Monday, August 15, 2011

Drunk Girls

Given my penchant for seventies television references, it might not surprise you that I am often a bit out of touch with contemporary popular culture. Still, because my gym pumps in the current top 20 on an endless cycle, I am able to at least identify songs that are circulating widely. Over the past few months, I have come to two conclusions. One, Fox is making a fortune off those Glee kids. Two, this country seems to prefer our young women to be drunk and reckless.

Numerous songs en vogue right now celebrate women consuming alcohol to the point of blacking out, hooking up, or hurling (not always in that order). Hadn’t thought about it? Take just a few examples off the top of my head. Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” opens with lines that would make even the most seasoned AA sponsor grimace: “Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack/’Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back.” Drinking beer, Ke$ha later sings, gets the “dudes...lining up.” Only police intervention ends that girl’s good times.

One of Lady GaGa’s earliest hits similarly recounts being so bombed that she has little idea of where she even is. In “Just Dance,” GaGa has had so much to drink that she “can’t see straight anymore” and has little idea how her “shirt got turned inside out.” If one of my friends reached this state, my advice would be to return home and sleep it off. GaGa, however, suggests that it might be the perfect time to hook up with somebody dancing in the club “And now there’s no reason at all,” she warbles, “ why you can’t leave here with me.” Well, no reason except that the previous stanzas suggest that she is entirely likely to puke on whatever guy she is taking home. Some people are into that, I suppose.

Not surprisingly, Katy Perry most happily jumps onto this bacchanal bandwagon. After all, her first major hit “I Kissed a Girl” more than foreshadowed this trend. In that song, Perry implied that sexual desire between women need not be taken more seriously than bar flirtations and pillow fights. It was fun, the melody told us, for women to kiss each other as an “experimental game” as long as there was a boyfriend waiting in the wings. Of course, a stiff cocktail got things rolling as the first stanza informs us, “This was never the way I planned/Not my intention/I got so brave, drink in hand/Lost my discretion.”

One of her most recent hits, “Last Friday Night,” ditches the homoerotic themes. In their place are the allegedly fun times that girls can have by drinking to point of serious memory loss. Perry sings about a list of events that would make most people fear for their personal safety. She awakes, hung over, with a stranger in her bed and lewd photos posted on-line. She is uncertain whether she has a hickey or a bruise. If you think that this is going to lead her to the door of Betty Ford, think again. She promises that she will do it all again next Friday.

With all that drinking and amnesia going on, it’s not surprising that P!nk would have a song entitled “Sober” where she contemplates the problems of being a party girl. Now, of all the artists mentioned, I actually like P!nk. To my mind she is one of very few who attempts to put out feminist messages in the mainstream. It’s true that many of P!nk’s other songs celebrate drinking as much as Ke$ha or Perry. At least P!nk most often talks about men as getting in the way of her good times (e.g. “U + Ur Hand”) rather than as being the objective for getting sloshed. “Sober” offers much needed caution to being a party girl. The song opens with the statement that she doesn’t “wanna be the girl who laughs the loudest/Or the girl who never wants to be alone/I don’t wanna be that call at four o’clock in the morning/’Cause I’m the only one you know in the world that won’t be home.” Unlike Perry, P!nk acknowledges that drinking to the point of blacking out will lead to serious regret instead of giggles with your girlfriends.

As far as I can tell, no such genre exists for men on the radio. Of course songs produced by male artists occasionally mention liquor or other drugs, but they are rarely presented as the opening shot to a night of forgotten sex. So what are we to make of all these "drunk girls" on the radio? Songs about women drinking to abandon are part of a larger pattern, it seems to me, in which women’s sexuality/sexualities and agency have been constrained in mainstream popular culture. One need only think of the classless Girls Gone Wild series to see that the media has been conflating drunkenness with sexual availability. If young women must continue to navigate the age-old virgin/whore (“ho” in modern parlance) dichotomy, then the music they listen to today isn’t offering many healthy solutions. These songs suggest that women can have a good time and explore a variety of sexual opportunities, but only if they are not really in control of their faculties. Drinking to the point of being without inhibition isn’t about putting yourself into situations where you might be exploited (or even be in serious danger). Rather, these songs suggest that it is a path to being cool and finding sexual fulfillment. Not only is that absurdly false, I think, but it also undermines women’s real ability to make decisions about sex. Instead it upholds the horrible notion that women are the most desirable when they are almost totally passive (if not passed out entirely).


tornwordo said...

