A Convenient Scapegoat vs. A Protected Genre

Ask most parents about hip-hop and they’ll probably tell you they earmuff their kids when it comes on the radio. That they don’t allow their sons or daughters to download any music of the genre. That they find it offensive. They’re not entirely in the wrong. My own father threatened to throw away my copy of “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” after my negligent 16-year-old self left it in the CD player of his car back in high school.

Beyond the sheer profanity and violence that inhabits the genre, there’s no denying the objectification and degradation of females. e.g. the hook of Mathematics’ “Eggs, Hash & Grits“:

“We don’t like classy chicks, we like a bitch that suck an ashy dick,/and when she done, don’t ask for shit/big ass and tits, new tricks, handcuffs and whips,/in the morning, eggs, hash, and grits.”

The opening lines are worse. Here are the lyrics, if you’re interested.

The issue there is self-evident. Women are described as a set of pleasing/displeasing physical features, a submissive sex object or as “bitches” and “hoes.” Even fans of the genre own up to its shameless misogyny–an attitude that’s been inherent in the music since the early days of N.W.A–earlier, even. It’s something that must be looked past if you want to enjoy the genre for its redeeming qualities–which are plenty. But that’s not the issue I’m here to discuss.

We need to recognize that essentially all other genres of music—specifically country music—are equally guilty of misogyny and sexism as rap. We need to stop letting rap take the blame on its own.

Specifically looking at country, the artists don’t take the same criticism as the Eminems and Eazy-Es (RIP to my favorite rapper of them all) of the world. In fact, upon close examination, most country music songs that have come out in the past few years are simply reworded rap lyrics crooned from the mouth of a good old “country boy” with a friendly and handsome face.

This is where the problem lies, as the vilification and scapegoating of rap artists has tainted the reputation of the genre when in reality almost all music is sexual with the potential for latent sexism or misogynistic undertones.

It boils down to the image of hip hop artists that has been cultivated by mass media. Many of them are already characterized as villains and criminals, in fact these are often self-proclaimed titles that are rapped about with pride. We see this pride in the opening to Eminem’s “Crack A Bottle,” where he introduces himself with: “Ladies and gentlemen! The moment you’ve all been waiting for, in this corner, weighing 175 pounds, with a record of 17 rapes, 400 assaults, and 4 murders, the undisputed, most diabolical villain in the world: Slim Shady!”

As with Eminem (who is white, let’s remember), many rappers tout their bad reputations, even if they’re fictional, embellished, etc. Country artists, however, though they’re equally at fault, have reputations as just simple country boys who wanna drink beer next to a pickup truck and have a good time.

It all boils down to the images that the media has cultivated of artists from both genres, and the difference can be summed up in a hypothetical scenario: if a woman ran into an underground rap artist in a dark alley in the night, she would probably be petrified and sprint away. If she ran into Luke Bryan, she would probably swoon and ask for an autograph.

The parallels are many between the degradation of women in hip-hop and examples of same in country music, a genre loved by many females.

Rappers describe women as “hoes,” a portrayal which overshadows the essence of womanhood (to put it lightly). Not so obviously, country music achieves the same end. The country singer’s woman is a pair of long legs, an ass in denim shorts–ann accessory to tote around in the passenger seat of a Chevy after a night of drinking moonshine.

Even just skimming the surface of country—especially new country music—the issues make themselves apparent.

Its also interesting to consider that hip-hop as a genre is actually more conducive to female success than most others, especially country. The only reason hip-hop takes the fall is because the image of the gangster rapper that’s been cultivated over the past decades provides for a perfect and convenient scapegoat to take the fall for the good old boys of country music.

Before we begin comparing lyrics and looking at music videos, it is important that we understand how the black male is seen in our society.

In Rap Music and the Demonization of Young Black MalesTricia Rose states:

“The white American public, many of whom only tangentially know any young black men personally, has been inundated with images of young black men who appear fully invested in a life of violent crime, who have participated in drug-related gang shoot-outs and other acts of violence for ‘no apparent reason.’”

That statement is from 1994, but (problematically in its own right) still holds water today, in 2016.

A 2008 study in the Howard Journal of Communications, conducted by Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter, observed representations of African Americans  in music, movies or television, and then conducted surveys to see how realistic people thought these portrayals were.

In television, for example, African Americans were typically depicted blacks as “inferior, stupid, comical, immoral, and dishonest…[as well as] menacing, untidy, rebellious, disrespectful, violent, greedy, ignorant, and power-driven” (Punyanunt-Carter 243). Portrayals like this are the downfall of the way that many people see African Americans, as “Anglo-Americans, who have high exposure to negative television portrayals of African Americans, are more inclined to make negative assumptions about other African Americans” (Punyanunut-Carter 244). Effectively, the more that people watch tv or go see movies, the more that they believe these portrayals to be true. The results of the study definitively “indicated that viewers perceived the occupational roles and negative personality characteristics that African Americans portray on television as real or true to life” (Punyanunt-Carter 251). There is a “continuous process among [these] messages and contexts…[and] heavy media viewers are more likely to” describe ethnic groups in the same way that they are shown in the media.

