TRIGGER WARNING: Talk about – rape culture, coercion, non-consensual sexual acts, sexual assault
The topic of consent has become more and more widespread over the past few years. With social media and the “Me Too” movement expanding, the concern for consent, and the awareness of what consent actually constitutes has become a priority within romantic relationships. However, consent spans over all facets of our world. Consent is the baseline with which human interaction should begin. For years, certain genders, ages, races, and so on have been seen as inferior or as more easily controlled. The dominant party has assumed that it is their right to take what they want when they want. Whether this is giving a child a hug without their permission, placing an emotional burden on someone without their consent, or instigating a sexual advance without the other party’s consent, or even awareness – consent has been walked over, ignored, and seen as a luxury to many. As the social media age has strengthened and westernized humans have become more comfortable with instant gratification, the idea of interrupting a moment or stopping a situation to pause and ask for consent has become more foreign and unattractive.
Unfortunately, westernized American pop culture has romanticized instant gratification and has primarily praised male dominance for “conquering” a female. This narrative, as it continues to infiltrate the lives of humans through music, writing, television, and film culture, has continued to encourage the idea that “consent is not necessary.” Specifically, the westernized music culture has continued to romanticize the domination of females, specifically, and the bulldozing of boundaries. We’ve all heard of the criticism surrounding songs like “Blurred Lines” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which chant out lyrics like “I know you want it” and blatantly ignore boundaries. People tend to blame rap and hip-hop music for misogynistic and rape cultural messaging, however, this is attributed to racism, because we actually see and hear these dangerous narratives span across all music genres. In addition, these toxic themes are not necessarily in the past.
1. I’m Still A Guy (Brad Paisley)
Stand-Out Lyric: But when you say a backrub means only a backrub / Then you swat my hand when I try / Well, what can I say at the end of the day /Honey, I’m still a guy
Whew. This one is rough. The genre of country music is no stranger to controversial lyrics, but this one even shocked me. If you can stand to read through it, believe it or not, this one gets worst. Paisley is justifying his unwelcome advances and ignoring his partner’s well-defined boundaries based on the fact that he was born with male organs. Whilst other songs that praise rape culture and misogynistic standards may not be as blatant as Paisley, this message and excuse is used quite often to justify violations of consent.
Even worse, this message is a common theme in a LOT of songs and other forms of media. I think its basis is rooted in the idea, which is constantly reaffirmed within our culture, that being a man is an excuse to do inexcusable things. The “boys will be boys” narrative justifies breaches of consent based on a male’s hormones. If he’s turned on, he cannot help what his hands do! This cultural norm often silences women too. When women speak up, they are often met with the “boys will be boys” excuse. This is a core pillar of misogyny that continuously places the responsibilities of men onto women. Brad Paisley, unfortunately, affirmed this toxic belief with his lyrics.
2. Change Your Mind (The Killers)
Stand-Out Lyric: So, if the answer is no / Can I change your mind?
This does not just center around sexual acts either. If someone says no to something, take that as their answer. If they would like to reflect and potentially change their own mind later, that’s fine! However, let it be their choice. Often, people who push for their own pathway to be taken are seen as pushy or as someone who bulldozes others. However, in reality, that person is breaking consent. In all facets of life, whether this is a friendship, familial relationship, child to adult dynamic, work relationship, or so on – let “no” be a complete sentence. You have every right to present the information needed for that person to make an educated decision, but once that decision is made – respect it. It is so empowering to set personal boundaries, but it can feel so violating when someone pushes or breaks those – whether it be a sexually rooted violation of consent or a general violation of consent.
3. Collection (Future)
Stand-Out Lyric: Any time I got you, girl you my possession / Even if I hit you once, you part of my collection
This song brings up another common misconception within the world of consent: the idea that if someone consents once to something, that consent extends to every other time this act is presented. Future is stating that any girl he has ever had sex with, he has the right to have sex with again. This brings up another great issue, the idea of consent within a partnership or relationship. Whether it be sexual or emotional, just because someone is your significant other and has consented to something in the past does not mean one party gets to assume that consent in the future.
This is why it is imperative to continue to ask for consent and check-in as relationships develop. A primary pillar of consent is communication. In order to ensure consent throughout a relationship, both partners should check in! If someone is no longer comfortable with the sexual act, even throughout a sexual interaction, every human has every right to stop giving their consent. These continuous check-ins allow a space for that to occur in. Consent is a case by case permission slip, and no person has the right to extend that permission slip without the other party’s permission. Whether this is someone you just met or your partner of 50 years, you do not own their body.
4. Breezeblocks (Alt-J)
Stand-Out Lyric: She may contain the urge to run away/ But hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks
This one is just horrific. This catchy, alternative indie hit played on almost every radio station in 2012. The lead singer’s mumble-toned singing technique allowed this song to soar in popularity, without the audience really knowing what he was saying. The success of this song alone shows how accepting the music culture, and even music executives, are of non- consensual music material.
