Are These 21 Songs Secretly Offensive?

Photo: Courtesy of Jive.
If people still genuinely get offended by pop songs, there’s hope for humanity. It means we’re not completely jaded, and that the Internet and 24-hour news cycle haven’t totally scrubbed away our humanity and left us immune to shock. But, this is a big “if.” After all, the Internet and cable news networks constantly need stories, and there’s nothing like a little phony outrage to drive traffic and snare viewers. Is “Blurred Lines” really a dangerous justification of violence toward women, or have hyperbolic critics brought the term “rapey” into the popular lexicon for no good reason?
The debate rages on — just as it does for many of the songs that follow. These are popular tunes we all sing along to, and according to some, they carry offensive messages that the masses miss, ignore, or forgive. (Note: The list is light on hip-hop and R&B, since those genres have long, complicated histories filled with both uplifting and truly reprehensible lyrics. We’ll save those conversations for another day.)
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Photo: Courtesy of Columbia.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
Male-female duet teams ranging from James Taylor and Natalie Cole to Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have recorded this romantic chestnut, so people must not find it too offensive. That, or they’ve never really read the lyrics, all about a persistent schemer (or a date rapist) using his wily charms and a very potent (possibly drugged) cocktail to make a woman spend the night. “Say, what’s in this drink?” she asks. Say, what’s in this song?
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Photo: Courtesy of Interscope Records.
“Blurred Lines”
It’s the song that made and then killed a career, spawning a million thinkpieces in the process. Is Robin Thicke’s 2013 summer jam really sexist and “rapey,” as critics claim, or is it a playful come-on that everyone is way too riled up over? It’s a debate worth having, though based on the dismal sales of Thicke’s follow-up album, it seems the public has already decided.
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Photo: Courtesy of Rodeo Media.
“Do Me!”
On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with the message of this New Jack Swing anthem. Sex between two consenting adults is, after all, totally fine, even when one of them has a flattop. But then Bell Biv DeVoe gets to the rap part: “Backstage, underage, adolescent / “How you doing?” / “Fine,” she replied [sigh] / “I like to do the wild thing.” The words “kinda wet” follow. Kinda gross.
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Photo: Courtesy of Hot Productions.
“Kung Fu Fighting”
“There were funky Chinamen,” Carl Douglas tells us in this disco ode to martial arts, “from a funky Chinatown.” Their lightning-fast kicks were “a little bit frightening” — just like the lyrics here are a little bit racist.
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Photo: Courtesy of Interscope Records.
“Do What U Want”
Lady Gaga meant this song to be inspirational. It’s all about how haters will never crush her heart or silence her voice, and she just about pulls it off. But then R. Kelly starts singing, and just like that, Gaga pisses away all of her credibility. If you’re trying to write an empowering song for women, you don’t get R. Kelly to guest on it. Period.
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Photo: Courtesy of EMI.
“Run For Your Life”
Before they assured us “All You Need Is Love,” the Beatles sang this threatening little nugget, which begins, “Well I'd rather see you dead, little girl / than to be with another man.” To be fair, John Lennon cribbed that line from the Elvis tune “Baby, Let’s Play House,” but from there, things only get more sinister. It’s the only Fab Four tune you can sing while chasing someone with a knife.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.
“Father Figure”
“Sometimes,” George Michael sings in this ballad, “love can be mistaken for a crime.” This 1988 chart-topper might not be about anything illegal, but when you tell a lover you want to be his or her “father figure” and “preacher teacher,” it’s easy to see how people might get the wrong idea.
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Photo: Courtesy of Jive.
“…Baby One More Time”
Were this song not being sung by a teenage girl working the Lolita angle, the line “Hit me baby” would simply refer back to the previous one, wherein the singer implores, “Give me a sign.” Context and presentation are everything. The song is about wanting to know where you stand; in Britney Spears' hands, it’s a masochistic plea from a naughty schoolgirl.
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Photo: Courtesy of RCA Records Label.
“Crash Into Me”
People slow dance at weddings and proms to this song, which begins, “You’ve got your ball / you’ve got your chain / tied to me tight / tie me up again.” OK, so it’s kinky; at least it’s consensual, right? Maybe not. Dig the final stanza: “Oh I watch you there / through the window / and I stare at you / You wear nothing but you / wear it so well.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Capitol.
“Brown Sugar”
By 1971, the skirt-chasing, drug-gobbling Rolling Stones had long since learned they lived in a consequence-free world. They weren’t held to the same standards as the rest of us, and “Brown Sugar” was the ultimate proof. This song, all about a white colonial slave owner having sex with a black woman he owns, reached No. 1, and it’s still popular today. Some say it’s irony; Keith Richards swears it’s about heroin, a strangely innocuous topic by comparison. Either way, there’s no denying that guitar riff and hook, and that makes the whole thing more complicated.