Actually Last Friday Night doesn't ditch the homoerotism totally. She did after all, have a menage a trois, and this of course after streaking in the park and skinny dipping in the dark.

Anonymous said...

Thanks this puts into eloquent words what has been bugging me for a while. Pery's ET song is very catchy but I can't get over the "wanna be a victim/ready for attention" lyric that is the sort of underlying passivism of the whole thing. And it does worry me a little about girls singing these songs not really thinking about it and not knowing there's more to life. Maybe that is the old woman in me. Strong women images in music were few enough in my youth but i'd like to think the message wasn't AS bad.

pacalaga said...

It's extra great when you realize your five year old knows that "brush my teeth" line and sings it periodically. Popular music has always been primarily about bullshit themes. Problems occur when people start to think it's normal (or even desirable) to act that way.

Tenured Radical said...

This is a terrific post, which I am going to perhaps extend next week -- it has particular implications for the super-messy discussions about sexual violence on campus, and the fragile relationship between real female sexual agency and explaining away rape. Good on you, GayProf.

In country music, of course, there is the genial Joe Nichols song Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off, in which the drinking is all about a girls night out that is explicitly not homoerotic.

dykewife said...

the whole drunk and passed out thing also brings into the concept of consent and when it is or isn't given/revoked. in canada it is considered sexual assault (we no longer have "rape" as a legal term as it usually only applies to women, not men) because the passed out person cannot legally consent. there are more borderline cases where consent was given then one person passed out, which removes consent.

the number of "stars" going in and out of rehab appears to be on the increase. alas, that doesn't bode well to young people who like to emulate their idols.

where's jimmy stuart when you need him?

Anonymous said...

Great post. And ditto on the issue of consent. Maybe I'm getting old, but to me, these songs sound like they are glorifying rape. Or at least, women putting themselves in unsafe situations where they could easily be raped, and straight men being encouraged to think that drunk means yes. And of course, promoting behaviour which is not likely to result in people having the presence of mind to practice safer sex. A very anti-feminist message indeed.

susurro said...

two things came to mind reading this: (1) the way young women are in fact internalizing this message of "drunk, half naked, overtly sexual in ways one has not considered before or likely will after = fun & empowering" And as much as we'd like to say music is harmless, I think your post coupled with the fact that all of the mainstream artists you mentioned (except maybe Kei$ha) would identify as feminist or pro-girl/woman and their female audience knows this, really does point to how these songs are both reflection and a catalyst for this kind of behavior. For me, I see this manifest in the classroom or in speaking engagements as "old feminism is judgy and dowdy, new feminism says I can be anyone I want. I can have fun and it doesn't matter." In other words, old feminism makes me look at my choices in context, and coopted feminism tells me I can avoid addressing the ways I have been disempowered and/or abused by pasting a smile on my face and saying "that was so cool." In deeper coversations these same girls start to waiver in their resolve because of real abuse they have experienced or a real sense of loss of control over their own choices about how to look, act, and be but they quickly bounce back to Perry lyrics or worse Valenti essays that glorify intergenerational sexual relationships with her sports coach, to say that what they are feeling is not loss and violation but rather shame from antiquated feminist notions judging them. To quote a popular, and awful, guy movie "when women started calling stripper poles exercise, we [misogynists] won." I'd argue women just became the faces in front of the male industry bt nevertheless when certain forms of popular feminism became lifestyle/commodity choices we lost the thread.

(2) I do think there are whole genres of music about drinking and partying for men (hip hop and some country music comes to mind) but the fundamental difference is that the male version never gives up the power, men get drunk and high while getting women more drunk and more high and then taking advantage. Men leave for the night with girls panties in their pocket and pats on the back not dazed and confused and humiliated on the internet. Even songs inclined to show the nerdy side of male drunkenness, ala alt or indy rock, tend to talk about humiliating oneself skating or doing dumb stunts and chatting up girls too pretty to pay attention, and most of the videos that accompany these types of songs show the boy walking off with the pretty girl (or the pretty mom) at the end of the night anyway. Definitely more proof that the message behind the music is still one of gender oppression and difference.

Interestingly, many of my gay male students flock to Perry as empowering and many of my female students (at least the 2nd year + grp) flock to Pink. How are these messages also coded according to sexual desire? and can they shift meaning based on the gender+sexuality of the listener?

Anonymous said...

My how far weve come since the 70s?

STD's and other complications are the unspoken peril of the bacchanal.. be wary ladies please!

tips malam pertama said...

why would you stalk neil??