Perhaps it was fitting that the rape-chant controversies that recently erupted at two Canadian universities so closely followed the outrage over a controversial rendition of the smash hit Blurred Lines at the MTV Video Music Awards.
The duet between original performer Robin Thicke and 20-year-old former Disney star Miley Cyrus prompted a backlash focusing on her part in the overtly sexual onstage antics, which were variously described as crude, vulgar and obscene. Still, it helped draw attention to a debate that has been raging over the lyrics of the song itself, not to mention the music video that's helped cement its popularity.
Blurred Lines has been widely interpreted as condoning sexual coercion and has been dubbed by some as "rape hop." Blurred Lines equals No means Yes. The song's central line – "I know you want it" – is repeated ad nauseam. There's still more to concern you if you're the parent of a teenager (male or female) caught up in its catchy beat, including references to women as "bitches" – although this phenomenon is common enough in music these days to prompt mostly shrugs.
Then there's the unrated version of the video, in which Mr. Thicke and two male collaborators, fully clothed, sing in the company of three female models who are topless and prance around like witless, voiceless sex dolls. The implicit message is that they're there for the amusement of the men, to serve whatever fantasies they may be harbouring. The women have no say. The men know what they want.
Blurred Lines has been the longest-running No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts this year. The uncensored video has been viewed many millions of times online. And you're kidding yourself if you don't think the messages the song and video are imparting, subliminal or otherwise, are sinking in with those who are listening and watching.
I'm not a music prude. But I have been concerned for some time at the misogyny in today's music. Hip-hop artists, in particular, have been guilty of glorifying violence against women. Many have objectified the act of sex and assigned women a specific, non-negotiable role in it.
As hip-hop and related genres have gone mainstream, the most egregious examples of violence and hostility toward women have waned. (There are still plenty of hard-core lyrics to be found, though.) At the same time, somewhat milder forms have been reaching a wider audience.
The kids at Saint Mary's University and the University of British Columbia who recently participated in chants about underage and non-consensual sex are of a generation that has grown up listening to this music. Most parents haven't a clue what's blasting through their kids' headphones; many would be shocked.
Music has a huge influence on popular culture. It can be argued that increasingly, this culture has created a groupthink where sex is more about possession than any form of closeness or affection.
"We've objectified sex," says Becky Lockwood, associate director of the Center for Women and Community in Amherst, Mass. "It's almost a commodity now and it's really unattached from any form of intimacy or emotional experience … people feel okay with doing whatever they can get."
Who knows what, if anything, can be done about it. In the early 1990s, Tipper Gore famously called out music artists for lyrics she considered misogynistic. She linked them to rapes occurring in America. While she didn't say sexual assaults were happening solely because of rap or rock music, she believed children were influenced by the glorification of violence against women inherent in many songs.
I doubt I have much in common with Ms. Gore, but I think she was ahead of the curve on this subject. At the time, she was very much a lone voice, mocked and ridiculed for her efforts. She's since been joined by thousands of men and women concerned about the portrayal of women in popular culture, including music and videos. But more voices need to join this protest, need to lean in to do something about it.
The chants on our campuses have their roots in this problem. Blurred Lines is really a song about our blurred morals.