Recently I had the pleasure and horror of seeing the first episode of the TV show The Sing-Off. Anyone who knows me will confirm that I am a huge, huge music-lover. And hokey and fake as reality tv competitions may be, I am still totally willing to accept some discomfort along with fantastic singing or dancing. Eight or nine of the ten groups on this season of the Sing-Off sounded amazing to me; I believe they are all very talented. Listening to their music was a great joy, and one which I do not in the least want to pass up. Yet the misogyny of the show demands a response, demands that we let its creators know, in whatever way we can, that we do not accept it. I won’t give the show a single up-tick on hulu, youtube, or anywhere; I won’t give the ads being run on the show a single extra view. Allow me to point out the crimes, for those who missed them or did not watch.
First, a group performed Blurred Lines, which I’ve wanted to write about for some time, because it’s a tricky song, a much-listened to song, a great-sounding song, and an infuriating work of misogyny. I believe it is difficult to interpret; I had to read a bunch of different writings about it and ponder the lyrics before I could confidently call it a misogynistic song. The singer describes the female addressee as an animal with an uncontrollable sexual appetite that will force her to cheat on her boyfriend; who likes being treated roughly by male partners; who may try to resist or say no, but eventually is guaranteed to succumb; and who will never be able to maintain a monogamous relationship. I think there are a wide variety of women in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with some women out there having voracious sexual appetites or enjoying rough sex. There’s probably something wrong with cheating on your boyfriend without some prior understanding/agreement. But in any case, I think there are a couple things wrong with this guy singing these lyrics.
One, I think it’s distressing that again and again and again in pop music, women are sexualized. I’ve just acknowledged the variety among women, why don’t music executives acknowledge it? Presenting females the same way every time is bad for female audiences, because it actually shows them only one option for how they can be, rather than letting them know they can be anything. In fact, the song calls her “a good girl” in order to say that whether a girl acts prudish or lascivious, there is only one possible underlying reality. The second major problem is that the source of this description is a man who does not have a long-standing relationship with the girl. How does he claim to know so much about her? How can he be so sure that his advances are not sexual harassment? That her rejections are prevarications? Unfortunately, I can think of one scenario in which a guy would be so confident: if he believed that there was no variation among women, and every single one was like this. Even more than the description of the addressee in the song, it is the manner of the singer, so confident in his knowledge, so impervious to what the woman says about herself, that is deeply disturbing, and provides a perfect model for other men to be misogynists.
Is it the show’s fault that this all-male group of college students chose this song? Not necessarily. But did the shows writers know in advance what song they had chosen? Almost certainly. Could they have advised them to choose something else? Absolutely! That is what they clearly should have done. But let’s even imagine that the groups have prepared a song on their own, and then they come to the show and have to perform it. At this point, it’s the responsibility of the host or one of the three judges to tell the young men and the audience: “you sang beautifully, but you should be aware that this is a sick song, and put some more thought into your material selection in the future.” Without this, those kids will never learn; and without this, all the millions of viewers will assume the song is ok. Silence is tacit agreement. (Similarly, continuing to watch the show would be tacit agreement with it).
The next failure of the show was the focus on women’s looks. In welcoming the three judges to the show, Nick Lachey tells Jewel “it’s nice to have someone attractive on the panel to help balance out these two.” Here’s a woman who has been writing and performing music in multiple genres for 20+ years, coming to a show about music, and Nick calls out her looks as an asset to the show. By the way, in only about five minutes of interspersed “conversation” through the episode, he managed to score a kind of terrible trifecta of misogyny, racism, and anti-intellectualism, suggesting that what Jewel brings to the show is female good looks, what Shawn brings is being black, and what Ben brings is big words. I suppose, this is natural, since it’s probably what the producers had in mind when selecting the judges.
But Nick was not the only one. When Elements finished their performance, Shawn told them “first of all you guys all look beautiful, first and foremost you all look great,” to which they smiled broadly. What?? That’s the most important thing about them, on a show about music, when they just sang? A big to-do is made about how “without a male to sing low notes for them, they are at this big disadvantage,” which I also consider a misogynistic way of framing things (“what would women do without men?”– get oppressed and abused less). Did anyone express any concern that any of the all-male groups would be lacking something without female voices? That’s our clue that the storyline about the all-female group is ridiculous. Elements present themselves as strong and independent women who are going to prove they can do well without men. That’s a very weak fake-feminist stance (setting out to disprove their inferiority gives wrong respect to a preposterous notion), which in their defense was probably forced on them by the show’s writers. I certainly pity the plight they are in, up there in the public eye, surrounded by misogyny. But until they have the independence and strength to interrupt– “Excuse me?? What did you just say? How are our looks first and foremost?”– they will certainly not be role models for my daughter. At least Jewel may have been calling out the “judge women by their looks, judge men by their substance” double-standard when she told Nick that his “dimples are working hard for a living too.”
This show is sick, with its simplistic take on every person involved, the painfully clueless unfunny and oppression-laden banter of Nick Lachey, and its stupid fake monolithic pre-written reality storylines. It’s going to hurt to pass up on such good music, but opposing oppression is an overriding necessity.
PS- Anywhere you hear the song Blurred Lines being played, express your dissatisfaction with the musical choice of the DJ, radio station, restaurant, whatever.