In Defence of Pop & Rap’s “Unintelligent” Lyrics.


Last week I posted a link to a study by Seat Smart about the most unintelligent songs of the past decade in which the genres of pop and R’n’B/rap/hip hop featured heavily.

Word length and the amount of syllables therein were factors in pushing a song over the edge from unintelligence to intelligence. From the study:

“Country music is full of words like Hallelujah, cigarettes, hillbilly, and tacklebox. Add to that long place names like Cincinnati, Louisville, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and [c]ountry has a serious advantage over the competition.”

Country music coming out on top as the most intelligent genre is laughable; this is the inherently sexist genre that brought you such gems as “Thank God I’m a Country Girl” and Taylor Swift before she found feminism. Just because country originated in parts of America with really long names don’t mean jack. (I tried my hand at some country-esque parlance there.)

Though you wouldn’t think it from the flashy and oftentimes nonsensical rap styles of Pit Bull and Snoop Dogg phoning it in on tracks like Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”, rap and hip hop were spawned in some of the poorest and most downtrodden parts of major cities where their primarily black and Hispanic residents were oppressed and discriminated against and where drugs and crime were rampant. In his younger days, Tupac Shakur rapped about police brutality (“Trapped”, “Changes”), slut shaming, sexual assault and STDs (“Brenda’s Got a Baby”, “Keep Ya Head Up”, “Baby Don’t Cry”), and drugs (“Changes”), while N.W.A. produced songs with similar content.

As is evident in the popular music that the study chose to… erm… study, the rap that makes it to the top 40 charts isn’t necessarily an accurate depiction of the genre as a whole. Take, for example, Kendrick Lamar. I’m not super familiar with his work but I do know that the most commercial success he’s seen came with his recent cameo in Taylor Swift’s (of country music origins) video for “Bad Blood”. And while we all have an opinion on Kanye West, he raps intelligently—although this study would seek to disprove that—about fame, money, racism. (His inclusion on Katy Perry’s “E.T”, making it one of the past decade’s smartest songs, while Perry’s “Wide Awake” with no obligatory rap interlude makes it the 10th dumbest song of the decade should be indicative of rap’s—or at least Kanye’s—value.) This is not to mention the copious amounts of underground and unreleased rap out there.

When it comes to women, Mariah Carey (“We Belong Together” is finally getting its due as one of Mariah’s more artful arrangements) and Nicki Minaj (again, her unreleased stuff is far more sophisticated than “Anaconda” and “Starships”) are topping the intelligence scales while Beyonce makes an appearance in both intelligent and unintelligent lists. That the biggest and best artist in the world today could be described using the word “unintelligent” is a crime. It just goes to show that word length alone doesn’t demonstrate the myriad aspects that go into creating music.


It’s also interesting that many of the artists who rank high in intelligence are appropriating the music of other cultures, ie. Eminem and Macklemore. (My mother recently said she thought Eminem was the best rapper, despite the high rotation of rappers of colour on my and my sister’s CD players in our youth.) On a related note, Iggy Azalea is nowhere to be found in this study.



Sure, songs like “California Gurls” and “Tik Tok” may indicate our lowering intelligence as a culture (though, having said that, these are two of my favourite songs to get down on the dancefloor to, so do with that what you will), but artists like Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Taylor Swift (despite what the study says!) who are changing the game would suggest otherwise.

What do you think? Do you agree with the study’s assertions or would you counter them like I have?

Related: On the (Rest of the) Net: 29th May 2015.

Taylor Swift: The Perfect Victim.

Elsewhere: [Seat Smart] Lyric Intelligence in Popular Music: A Ten Year Analysis.

[Jezebel] Country Music Dude: In Radio, Female Performers Are Basically Garnishes.

[The Guardian] Taylor Swift: “Sexy? Not on My Radar.”

Images via Seat Smart.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

The star of that Hollaback! New York City catcalling video, Shoshanna Roberts, speaks. [NYTimes]

What if there was a Bechdel test for movies featuring Native American people? [Mic]

How TV is getting smarter about sex. [WaPo]

A harrowing report on rape in college fraternity houses prompts the question: should frats be banned? [Rolling Stone, Gawker]

FCKH8 is back with their “potty mouthed princesses”, this time proselyting on domestic violence. [Junkee]

Is Mockingjay‘s message getting muddled by the (real and fictional) media? After all,

“We like Katniss, so we want to believe she’s important. But she isn’t a politician. She’s not a military strategist. She’s not a revolutionary thinker. She’s a survivor, and can handle a weapon, but that’s true of most soldiers. The only real value Katniss Everdeen has to the revolution is the fact that people like seeing her on television. She’s a weapon of mass sympathy; if she believes in this war, people at home will join it. And then they will die.”

