Sometimes a moment in history can cast a piece of art in a new light. For me, that happened in 2017 with Demi Lovato's "Sorry (Not Sorry)," after the #MeToo movement took off.
Lovato's song isn't about sexual misconduct; she has explained in multiple interviews that it was a written as a rebuke of her childhood bullies. I liked it a lot when it first came out, as it has a lot of elements that appeal to me in a song: a strong female voice, handclaps that drive the pace, and choral singers. It's over the top in a lot of ways and, on first listen, it struck me as a solid "winning the breakup" anthem.
The song hung around on repeat for me from the time it dropped in July for a month or so, and then I was on to the next earworm. But I found myself revisiting it as more and more stories of sexual misconduct broke, as a news cycle in which survivors were finally believed stretched out, and abusers at the highest levels were exposed. As I peeled back my own layers and re-examined suspicious interactions in my past, and as I sifted through innumerable stories from women who have been assaulted both in the news and in my social circle, I have found myself wanting to amplify the voices of women in all arenas, including in the media I consume. I want to hear what strong women say and think, which led me back to this track.
I didn't go to it for its lyrical content, though on repeated listens that has also taken on a new tenor. At first, I found myself putting it on repeat because of Lovato's voice; it is so strong, so unapologetic, so defiant. Adele does these things too, but so many of her tracks are lovelorn, and that simply wasn't the right tone to match how I feel. Lovato's song scratched an itch, in just the right way. I wasn't able to parse why until I listened to the excellent Switched on Pop podcast that breaks down the catchiness of this single, and some of the musical elements they call out in the song helped me understand my unconscious response to "Sorry (Not Sorry)."
First is the way Lovato uses her voice, going from a sing/talking delivery in the chorus to staccato, matching the handclaps with her lyrics to holding a high note and singing in a completely unrepentant tone while saying "I'm sorry" repeatedly. The real clincher for me is the repeated "if you talk that talk baby, better walk that walk baby," especially when she lifts her voice to an inhumanly high note while a trio of programmed drum beats play under it to fill the space — it builds a sense of anticipation and a sense that there will be consequences for whomever she's singing to. The multifarious genres that are mashed together to make up the track make it unpredictable and nearly impossible to sing along to, though I certainly do try. The clincher, for me, is the emotion behind how she is singing. It taps into something primal when she wails on the highest, most sustained note in the track and makes you feel like you're listening to the letting go of a long-held and well-worn discontentment. The release is therapeutic.
The lyrics, though, frequently align quite naturally with the way survivors of abuse feel — after all, bullying and sexual assault or harassment are both offenses in which someone seeks to establish power over another. The reclaiming of empowerment by the survivor comes when she describes herself as a "bad bitch" and a "savage." The line is drawn in the sand when she says she "can't have this" behavior. Then she issues veiled threats about how you aren't going to take it easy on the person who has targeted you, that they can't have "this" (peace of mind or scandal-free life), which is a turning of the tables in itself. She implies that she is low-key watching every move they make and waiting for them to slip up, that they're going to get some payback. Which is what we're seeing happen now, slowly, as all these abusers get outed — but it feels salient still, because we know the stream of men who have payback coming is far from finished. All this mixed in with riffs on how great her life is, how good she feels now, how inspired this turn of events makes her feel?
It sounds like the voice of a woman shaking off the patriarchy to me. Not sorry.
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