Originally published in Issue 3, Fifty-First Year of The Minstrel (October 6, 2016). Click here to view the entire issue.
Mainstream music is hard to get away from. With fun beats and catchy lyrics, listeners sing along even when those lyrics are extremely degrading. They tell women they are objects: “a collectable, just like fine china” (thanks, Chris Brown) and also tell men to “grow a pair” (very nice, Ke$ha). The list of offensive songs are endless, but the list of empowering songs that stand up to the media’s stereotypes of men, women, blacks and other groups are much less prevalent. Check out these current mainstream songs that are challenging stereotypes and expectations:
“Sit Still, Look Pretty”— Daya
Daya challenges the many expectations of women in this song. She sings about not wanting to play dumb to attract a boy, and that she doesn’t need one in her life anyway. She will not stand for a man objectifying her or treating her like a “toy” and she doesn’t want to be his “puppet,” so she’d rather “fly solo.” Ultimately, Daya would rather be an independent, ambitious woman than anything else.
Daya sings, “Oh I don’t know what you’ve been told, but this gal right here’s gonna rule the world.” She’s implying that the world’s been told that men rule the world, but women are just as capable as men are to do anything they put their minds to.
Women are meant for being in the working world, not sitting pretty at home, waiting for their men to come home. She gets this point across through her humorous lyrics: “That Snow White, she did right, had seven men to do the chores, cause that’s not what a lady’s for.” This reference to Snow White could also explain the whistling in the song because the dwarfs always whistled while they worked.
“i hate u, i love u”—Gnash featuring Olivia O’Brien
Gnash and O’Brien paired up for this duet to create a conflicting love story about a relationship that is falling apart, and the feelings that go along with it. This song challenges masculine stereotypes when Gnash sings, “I know that I control my thoughts and I should stop reminiscing, but I learned from my dad that it’s good to have feelings.”
His dad taught him it’s okay for men to show emotions instead of hiding them to act tough. Some could also argue that his dad was not emotional, and Gnash made a decision that he did not want to end up like his father, but either way the lyrics are interpreted, he learned the importance of being honest and upfront about his feelings.
“Scars to Your Beautiful”— Alessia Cara
Alessia Cara understands girls’ and women’s desires to fit into society’s rigid beauty standards. By comparing herself to Western ideals, the girl in her song doesn’t see that she is already beautiful in her own way.
“She has dreams to be an envy, so she’s starving; you know, covergirls eat nothing.” In these lyrics Cara understands that so many girls and women have eating disorders due to attaining this body ideal, which is ultimately unattainable. Cara inspires girls by singing, “And you don’t have to change a thing, the world could change its heart,” because she has hopes that society will one day cherish the uniqueness that makes every girl beautiful.
Beyoncé’s “Formation” has been widely referred to as an empowering black anthem. With the music video set in New Orleans, she brings up the reality of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath while also endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement. The video is full of statement making imagery with artwork featuring Martin Luther King Jr. and the words “Stop shooting us” graffiti on a wall to reference all the devastating shootings. Beyoncé also sings about her Southern history and is proud of where she came from, empowering blacks to embrace their roots as well.
Overall, “Formation” is not just an anthem, but also a call to action. She tells ladies to get in formation and slay. “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it,” sings Beyoncé. She applauds her own talents while also criticizing the way blacks have been treated.