And in wider, actual society:

“Taylor Swift… recently opined that ‘so many girls out there say “I’m not a feminist” because they think it means something angry or disgruntled or complaining. They picture like rioting and picketing, it is not that at all.’ Actually, it is that—rioting, picketing, and complaining, the synonym for all of these being ‘protesting,’ are pretty darn essential—but hey, who am I to stand in the way of mass appeal?” [In These Times]

Does rap have an immaturity problem? If so, Eminem’s its poster boy. [Grantland]

“Chains & Whips Excite Me…”—The Underlying Message in Music Videos.


From L’s comment on “Deconstructing 2011’s Girl Anthems” by Emma Plant on Girl with a Satchel:

“…It’s scary to think that very few people are thinking critically about what song lyrics really say, or how the video can change a meaning of a song. Look at Rihanna tied to the bed in that Eminem video with him singing out lighting the house on fire to watch her burn… this from a young woman who was previously in an abusive relationship.
What is the music we listen to really saying about us and how is it shaping our opinions and values?”

Related: Rihanna’s “S&M”: Is It Really So Much Worse Than Her Other Stuff?

Elsewhere: [Girl with a Satchel] Deconstructing 2011’s Girl Anthems.

Images via YouTube.

Rihanna’s “S&M”: Is it Really So Much Worse Than Her Other Stuff?

Rihanna said it herself: “They watched ‘Umbrella’… I was full nude.”

So why so much fuss about her latest offering, “S&M”?

Sure, the title, lyrics and film clip are controversial at best, but once they are unwrapped and their true meaning is revealed, the song is more a dig at the press and Rihanna’s sadomasochistic relationship with them, hence Perez Hilton’s appearance.

The video does deal with sexual violence also, which Rihanna is no stranger to, but this time around it’s consensual violence. Jezebel explains:

“It’s notable, though, following her assault by Chris Brown, that in the video for ‘S&M,’ she’s interested in exploring consensual acts of violence and aggression, and finding pleasure in pain. Although she does appear bound in the video (as well as literally restrained by the media), mostly she plays the role of a dominant, perhaps to prove (or remind us) that she’s the one in control. Is this the desire of one who’s been called a victim? To recast oneself as authoritative and commanding?”

The film clip—the aspect of the song that has drawn the most controversy—is actually not that bad, in my opinion. It’s got a bright, pop-arty feel (a direction which the singer seems to be heading in these days), and “shows us a bright, vivid, eye-popping adult playground of her own imaginative making, exciting chains and whips [just happen to be] included.”

Where “Madonna and Lady Gaga have cornered the market on the black pleather and whips on white backgrounds of the S&M-themed music-video world… Rihanna is refusing to cede them the entire territory: She’ll do S&M if she wants to, she’s just going to make it really, really goofy.”

Granted, both Madonna and Lady Gaga’s videos and music are a cut above Rihanna’s, who is somewhere between Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” and Gaga’s “Telephone”, but you’ve got to admit: “S&M” is something a bit different, and something that’s getting people talking. And that’s the aim of the game, right?

Think of Rihanna’s other videos for a moment: “Te Amo” featured Laetitia Casta as Rihanna’s lesbian love interest; “Rude Boy” shows the singer peeking down the pants of a male dancer; her collaboration with Eminem in “Love the Way You Lie” dealt with domestic violence; and the aforementioned “Umbrella” marked her transition from “good girl” to “gone bad”.

Lyric-wise, “S&M” (Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it/Sticks and stones may break my bones/But whips and chains excite me) is probably equally as graphic as “Rude Boy” (Come here rude boy, boy, can you get it up?/Come here rude boy, boy, is you big enough?). But officials in the UK don’t think so, with the song being completely reworked and renamed (“Come On”) so it can get radio play.

I do see their point—that they’re trying to protect the children or something—but if that’s the case, just don’t play the video on Video Hits; save it for cable television or late-night music programs. But that’s also the combined beauty and curse of the internet age: tech-savvy kids are just going to access the video online.

Related: Whipped Cream Feminism: The Underlying Message in Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” Video.

Elsewhere: [Digital Spy] Rihanna Video Labeled Inappropriate.

[Billboard] Sneak Peak of Rihanna’s “S&M” Video.

[Jezebel] Rihanna’s New Video Celebrates Ball-Gags, Whips & Latex.

[The New Gay] Yes, Master: Rihanna’s S&M World.

[New York Magazine] Rihanna Gets Tied Up in Technicolour for S&M Video.

Images via YouTube.