My attention to the lyrics and not just the beats of popular music isn’t entirely an age thing—it’s also an opportunity to pay attention to the messages students are absorbing. Billboard Top 40 tunes play over and over, day after day, presenting messages that should draw critical attention and social critique, particularly of representations of female sexuality and agency.
Prevalent in so many of these songs are male artists’ claims to know what females want and what they need: a boldly presumptuous and dangerous message. How do they determine what a female wants if that female hasn’t communicated her wants, desires and needs to that male narrator?
An example of such a male perspective that denies female agency is Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (2013), which offers this refrain to silent and silenced “good girls”: “I know you want it,” repeated almost 20 times in the course of the three-minute song. This dangerous sentiment perpetuates rape culture by undermining the perception that females know themselves, their wants and their desires.
Pharrell also presents a masculinist voice in “Come Get It Bae’” (2014), a song that claims to know what women want with no evidence in the song of how he knows what any woman needs or wants: “I can do anything you need” (repeated twice) and “I know you need to get home.” Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” (2014) and Kid Ink’s “Show Me” (2014) are similarly problematic. Derulo first boasts, “’Cause I know what da girl dem need” and later in the song claims, “I know what the girl dem want.” Nonsensical lyrics aside, the song’s male narrator allegedly knows females even as the females within the song are again silent, silenced or presumably ignorant of their own needs and wants.
One of the fundamentals of social justice education is helping students avoid the trap of assuming things about other people, including qualities, characteristics, beliefs, wants and needs. An individual can’t possibly know with absolute certainty what another person wants or needs unless that person explicitly says what is wanted or needed—and learning to ask is a critical skill. We get no sense of that in songs where males boast unapologetically about knowing females better than females know themselves. Such songs perpetuate the silencing of female voices and perspectives about their own lives.
While giving more airplay to these songs may be counterintuitive, bringing them into the classroom may actually help expose these messages for what they are. The beauty of using lyrics as texts in the classroom is that the emotional and pop-cultural appeals of songs engage students instantly. It is what they know; it is what they do. What is not so easy is encouraging them to think critically about music beyond the beats and rhymes that may have shaped their beliefs. It can be confusing and even scary to challenge the message of a popular artist often to be assumed an authority of sorts.
What is equally useful for instruction is to remind students that a song’s performance doesn’t necessarily mirror the performer’s autobiography. Still, it’s the message in the music that can reveal what it sounds like when men silence women. If you work with high school students in a capacity that offers an opportunity to do close textual analysis, consider using this activity as a way to help students investigate and question the messages behind these popular songs.
1. Download and print out the lyrics to a selection of songs about presuming to “know” female wants and needs. Here is a list of possibilities, or select your own:
- The Weeknd’s “What You Need” (1999)
- Rock City’s “What Girls Like” (2011)
- Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want” (2011)Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (2014)
- Pharrell’s “Come Get It Bae’ (2014)
- Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” (2014)
- Kid Ink’s “Show Me” (2014)
2. Print one copy of the Critical Listening Guide for each group. Consider adding these questions:
- What role do women play in this song?
- What role do men play in this song?
- What is the song’s prevailing message about the relationship between men and women?
- Why is the song’s message repeated so frequently?
- How does the rhythm of the song relate to the message?
3. Divide students into groups, and assign each group a different song. You may have to relocate groups if students are listening through speakers rather than headphones.
4. Round 1 (first listen): Have each group listen to the song all the way through without the transcript of the song lyrics and without stopping. Allow students to briefly discuss their initial reactions to the song.
5. Pass out the transcript and Critical Listening Guide. Go over each question. A mini-lesson may be necessary to define context, audience, purpose and style. Remind them that, in this case, the “speaker” is the singer.
6. Round 2 (close listen): Have students listen to the song with the transcript and guide in hand. Students can annotate their transcripts using thinking notes in places related to context, audience, purpose, values and style.
7. Round 3 (reflective listen): Have students listen to the song all the way through without stopping.
8. Ask each group to identify a recorder and then discuss and respond to the questions for the assigned song.
9. Ask the group to discuss how their interpretations of the song may have changed or deepened since the first listen.
10. Have the groups reconvene and present briefly on question nine.
11. Ask students to offer examples of females singing about what they think males want and need or what they themselves want and need. If time allows, repeat the activity using these song suggestions.
Editor's Note: Critical Listening Guide was adapted from Perspectives for a Diverse America, Teaching Tolerance’s Common-Core aligned, literacy-based, anti-bias curriculum.
Lester is a professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.