Pop Song Ethics, Part II (The Dark Side)

We are coming up on the anniversary of my post asking for nominations for the most ethical pop songs from past decades. Both here and in my office mail box, I received excellent suggestion—so many, that I have not been able to find the time to finish the project. However, I am determined to have the final list ready by the anniversary date, November 14, 2014.

So there is still time to get your nominations in. Meanwhile, as I was driving home from a Virginia Beach ethics seminar and keeping myself occupied during the three hour drive with the Sirius-XM 50s-60’s-70’s and 80’s stations, I heard this song, by Leslie Gore, from 1964:

With the domestic abuser ethics issue still percolating in my fevered brain, it occurred to me, as it had not before, what a vile message the song sent to teenaged girls. “What else can” Leslie do about her abusive boyfriend? Dump him, that’s what. I wonder if Janay Rice knows this song.

Or sang it.

In a desperate effort to rehabilitate Leslie in my esteem, I checked to see if her classic anthem to standing up to domineering males, “You Don’t Own Me,” came after her despicable (but catchy!) ditty. That would have been impressive:

“Leslie, do you really want to tell your fans that they should meekly tolerate abuse as long as they think their boyfriend  “loves them”?

“Hell no! Let’s find a song that sends the right message! How about…”

But no. “You Don’t Own Me” came first, a year earlier which hints at a definite deterioration in Gore’s self-esteem. (Recently, she announced that she was in a lesbian relationship. I’m not surprised.)

So now Ethics Alarms seeks nominations for the most unethical pop songs as well. I already have the Beatles’ disturbing (but catchy!) “Run for Your Life” on the list, as well as Sting’s ode to stalking, “I’ll Be Watching You,” and my wife’s least favorite, Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care Of My Baby,” with its coda about sending the girl back to him once his rival is through with her. I like the song, but I can’t disagree with her critique:

What pop songs do you think tried to rot the culture?

The phone lines are open!!!




35 thoughts on “Pop Song Ethics, Part II (The Dark Side)

  1. Hmmm, let’s see. George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” and “Father Figure” are respectively gross and disturbing. The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” basically leaves everything up to the eponymous boyfriend rather than the singer taking care of lies and bad behavior herself. Oh, and let’s not forget Sammy Hagar Jr.’s supremely stupid “I Can’t Drive 55.”

  2. Hm, I would have pegged ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’ as more on the ethical side. He wants his love to be treated well and happy even though she left him for someone else. I don’t think any of my exes have wished that for me.

    My votes for unethical songs would be… ‘Please Release Me’, ‘Don’t Marry Her (**** Me)’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ because I think it is contemptuous of ordinary people and their simple lives, like a lot of Beatles’ songs. I imagine it’s going to be a lot more difficult to find examples of ethical pop music as most songs appeal to hedonism and self-pity.

    • He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss) is pretty awful too. Although I suppose if that is your experience of domestic violence then it’s as valid as anyone else’s. You have every right to write a song about your feelings, even if they are crazy.

      • Well, sure, free speech. A song can still be irresponsible for a young audience.The song was based on a line in “Carousel” that has always been cringeworthy.

        I’m torn on “Run for Your Life”…at the time, I saw it as just a pose, intentionally creepy, and The Fab Four playing bad boys, and winking at it.

    • At least Sting intentionally made that song creepy and awful– he frankly admits it is about his feelings of jealous obsession and hang-ups over his ex-wife and their divorce. Is it unethical if the song isn’t trying to be anything other than it is (e.g., a song about a scorned lover who has become obsessed)? Wrapped Around Your Finger is a similar Police song, but somewhat more subtle. I guess Sting had some issues he needed to work through.

      I guess what I am pondering is, is an overt, unadorned song/poem/ work of art that expresses a viewpoint that is gross necessarily unethical? I think the narrator of both those songs is misogynistic at the very least, but the song itself is not trying to present a viewpoint that portrays it as anything other than distasteful. E.g., the narrator is not pretending to be a good guy (unlike, say, the narrator of Bobby Vee’s song).

