If you ever hear a noise in the night
Your body starts to sweat,
It shakes and shivers in fright
You go and sleep with your mother
She hates you guts
She knows that you love her
So she holds you tight
All through the night in to the broad daylight
And when she doesn’t come home
You’ll have to sleep alone
Then you wet your bed and I think that’s sad
For a girl of 19 it’s more than sad, it’s obscene!
And your girlfriend sweet little 17
She’s got her layered hair and her flared jeans
You know what that means, she’s just a little queen
She shares your London flat
She thinks that London’s where it’s at
Although it stinks and when it rains you wear your hat
And your plum coloured pvc wet- look maxi mac
You tie your ginger hair back in a bun
You’re the ugliest creature, under the sun!
And you think it’s about time that you died, and I agree
So you decide on suicide
You tried but you never quite carried it out
You only wanted to die in order to show off
And if you think you’re gonna bleed all over me
You’re even wronger than you’d normally be
And the only things you want to see are kitsch
And the only thing you want to be is rich
Your little pink up-pointed nose begins twitch
I know you know you’re just a little bitch!
The thing about some singers is that it’s basically impossible to understand what they’re saying. The most notorious example of that must be Louie Louie, which was made famous by The Kingsmen in 1963. The words were so garbled that they became the subject of a bona fide FBI investigation shortly after. If the words aren’t understandable, parents of the nation thought, it must be because there are swears in it. Or worse, it might have been about sex! And so, concerned parents of the nation wrote letters to then-Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, and thus began perhaps one of the silliest FBI investigations in the history of the Bureau. Because there’s nothing worse than a song with swears in it.
Palpable nonsense, of course, but it is easy to misinterpret a song when a singer doesn’t speak clearly. I had Gangsters by the Specials stuck in my head recently. It’s a disconcerting but incredibly catchy song, which perhaps accounts for its success in 1979 despite the fact that when it goes through your head, it sounds like, “Nnngh . . .ngh ngh nnngh . . . ngh ngh ngh ngh nnnnnngh.” That’s neither here nor there. After looking it up, I realized that the song’s about corruption in the government, and the line is, “why must you record my phone calls?”
It occurred to me at that point that I had not understood the vast majority of Specials lyrics during my life — or at least, not the songs sung by Terry Hall, who seems to have had a chronic fear of enunciating.
The band’s been lauded as being deeply political, both in their music and the very makeup of the band (they had both black and white members, a phenomenon that’s still pretty unusual). Though ska is often a point of fun among music fans here in North America, in 1970s and 1980s U.K. it was part of a movement. Like their punk counterparts, The Specials were anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-oppression, and often pretty controversial for all of those reasons.
What seems not to have been particularly controversial was how incredibly misogynistic their lyrics could be. After listening to the band on and off for years, it seems strange for me to have only just realized this. It makes sense, I suppose, given that I primarily listened to the band in high school, before lyrics sheets were so ubiquitous on the Internet.
I’m not sure how I feel listening to the band, now. I mean, sure, there are politically subversive songs like Gangsters, Racist Friend, or Ghost Town. But then there’s Little Bitch and Hey Little Rich Girl, which honestly, are pretty hateful.
It’s not an issue that’s unique to The Specials, of course. The reason I’m talking about them is not because the band is more than uncommonly prone to misogyny in their lyrics. It’s also not that it’s startling that a band could be so sensitive about racism and classism and so blind to sexism. That’s unfortunately common, as well. I think, perhaps, it’s just that I happened to notice it about this particular band. And it added another thing that I’m ambivalent about to the ever-growing list in my head.
You see, I’m not sure if listening to such songs despite such lyrics and such behaviour is tacit approval of it. I suppose things that are historical are a bit different, as you can set them in their context. With contemporary artists, though, it becomes harder, as you are quite literally supporting them if you choose to buy their art.
The trouble is that if you stop listening to bands because of their misogynistic songs (or misogynistic behaviour), you cut down the list of bands you like very quickly. And even if we take into account the social norms of the times the bands were popular, we’d be hard-pressed to justify some of it. It may have been the 1970s, for example, but Jimmy Page still kidnapped and raped an underage girl, and then basically held her captive for years.
You might think I’m splitting hairs. Jimmy Page was a predator, but The Specials just said some mean things about girls. Here’s the thing, though: they’re kind of connected. There’s this idea in our culture that bad things happen to women because monsters emerge from some black lagoon and commit horrible acts, and then retreat back to their swamps.
It’s more convoluted than that, though. We have songs that devalue women because our society devalues women, and songs that only portray women as Little Bitches or sex objects reinforce those ideas. And if we live in a society that devalues women, it doesn’t take a monster to trespass against a woman; it takes a person who wasn’t raised to respect women. And when I say respect, I don’t mean, “respect as a mother” or “respect as a sister” or “respect as a daughter.” I mean respect as a person in her own right.
So maybe it’s OK that I couldn’t really understand the words to Little Bitch very easily. Maybe it’s better that when I was 14, I didn’t know.
Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings