Monday, 5 November 2012

Fixable You

I keep hearing this song when I'm out in the world, innocently going about my day, and my teeth grind automatically every time I hear it.

It's not just the insipid poppy tune, or the irritating voice, or the fact that he really ought to drop this song a semi-tone or two so he can hit the top note without sounding like he's straining something. It's not the fact that this song is called a "dance ballad" as if those words mean something. All those things are pretty annoying, but the worst thing about this song is its lyrics. I submit for your consideration the first verse and chorus:
Much as you blame yourself, you can't be blamed for the way you feel
Had no example of a love that was even remotely real
How can you understand something that you never had
Ooh baby if you let me, I can help you out with all of that 
Girl let me love you
And I will love you
Until you learn to love yourself
Girl let me love you
And all your trouble
Don't be afraid, girl let me help
Girl let me love you
And I will love you
Until you learn to love yourself
Girl let me love you
A heart of numbness
Gets brought to life
I'll take you there.
I'm really not a fan of songs by men about women which take as their subject the idea that women need men to sort them out. I know they're incredibly popular, especially with young women (the comments on the Ne-Yo song are full of "marry me, Ne-Yo!") but I find them insulting, patronising, and not the least bit romantic. There's a real trend at the moment for boy bands and solo male artists to write 'love songs' in this style. The general gist of them is that the girl is awesome, but she doesn't know how awesome she is, so she needs the boy/s to show her. Consider last year's enormous hit by the ubiquitous One Direction, What Makes You Beautiful, which epitomises this trend. As if the chorus lyrics weren't bad enough ("You don't know you're beautiful; That's what makes you beautiful"), the introductory verse is infuriating:
You're insecure
Don't know what for
You're turning heads when you walk through the door
Don't need make up
To cover up
Because the way that you are is enough.
The only thing she could be insecure about is her looks? Check. Make-up is something women use to make themselves more attractive to men? Check. Make-up is something only used by unattractive women to 'cover up'? Check. I know better than you whether you're 'enough'? Check. "Don't worry honey, we can see the real you and you get the One Direction seal of approval!"Women and girls everywhere ate this rubbish up like they were starving. The fact that 1D are all about 12 years old makes this even more annoyingly condescending.

The Ne-Yo song, however, doesn't even have the decency to just stick to praising a woman's looks. What's wrong with Ne-Yo's woman is that she's broken psychologically: she's been deprived of "real" love, and so can't understand it when she sees it. Ne-Yo is offering her real love. He wants to help her. He wants to bring to life her heart of numbness, and love her until she learns to love herself. This song is in the mould of my all-time most-hated song, Coldplay's Fix You. Although the lyrics are slightly more abstract than those from the songs I've mentioned already, the idea is right there in the title: whoever Chris Martin is singing to is broken, and he will try to fix them. Like the other songs, there is the sense that he knows his addressee better than they know themselves: "when you get what you want but not what you need".*

I get that all these songs are intended to be flattering. I get that the writers/singers aren't intending to insult their (female) audience/addressee. And in some ways, I can understand their enormous popularity. A guy who will love you despite the fact that you're broken? Yes! A guy who says you're beautiful, even though you can't see it yourself? Yes! In a society that constantly tells women and girls that they're broken and ugly whilst they should be beautiful and whole, and that being beautiful (and also whole, but mainly beautiful) is the most important thing in the world, I can see how these songs are perceived to be valuable. But they're not the right kind of valuable. In fact, they perpetuate some damaging ideals which don't serve women and girls - or anyone - at all well. The 1D song is particularly troublesome in its claim that the addressee is beautiful precisely because she doesn't think she's beautiful. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be beautiful, but compare the sentiment with Christina Aguilera's lyric "I am beautiful, no matter what you say". Christina's acknowledgement of her own beauty is what would disqualify her from 1D's kind of beauty, wherein you are required to be beautiful but not know it. One of the most insulting things that can be said of a girl or woman is that they think they're beautiful/attractive/sexy, and yet self-confidence is surely a better goal to strive for than external validation. It would be nice if we could strive for things other than physical perfection in the first place, but since we can't, let's at least aim for self-worth rather than for a world in which men and boys will consider you beautiful only if you don't have the audacity to believe it of yourself.

These songs are just a tiny part of pop culture, and I get accused of taking things too seriously when I attempt to critique them. The truth is that, as small as they are, they are a depressingly accurate summation of attitudes to girls and women today. Accusing people who critique pop culture of "sweating the small stuff" or being "focussed on trivia" to the detriment of the 'important' things overlooks the fact that the important things are composed of the trivial; that a culture in which governments control women's bodies is a culture in which men police women's appearance, a culture in which men get to decide whether women are crazy or not, and which ones are beautiful or worthy. A bunch of adolescents reassuring a girl that she's ok in their book, or a man generously offering to help a woman understand true love, are small examples of this world in which women must be validated by men before they can even exist, whether that existence entails being beautiful, being sane, having a brain or a job or an abortion.

I don't know, maybe it is trivial. I'm just tired of hearing about all the things that are wrong with me (but that will be graciously overlooked) in pop songs.


*Caveat: I'm almost willing to give Coldplay the benefit of the doubt, since it seems like the lyrics are self-addressed: the video is Chris Martin, alone, all sad-seeming until he gets to the gig where there is a real sense of community and belonging, which makes it seem like the 'home' referenced in "lights will guide you home". However, having never seen the video before, this song always gave me an uncomfortable feeling, and without the video, which is how we most often hear pop music, I think it's reasonable to assume that "you" is addressed to a listener and not the singer.


  1. It's interesting - I've always kind of liked the Ne-Yo song, certainly in comparison to 1D. Ne-Yo's song is singing about fostering and building your self esteem, whereas 1D are literally singing that if you have self esteem you are gross and unloveable.

    While Ne-Yo is undoubtedly sticking his oar in a bit, at least he realises that a woman feeling good about herself (with or without him) is a desirable outcome. Whereas 1D is more, you don't like yourself so I'll like you instead. But don't let that give you ideas!

    /my 2 cents

    1. Yeah you know, I do kind of agree with you. The sentiment is not all bad. But I do still think it's patronising - it's the "learning to love yourself" thing which gets to me: like I can see the truth, why can't you? Lucky I'm here to help. I guess it feels a bit mansplain-y. I think also I'm being particularly harsh on it because it reminds me of the 1D song, which is detestable!

  2. That One Direction song makes me cringe. I've complained about it enough that my younger sister now agrees with me and hates it. So yay!

    But I agree with your points. Men fixing women is and always will be a problem in the world.