      Similarly,The Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb has a similar theme of a jilted lover turning the tables on the woman who spurned him– but the language is not at all romantic. The message in all these songs is not that it is OK to act like that– it is that the narrators are psychopaths.

      On the other hand, it is rather horrifying the number of people who actually think both Every Breath You Take and Wrapped Around Your Finger are romantic and have it played at their weddings as their “special song.” I actually attended one of those! It made me wonder if they had ever even listened to the lyrics. I suppose the melody softened and diluted the impact of the songs’ actual words.

  3. I’ve always disliked the songs that get all rhapsodic about opening a little girl’s eyes like “You’ll be a Woman Soon” “This Girl Is a Woman Now” and the ones asking the “good” girl to wait while the bad boy sows his wild oats like “Lightning Striking Again.”

  4. Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” gave me the icks (that’s a technical term) when I first heard it in the 70s. It remains an anti-fidelity song with a catchy tune.

  5. The Christmas classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” in which a man tries to coerce a woman into having sex. Wikipedia calls it “a romantic winter song.” Most reprehensible line: “Say, what’s in this drink?”

  6. I’ve always disliked Billy Joel’s ‘only the good die young.’ Incredibly catchy and upbeat, and the tale of a young man coercing a young woman to turn away from her parents, abandon her seemingly sincere faith, and go with the singer to have sex. Particularly odious is the line “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints – sinners have much more fun.’

  7. All if the songs metioned have been pre-2000. Doe this list include song made in the last 10 years? If so, you have a lot of sorting to do…

  8. Pop only? That’s probably wise, or I could nominate the entire genre of gangsta rap.

    I was thinking about Weird Al songs, some of which are pretty bad if taken seriously, but I’m going to claim Jester’s Privilege there. I have to give him credit for “I was only Kidding” for the meta joke, although the quality of the music on that one was poor. Ditto for Tom Lehrer songs. Gotta love “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. 🙂

    For a serious and recent suggestion, I nominate “Last Friday Night” by Katy Perry.

  9. the lyrics are still around; they just aren’t set to music anymore:

    (Bessie Smith version. Porter Grainger wrote it in 1922, still being recorded — I have a copy by Topsy Chapman with Jim Cullum Jazz Band done in 1994)aslkjfaljiom
    There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say
    That folks don’t criticize me
    But I’m goin’ to do just as I want to anyway
    And don’t care if they all despise me
    If I should take a notion
    To jump into the ocean
    ‘TAINT NOBODY’S BIZNESS if I do, do, do, do
    If I go to church on Sunday
    Then just shimmy down on Monday
    Ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, if I do
    If my man ain’t got no money
    And I say, “take all mine, honey”
    ‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, do, do, do
    If I give him my last nickel
    And it leaves me in a pickle
    ‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, if I do
    I’d rather my man would hit me
    Than to jump right and quit me
    ‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, do, do, do
    I swear I won’t call no copper
    If I’m beat up by my poppa
    If I’m beat up by my poppa
    ‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do, if I do
    (23 years later Billie Holiday wrote her own very own BILLIE’S BLUES aka I Love My Man)

    Lord, I love my man, tell the world I do
    I love my man, tell the world I do
    But when he mistreats me
    Makes me feel so blue

    My man wouldn’t give me no breakfast
    Wouldn’t give me no dinner
    Fought about my supper and put me outdoors
    Had the nerve to lay a matchbox on my clothes
    I didn’t have so many
    But I had a long, long way to go

    Some men like me happy
    Some like me snappy, some call me honey
    Others think I’ve got money
    Some tell me baby you’re built for speed
    Now if you put that all together
    Makes me everything a good man need.
    I tried picking out particular lines but it was too depressing . . . .

  10. ” … aslkjfaljiom …” is a word that happens when the keyboard freezes up. By the time the action defrosts itself (with the essential help of a hundred random keystrokes, clenched teeth muttering and pondering the advisability of waking your I.T. friend at five in the morning — the time on the Other coast) you’ve forgotten to look at the post and edit it out. dljpiodklj and wooeirowwrioh too.

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