Why Your Favorite Songs Might Not Always Match Your Politics

We've definitely all been there. That addictive getting-ready anthem, your go-to workout playlist, the break-up ballad so good you just left it on repeat: you can't get enough of the beat but hate the lyrics' weirdly degrading, appropriative or misogynistic undertones. It's no secret that more than a few of the entertainment industry's most captivating and prodigious artists don't exactly write songs aligned with our political ideals. From Miley Cyrus's tenaciously problematic relationship with Black culture to Kanye West's infamous musings about women's bodies, it feels pretty impossible to avoid the lines that make you cringe, even as you're swaying to their irresistible rhythms. But does that mean you have to overhaul your Spotify account, holding onto only the music that's categorically woke? Strong Opinions Loosely Held host Elisa Kreisinger spoke with Trainwreck author Sady Doyle and the Call Your Girlfriend podcast's Aminatou Sow for some real talk about loving songs whose politics you kind of can't stand. Catch their full conversation below. Don't worry: your favorite Yeezus tracks are safe.
Above all, it's important to remember that the pop culture products we consume don't define us. As Doyle helpfully summarizes, "I live in a culture that is full of problems, and what I buy is not me. Even what I like—that's not me. I have to acknowledge that [offensive lyrics] exist whether I listen to it or not...It's up to me to develop the critical awareness to recognize when a song is terrible...Art speaks to us in ways that aren't entirely rational."
Case-in-point? Doyle's enduring interest in Kanye West, despite Yeezy's long history of writing misogynistic lyrics. "I have a very long standing and complicated relationship with Kanye. Kanye with women, Kanye identifying heavily with Donald Trump while floating around on a magic carpet at his shows, I'm very aware of every objection both serious and not serious you could have about Kanye West, but I sort of am drawn to him as a figure of very public male vulnerability—Kanye is in touch with his feelings in a way that men are not culturally encouraged to be."
Songs, like the people who create them, aren't monolithic — and an artist's work is, after all, to make us uncomfortable, to interrogate and complicate our values. It's why we've always been drawn to provocative creators. We live in an endlessly controversial world — one tangled to a knot of historical pressures and personal tastes far more complex than our politics might suggest. And while critics love to point to hip-hop as the music world's most obscene or woman-hating genre, their condemnations tend to more clearly illustrate a long tradition of scrutinizing the inventions or ideas generated by people of culture, rather than questioning the deeply embedded misogynistic strains that have always existed in mainstream culture. "This is one of those stereotypical tropes that we all go after," Sow explains. "You're asking why hiphop is the most misogynist form of music—and, to be clear, it can be—but that's a really simple and dumb question. What you need to ask is how that misogyny is different from that of the music on the top 40 charts, a lot of which is sung by women." Spoiler: it isn't.
If you're feeling stuck in the middle, caught between loving a product by an artist you don't ethically endorse, Doyle has a helpful rule: find a way to sate that craving without spending the money to support it. "I think you have to acknowledge that if you like something, that still doesn't make it free of sin, and be prepared to encounter stuff that is really ugly. The reality is that as much as I like Manhattan (let's talk about film makers or pop culture creators that actually are doing terrible things in life) I've come to terms with the fact that I can watch Chinatown or Rosemary's Baby, I just have to find a way not to pay for them. I just need to make sure none of this money is going to Roman Polanski."
Of course, things aren't likely to change in an entertainment industry largely controlled by and marketed towards dudes unless we forge new ways of injecting female voices into the conversation. "All of the people who have the power to make popular culture are usually white men, and all they do is cater to other people who look like them," Sow reminds us. "This whole conversation about whether or not anyone would see a movie with a woman super-hero in Wonder Woman is kind of the dumbest debate we can have—it's bad business not to make movies for women. Why aren't we making films for 50% of the population? Women actually watch movies, we have data and statistics on this, and anytime we have this kind of cultural momentum, as we did with Bridesmaids, they're always seen as flashes in the pan. It just speaks to a lack of imagination on the part of people who make movies. Just say that you don't have the creative chops to think of a world that isn't centered around you."
Here's hoping that Leslie Jones, Gal Gadot, and Beyoncé have something new up their sleeves. We're absolutely ready to listen.

More from Music

R29 Original Series