This song also brings up the importance of knowing what you’re promoting and what narratives you are encouraging. I will be totally up front; I’ve been an Alt-J fan for YEARS. I’ve sung this song thousands of times – granted I always mumble sang it because I never knew the lyrics. As inconvenient as it may be, it truly is so important to do your own research and be a conscious consumer of media. If you are taking the time to listen to music, watch a movie, binge a TV show – spend your time on something ethical and beneficial to the world.
5. Peer Pressure (James Bay feat. Julia Michaels)
Stand-Out Lyric: Want your heart beating on me, don’t leave me hot and lonely / I don’t usually give in to peer pressure/ But I’ll give in to yours
This song, coming out in 2019, shows that our culture still has a broken understanding of consent. By glorifying peer pressure, Bay and Michaels romanticize the idea of having another partner pressure you, whether that be physically or emotionally. It makes peer pressure seem tender and dreamy, whilst hiding under the mask of harmful force. This circles back to how culture romanticizes coercing or pushing someone towards a sexual advance. In any scenario, pressure shouldn’t be an attractive concept.
This song is unique because it is the person being pressured romanticizing the pressure, compared to the instigator – like in the other songs. It’s also unique because it is a male singing about a female’s “peer pressure,” and then vice versa. This brings up a very important topic: women can violate consent too. Although our culture typically discusses predatory and coercive men, women can be the exact same way – it just may not be as common or advertised. For the majority of this post, I have discussed men as the party that leans on and perpetuates rape culture, but women can be just as predatory and violative. It is important to bring attention to this so that all humans are held accountable for their actions, despite their gender or gender identity.
Now, let’s switch gears here.
Although I would argue, the majority of music pop culture actively misunderstands consent, there are a few songs that get it right. There may not be a consent anthem for every misogynistic nightmare, but the representation of consent affirming media in pop culture is so important. As culture has matured, the previous ways of thinking about women have begun to shift. Creepy Christmas songs are corrected, i.e. John Legend’s consensual re-write of the rapist holiday carol “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and artists have begun to write music affirming the autonomy of females. However, not every song that affirms consent gets it entirely right. Although that can be frustrating, the conversation is still being started – which is the first step. I will be acknowledging these consent affirming songs, but I will also critique them if their consent narrative is a little skewed. Nonetheless, representation matters – so, let’s take a look!
1. No (Meghan Trainor)
Stand-Out Lyric: My name is no / My sign is no / My number is no / You need to let it go
There are some songs within pop culture that outline consent pretty bluntly, and this is one of them. Trainor exercises her right to say no throughout the entirety of this song and draws distinct boundaries surrounding what she wants for her evening. This is a great anthem for those who are simply trying to have a good night with their friends and are attempting to turn down that obnoxious person trailing them.
It is also a great example for the younger generation! So often, women’s passivity and apprehension to setting boundaries are rooted in the cultural message that is sent to them. For most westernized cultures, this message screams that women should shut up and sit down. As women, we are expected to go with the flow and not ruffle any feathers. More than any time in our history as a country, right now, women are being encouraged more and more to take up more space and be loud and proud! The century-long expectation for women to be seen but not heard is finally starting to shatter. This song promotes such healthy boundaries for women, and it promotes advocacy for oneself. By saying no, women are not an inconvenience. Rather, we are finally stepping into our autonomy and our independence as boundary-setters.
2. U + Ur hand (Pink)
Stand-Out Lyric: Wanna dance by myself guess you’re out of luck / Don’t touch, back up, I’m not the one / Buh-bye / Listen up its just not happenin’
Once again, this song is a lovely anthem for standing up for one’s boundaries, which is a huge part of consent. Although the man criticized in this song obviously does not understand consent, Pink drawing attention to this in a pop song draws attention to the importance of consent! Being in a club does not mean yes. Wearing a short dress does not mean yes. Dancing in a sensual manner does not mean yes. Women do not exist to entertain their male counterparts. Am I right ladies?
This song can also be informative to men. To be entirely honest, at times, the pressuring demeanor that men employ are simply byproducts of their environment. I have encountered many men who are very pushy and manipulative and are entirely ignorant as to why this is an issue or why I was upset by it. Every time an artist sheds light through their creative outlet on a topic that is so multi-dimensional and complex, like consent, it can aid in educating the public and spreading the truth. This song, and its candor, could be very eye-opening to some men as to why that girl at the bar was
3. Drunk Girl (Chris Janson)
Stand-Out Lyric: Take a drunk girl home / Let her sleep all alone / leave her keys on the counter, your number by the phone
This song is a pleasant inverse to Paisley’s misogynistic anthem. Compared to Paisley’s encouragement to take advantage of a woman based purely on the idea that his gender is superior, Janson takes the opposite route. His rather feministic ballad encourages all men to halt sexual advances at an intoxicated woman. Compared to taking advantage of her in an inebriated state, he tells all men to take the drunk girl back to her home and leave her alone. Give her a ride, leave her keys, and walk away.