So what does this mean for hip-hop—specifically black hip-hop artists? Since there is this preconceived image of African Americans in general on television and in movies as violent, irrational, and ignorant, this means that black hip-hop artists are seen as such: violent, irrational, and ignorant.

Most African Americans aren’t gangster rappers, but since television already causes Anglo-Americans to see African Americans as a whole to be negative and violent, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that people will see African American hip-hop artists  in this light. They see more problems in rap lyrics than in other genres that feature predominantly white artists, even if these genres/lyrics are equally if not more sexist.

Think about Luke Bryan’s song, “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)”–the third best-selling song by a solo male country artist. The lyrics are a repetition of Bryan saying “Country girl shake it for me,” over and over again. Is this any different than Nate Dogg saying “Shake that ass for me” over and over again in “Shake That” (by Eminem ft. Nate Dogg)? Both artists are requesting the same thing of the women they’re addressing, the only real differences are that Nate Dogg uses the word “ass,” and Luke Bryan calls the female listener a “country girl,” which is something many young teenaged fans strive to be/take pride in being. In reality, all a “country girl” is in the eyes of Luke Bryan is a sex object.

Another obvious difference is that Nate Dogg is black rapper with an intimidatingly baritone voice. When he says “shake that ass for me,” it sounds a little bit more demanding than when Luke Bryan serenades “country girl, shake it for me,” with his disarming country twang.

However, this merely masks the fact that he and Nate Dogg are singing nearly identical lyrics, asking the same thing of their female audiences–both objectifying women. The only difference is that Bryan is able to get away with it uncriticized, even worse, undetected.

Onto Florida Georgia Line. “Get Your Shine On.” The group sings:

“homemade jar o’ lemon drop take a sip/Don’t stop girl, you know I love it when you get your shine on!/‘Cause you and me be rocking all night long!”

Is this any less of a promotion of rape culture than Eminem rapping “Lookin’ for a couple bitches with some double d’s/Pop a little champagne and a couple E’s/Slip it in her bubbly, we finna finna have a party”?

Both of these songs—“Get Your Shine On,” by Florida Georgia Line, and “Shake That,” by Eminem ft. Nate Dogg contain lyrics that are encouraging women to get drunk they’ll presumably have sex with these male singers. If anything, Florida Georgia Line urging the woman to drink more and more and using the fact that “I love it when you get your shine on” (meaning I love it when you drink moonshine) is more aggressive and problematic than Eminem’s lyrics.

The singer is telling the woman that the only reason she should drink more is because he likes it when she’s drunk, and because he wants to take her to bed and “rock all night long.”

Basically: “keep drinking because I want you to be drunk enough to fuck me tonight.”

Eminem’s lyrics are equally problematic, of course, but people are aware of this when they listen to his music. Its Eminem. He does not attempt to mask his misogyny, whereas when people listen to groups like Florida Georgia Line, the nuanced misogyny slips under the radar.

Onto Toby Keith. “Red Solo Cup,” specifically.

Again, he alludes to the way in which alcohol increases his chances of getting laid:

“But I have to admit that the ladies get smitten, admiring at how sharply my first name is written, on you with a Sharpie when I get to hittin’ on them, to help me get lucky.”

Toby Keith makes it sound as if it’s the cup, as well as the way he wrote his name on it that helps him seduce women, when in actuality any conscious listener can realize how ludicrous that is.

The real message here is that the beer in his cup is helping him “get lucky” because the women he is with at the barbecue are also drinking, and since he is drunk too, it makes flirting easy and sexual success probable. It is a similar message to the opening hook of “Pop Bottles” Birdman ft. Little Wayne:

“Start with straight shots and then pop bottles, flirt with the hood rats then pop models.”

Both songs are saying, first we get drunk, then we flirt, and then we fuck the woman of our choosing.

However, Toby Keith’s song is problematic on a deeper level, as it creates a hyper-masculine ideal men feel pressured to live up to.

In her exploration of this topic, Anna Rogers reveals that country is guilty of “depicting women in traditional gender roles and depicting men as stereotypically masculine and women as stereotypically feminine…Hank Williams Jr.’s ‘A Country Boy Can Survive’ of 1982 demonstrated this by saying things like, ‘I’ve got a shotgun a rifle and a four wheel drive, And a country boy can survive…I can catch a catfish from dusk til dawn…Cause we’s them ole boys raised on shotguns….’”

She also looks at the aforementioned Toby Keith song, “Red Solo Cup.” She argues that Keith implies “using a red solo cup makes a man more masculine. He said, ‘And you, sir, do not have a pair of testicles, If you prefer drinking of glass.'” Not only is Toby Keith continuing to perpetuate female gender roles, but is also forcing males into an old-fashioned stereotype.

By writing off hip-hop as misogyny, critics end up ignoring entire aspects of genre. Hip-hop is a complex cultural product of “life on the margins of postindustrial urban America” (Tricia Rose, Black Noise 21), and has served as an avenue for the expression of the female voice as well. Think of Lil Kim, Rihanna, Beyonce, and the list goes on and on.

