Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Under My Thumb

When I was a teenager, an adult - I genuinely don't remember who - gave me a lecture on how we don't listen to song lyrics. How people (but I seem to remember the adult implying this was specifically a teenage trait - which it isn't) will listen and sing along to music regardless of the message it is putting out as long as we like how it sounds, therefore mindlessly supporting sentiments we may not even agree with.

I took the lecture to heart. I do agree to a certain point that one should make moral judgements based on one's own values, beliefs, etc. before running out and buying a copy of something based entirely on the ability to dance to it. Unfortunately, the long term weird-ass result of that lecture is that I give a little too much thought to whether or not I am ok with listening to certain songs and examining the reason I respond to different types of music in different ways and, well, it's no end of trouble to have one more thing to overthink. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the examined life can be really exhausting.

So I'm having trouble reconciling something.

I LOVE The Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb". I do. I can't help myself. It must be wrong. It defies all logic that, modern feminist-type woman that I am, I LOVE this song.

"Under my thumb
The girl who once had me down
Under my thumb
The girl who once pushed me around

It's down to me
The difference in the clothes she wears
Down to me, the change has come,
She's under my thumb

Ain't it the truth babe?

Under my thumb
The squirmin' dog who's just had her day
Under my thumb
A girl who has just changed her ways

Its down to me, yes it is
The way she does just what she's told
Down to me, the change has come
She's under my thumb..."

It goes on in the same vein.

I have sort of decided that the song is REALLY, ESSENTIALLY from the perspective of anyone in a relationship who has gone from being controlled to being the one in control. It is this unapologetic, gleeful crowing about the victory over a tyrannical lover. It's not pretty but it's visceral and cocky and has this rough appeal. If it was a woman singing about a man, I probably wouldn't be worrying about it, would I? (Then again, I was raised Catholic, so I would probably decide to feel massively guilty for enjoying it in that case.)

On the other side of the coin, I really like the incredibly catchy tune of Mungo Jerry's well known "In The Summertime" but I CANNOT listen to it. The lyrics make my skin crawl. I get a nervous twitch when it comes on. People start asking me if I have a history of seizures and begin edging away from me.

The first two verses of "In The Summertime" are:

"In the summertime when the weather is hot
You can stretch right up and touch the sky
When the weather's fine
You got women, you got women on your mind
Have a drink, have a drive
Go out and see what you can find

If her daddy's rich take her out for a meal
If her daddy's poor just do what you feel
Speed along the lane
Do a ton or a ton an' twenty-five
When the sun goes down
You can make it, make it good in a lay-by..."

"If her daddy's rich take her out for a meal / If her daddy's poor just do what you feel." That's what they're singing. And my objection to this isn't an issue of sexism, really. The lyrics imply the abuse of a date being acceptable if that person is in a lower socio-economic class and therefore unlikely to have the resources to protect him or herself. Just really one of the most despicable messages I can imagine. It bothers me so much that I would have to say my response borders on the irrational.

Sometimes I just can't even make sense of what passes muster and what hits me like fingernails on a chalkboard. I get queasy envisioning 10 year old girls singing along to Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby, One More Time" (for many reasons, but primarily because - literal or no - little girls cannot be expected to discern that she's not actually asking to be hit). I find Joannie Sommer's 60's single "Johnny Get Angry" to be funny. "Johnny get angry / Johnny get mad / give me the biggest lecture I ever had / I want a brave man / I want a cave man" - you get the idea. In spite of the fact that the lyrics have her practically asking to be smacked around a bit - I can't bring myself to be offended by it. I have this invisible internal barometer that dictates what it and isn't "ok" by me and it can seem pretty arbitrary at times.

But I guess the important thing is that I can rationalize listening to The Stones.


  1. We have fancy cable now and one of the perks is that there are music stations that are like radios. I'm so addicted to the oldies one as I unpack. Today an awful song called Sad Movies Make Me Cry came on and, after Googling, I've discovered that Evanescence *covered it*. WTF, worst song ever!

  2. Bizarro. Everything old is new again, though. New bands are forever covering old stuff... I hate when a band covers something and NO ONE KNOWS that it's this old song. I remember having an argument with someone about how Whitney Houston did NOT write or first perform "I Will Always Love You" or whatever it's called.