Now it is incredible to see a man, especially in the genre of country music which has a tendency to be quite misogynistic, affirm consent. However, I do have a few issues with this narrative. Although it affirms sexual consent, getting a random girl’s address, taking her keys, and entering her home without her sober consent, is violative on multiple levels. I would argue that a better route would be to call her a cab, maybe stay with her until it comes, and call it a day. Perhaps, at the very most, riding in the cab with her to ensure the cab driver doesn’t try anything. However, taking the initiative of entering her home is inappropriate, even though the heart of the gesture may be pure.
4. Slow Down (Alicia Keys)
Stand-Out Lyric: Slow down babe (before we make this move) / Baby slow down (I think it’s really too soon)
In comparison to the others, Keys’ consensual ballad, “Slow Down,” focuses more on the importance of consent within a committed romantic relationship. Just as consent is crucial for everyday interaction and sexual advances, it is also vital for a healthy romantic partnership. Making the decision to take a step forward, sexually, with a partner is so delicate and consent should be a part of that process. By singing about this decision and focusing on the relevance of communication and consent, Keys is normalizing this fundamental aspect of relationships.
This song also normalizes apprehension to take that sexual step. Not all people are comfortable with having casual sex. For many people, for many reasons, sex is considered a very important step in a relationship. This isn’t to sex shame those who engage in casual sex, rather it is simply beneficial for all sides of the topic to be represented! It is rather common for women to be shamed for not wanting to engage in sex with a man. Terms like “prude” and “buzzkill” are tossed around, undermining the boundary that the person has set. By singing about this topic, Keys, a very popular artist, and woman, helps represent this aspect of sexuality.
5. Shelter (Joy Oladokun)
Stand-Out Lyric: But I can’t make you love me even if I try / I’m not gonna force you / You have to decide
Our last song centers on another important facet of consent – emotional consent. Emotional consent is just as important as physical consent in a relationship, friendship, or interaction with another human. In today’s culture, it is far too common for one partner to think it is their job to convince or push their partner into emotional commitment or trust. Oladokun voices her care and love for her partner throughout her song but ultimately leaves a safe space for her partner to make their own decisions regarding the relationship.
I also greatly appreciate that this song includes Joy voicing her own opinions and reassurance to her partner. There is a very thin line between pressuring someone and expressing your personal needs and expectations, and I think Joy walks this line in a very healthy manner. In the song, she sings “Yes I know, I know you’ve been hurt before / And life will lay you low, oh of that I’m sure / But just say the words baby and I’m yours.” These lyrics voice her reassurance for her partner and validate the fears she has about relationships, but still leaves the ultimate decision up to her partner. There is no pressure or manipulation involved, only vulnerability. This demonstrates a great balance between expressing one’s feelings within a relational setting whilst still respecting the autonomy and independence of one’s partner.
Honorable Mention: Ashamed (Corey Kilgannon)
Stand-Out Lyric: The odds were stacked against me / 1 in 5 women get raped / I wonder what percentage are / that made to feel ashamed
Although this “Me Too” era ballad does not directly discuss consent, it does bring attention to rape culture and the “boys will be boys” narrative. So often, artists try to stay away from topics like this, due to their heavy nature. However, by boldly confronting such an intense topic, Kilgannon not only helps normalize the conversation, but he also provides musical representation for survivors. As a survivor myself, it meant so much to me to listen to this song and feel heard – to feel known. Kilgannon describes how the background of this song is rooted in his personal relationship with an assault survivor. With that dynamic being advertised in pop culture, it also addresses how painful and difficult it can be to heal from an assault, not just as an individual, but for the loved ones of the survivor too. The reality is sexual violation impacts more than just the survivor. The more the topic of sexual violation, and everything it encompasses, is talked about in a candid manner, the more listeners are both educated on the realities of rape culture and driven to empathy for those who have gone through it.
And there you have it!
5 songs that “get” consent and 5 songs that don’t. As our culture advances, the hope is that consent will become more normalized within media and pop culture. We, as a culture, have already made leaps and bounds, but we do have much further to go. Music is typically a part of most people’s lives and is a great avenue for awareness, education, and normalization. The more consent is talked about honestly, the more our culture will shift. So, support music that is honest and consent-positive! Support artists who make music about vital cultural issues! It may not happen overnight, but I believe we can create a culture where our children respect the bodies of others. A culture where women do not have to fear walking home alone or wearing a low-cut top. A culture where young girls are taught that they are independent beings and have control over their bodies and their sexuality. However, as we wait for this ideal culture to develop, let’s applaud the artists who are already fighting for consent, and be wary of those who ignore it