Noura/Flickr

Photo courtesy of Noura/Flickr

Sophia Lucente
    Staff Writer

In 1962, Phil Spector produced and arranged girl group The Crystals’ single “He Hit Me (and It Felt like a Kiss),” a song written by Carole King and then-husband, Gerry Goffin. The release prompted widespread public criticism and debate, and has remained an eerie predecessor to the amalgam of music relating to domestic abuse dotting America’s past and present entertainment industry.

In spite of the fact that “He Hit Me” was inspired by King and Goffin’s babysitter, who had claimed her boyfriend’s violence was motivated by his love for her, its romantic strings and situation within girly, almost heavenly female harmonies and a major key struck audiences everywhere as severely wrong and was soon limited to sparse radio play. Domestic abuse as a musical theme, however, has remained present across genres  —for the most part in far less obvious articulations. It begs the question: do such mentions raise the topic for serious debate, or simply confine it to the list of ordinary occurrences in romantic life?

Some of these songs are sung passively from the point of view of the abused who seem to blame themselves, as seen in Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” and Green Day’s “Pulling Teeth.” Some are told by frustrated observers, as in Tracy Chapman’s “Behind the Wall,” the Dresden Dolls’ “Delilah” and Pearl Jam’s “Better Man.” Others take the form of victim empowerment — especially in country music — such as the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead.” Some present the abuser’s side of the story in all its chilling rawness as in Led Zeppelin’s “Don’t Leave Me Now” and “Run for Your Life” by the Beatles.

Innumerable songs in all degrees of popularity tackle domestic abuse in indisputably serious terms. But pop music is arguably the most effective carrier of both positive and negative social messages.

One must consider these most popularly circulated ideas when faced with statistics provided by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, or NCADV, updated in 2015: “On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States,” NCADV stated. “On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.” And perhaps most the most significant: “Women between the ages of 18-24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner.”

We’ve only seen a handful of Top 40 songs that directly tackle issues of domestic abuse. Songs that suggest the normality of reckless, drunken behavior that very well could lead to domestic abuse won’t even be explored here. Several of the aforementioned hits were light in subject matter and repeated until they became meaningless. See the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus’ “Face Down,” an angst-ridden, non-descript message of hope for a young woman in an unhealthy relationship. Both Ludacris’ “Runaway Love” and Pink’s “Family Portrait” address vague instances of girls growing up in broken homes facing all sorts of violence and neglect.

But the most popular and most graphically striking song addressing abuse, in both its lyrics and music video, is the 2010 collaboration between Eminem and Rihanna “Love the Way You Lie”. Upon one’s first listen, it is a work of art, drawing from the pits of desperation of both parties involved. It is, according to interviews with both artists, universally relatable and bears just the right amount of shock factor. It is Eminem’s best-selling single, holding the number-one spot on Billboard’s Top 100 for seven weeks.

The song can certainly be read ironically, especially from Rihanna’s point of view, who had recently sustained felony-worthy injuries from then-boyfriend Chris Brown. It is, however, no secret that repetition of a stagnant message can start to harm its audience.

An article published in the online journal Feminist Media Studies considers this specific song in reference to six common misguided beliefs supported by survey research surrounding intimate partner violence, or IPV: 1) That a woman in an abusive relationship could easily leave if she wanted to, 2) That some victims secretly want to be treated that way, 3) That women usually initiate violence by treating their men badly, 4) That most IPV occurs when a man has been drinking or has otherwise “lost control”, 5) That most of what is considered IPV is really normal response to relationship conflict, and 6) That IPV does not happen in your neighborhood.

“Love the Way You Lie” has been viewed on YouTube nearly 950 million times. Chances are, young people across America fixate more on the final shot of Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan settling back into bed with an air of sexiness and danger than with its true message — and that of countless other songs: domestic abuse is despicable and should never, ever be glamorized.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Visual & Performance

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