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Photo: Courtesy of Capitol.
“My Sharona”
The part everyone sings along to goes, “My, my, my / I yi woo!” but right before that, The Knack's lyrics read, “Such a dirty mind, always get it up for the touch of the younger kind.” If R. Kelly has a favorite power-pop song, this is it.
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Photo: Courtesy of Rhino.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Bob Geldof’s heart was in the right place, and this all-star 1984 charity single raised a lot of money for Ethiopian famine relief, but if this isn’t the most self-serving, patronizing pop song of all time, it’s trumped only by the following year’s “We Are the World,” which it inspired. At least the latter’s writers, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, didn’t include any lines like, “Well tonight, thank god it’s them instead of you.” Thanks, Bono!
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Photo: Courtesy of Def Jam/RAL.
"Girls”
Like most everything on Licensed to Ill, “Girls” is loads of fun to sing along with. It’s also incredibly sexist. In the early days, the Beastie Boys were smart enough to be ironic yet immature enough to say whatever dumb things popped into their heads, so there’s no telling what their intention was with something like this. Given the brilliance of their later work, you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but this remains a hard song to defend.
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Photo: Courtesy of Jive.
“Trading Places”
Usher thinks he’s doing his lady a favor by reversing their romantic roles for a night, and by the sound of it, he is. That’s because most evenings, she’s a passive sex object who lets him pay for dinner, gets forced into bed, and then wakes up the next morning to cook him breakfast. “Tell me to shut up before the neighbors hear me,” he sings in one cringe-inducing moment. “This is how it feels when you do it like me.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Arista Nashville.
“Accidental Racist”
This terribly misguided “can’t we all just get along” duet between Brad Paisley and LL Cool J begins with the former making excuses for rocking a Skynyrd T-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag. Then LL sets the movement back a few decades with these lines: “Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good / You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would / Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood / I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Interscope.
“Harajuku Girls”
There’s nothing from Gwen Stefani’s pre-solo No Doubt days to suggest she’s anything but a genuine, super self-aware songwriter. (Not a whole lot of irony in those Tragic Kingdom breakup jams.) So, when she sings, “Harajuku girls, you got the wicked style / I like the way that you are / I am your biggest fan,” it’s fair to assume she’s being honest, and that she’s coopting Japanese culture out of genuine affection. Intent is one thing; execution is another. Comedian Margaret Cho is among those who’ve accused Gwen of perpetuating racial stereotypes and doing a kind of modern-pop equivalent of a “minstrel show.” Whether Cho is right, tunes like this have scarred Gwen’s reputation even more than playing in a ‘90s ska band.
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“Turkey In the Straw” (aka “The Ice Cream Truck Song”)
In 1916, Columbia Records released a single with an extremely offensive, wildly racist title and a very familiar melody. You’ve probably never heard the words, but as NPR reports, you know the tune. It’s a 19th century earworm called “Turkey In the Straw,” and it’s been blaring out of ice cream trucks for decades. To be clear, the melody predates the disgusting lyrics, which were penned by actor Harry C. Browne, but the racist remake was popular in 19th century ice cream parlors, and that’s how it wound up in the trucks. Enjoy that Good Humor bar!
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Photo: Courtesy of Capitol Records.
“I Kissed a Girl”
Katy Perry’s ode to girl-girl smooching isn’t offensive because it makes reference to a homosexual act. According to feminspire, which included the tune on its list of the most sexist songs of all time, “I Kissed a Girl” is damaging because it perpetuates the myth that bisexual ladies “are just playing to turn on their boyfriends.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Sony.
“Only the Good Die Young”
Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Billy Joel is subtle. At first, it seems the message of this 1977 hit is simply to seize the day. Forget all that church stuff, Joel’s narrator tells sweet Virginia, and start enjoying your life. Really, though, it’s about a creepy old dude trying to deflower a young Catholic girl. “I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints,” the pervy protagonist says, apparently forgetting the third possibility: rotting in a jail cell with his fellow deviants.
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Photo: Courtesy of Mercury.
“Save the Best for Last”
This one is offensive to anyone with even a third grader’s knowledge of astronomy. The sun never, ever, ever “goes ‘round the moon,” and if it ever does, mankind is totally screwed. The worst part will be hearing Vanessa Williams tell us all, “I told you so,” though the utter annihilation of our planet won’t be much fun either.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sony.
“Daughters”
Is it bravery or stupidity that leads a young childless male rock star to write a song about the complex relationships between parents and their daughters? On some level, it’s hard to argue with John Mayer’s message: Mothers and fathers should be good to their little girls. It’s his reasons that are problematic. Girls, you see, grow up to be lovers, who then become mothers, and they’re so much easier to manage if they don’t arrive in your bedroom with lots of emotional baggage.