Lil Kim provides for an interesting example of female empowerment, as she reverses typical gender roles and uses her sexuality as power–a way to get the upper hand over her male counterparts. In her song, “How Many Licks?,” she brags about the way that men flock to her and obsess over her, opening with an aggressive first verse (pardon the length):

“I’ve been a lot of places, seen a lot of faces, ah hell I even fuck with different races, a white dude – his name was John, he had a Queen Bee Rules tattoo on his arm, uh he asked me if I’d be his date for the prom and he’d buy me a horse, a Porsche, and a farm, Dan my nigga from Down South, used to like me to spank him and cum in his mouth, and Tony he was Italian (Uh-huh), and he didn’t give a fuck (Uh-huh) that’s what I liked about him, he ate my pussy from dark till the mornin, called his girl up and told her we was bonin, Puerto Rican papi, used to be a Deacon but now he be sucking me off on the weekend, and this black dude I called King Kong he had a big ass dick and a hurricane tongue.”

Kim transcends both gender and race as she brags about her power over men and discusses the fact that she has a laundry-list of male sex-partners of different races. While this vulgarity and hyper-sexualization of Kim isn’t free of problems (nothing is free of problems, these days), it also isn’t entirely problematic.

Rappers like Lil Kim are images of confidence, self-assuredness, and independence. She doesn’t rely on men, she uses them for what she wants and then casts them aside. While artists like Lil Kim might not the type of artists that young children should be listening to, she is still, I think, more of a positive figure than a negative one, especially with regard to female empowerment. And despite the alleged misogyny of the genre, women like her are frequently found in hip-hop.

This is not the case with country music, as the majority of successful country artists right now are male, “bro country” artists, and studies have shown “that [particularly in country music] it seems to be that sexist music makes the industry large amounts of money. Therefore, male artists are making money off of the exploitation of women” (Rogers).

The only women who are making any money off of country, are those who play into the typical “country girl” stereotypes. Taylor Swift’s self-titled first album, for example, was a country album. She has now moved on to pursue her pop career and doesn’t qualify as a country artist any longer, but her first hits were songs like “Teardrops On My Guitar,” and “Tim McGraw,” the first is about heartbreak and the second is about, shockingly, heartbreak. Swift was successful in country because she played the role of the innocent, pure, heartbroken pretty young thing who could play guitar and vocalize her sorrows.

Essentially, to be successful in country as a female you have to sing about the damage done to you by your ex-lovers or unattainable crushes, and to be successful as a man in country you have to write about drinking, womanizing and driving a truck.

Carrie Underwood’s song “Before He Cheats,” is almost identical in content to any of Swift’s first album, an angry country girl upset about being cheated on by an ex with a “pretty little souped up four wheel drive.” Without his act of cheating, there’s no song. Sure, she says she’s gonna smash it up with a Louisville Slugger, but that doesn’t change the fact that the song is entirely dependent on heartbreak at the hands of a male in a ten-gallon-hat. Male country artists exploit women through their lyrics with great success, and in order for a female to be successful, she too must exploit the female role that country music expects her to fill.

It is still arguable that hip-hop artists, even females, are making money off the same exploitation of women as these “bro country” artists. In The Anatomy of Hip HopHarden and Booth argue “the female MCs were respected more in the ‘80s. The times were different and…Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Salt-n-Pepa…had full careers in the music industry. Masterfully reinventing their artistry for other facets of the entertainment industry, not just average, these entertainers are accolade winners and nominees.” Queen Latifah is a stellar example of a female hip-hop artist who has gone on to become a “business owner, Golden Globe nominee, film producer, and platinum-selling, Grammy-winning MC.” This trend has continued into the modern day with figures like the seemingly unstoppable and all-powerful Beyonce, whose accolades look to mirror those of Queen Latifah.

Nicki Minaj and Beyonce teamed up on a song called “Feeling Myself,” which opens with Beyonce exclaiming: “”I stop the world / Male or female it makes no difference / I stop the world” (Sherman). Beyonce and Nicki may be mainstreaming themselves a little bit as they rise in fame, but they are still undeniably hip-hop artists, wildly successful, and now they are using that power to convey a positive message of gender equality through hip hop. The title of the song itself encourages women to respect and focus on themselves.

There is no such effort being made in country music. If one looks at the top ten hip-hop songs as listed by billboard.com, one of the most reputable sources for music’s top charts, one finds that the top spot is held by a woman, Beyonce, and that five songs out of the top ten are by female artists. A perfect fifty percent makes hip-hop sound like a fairly gender-equality friendly genre. If one were to look at the same chart but under the genre of country music, one would find the top spot occupied by a male, Tim McGraw, for a song called “Shotgun Rider,” again, a clearly masculine title, and although it isn’t about actual firearms, the lyrics are about toting his country girl around in his truck, where she rides shotgun. The top country song at this point in time is another example of a male artist perpetuating gender roles and promoting sexism.

We need to make progress on the deconstruction of the skewed image of African American males and learn to recognize that the villainous traits that the media attributes to them are present in many other facets of society, they just go unnoticed. Yes, many black rappers have intimidating personas and legitimate criminal records, but that doesn’t make them any less “evil” than Luke Bryan or Tim McGraw. In fact, hip-hop as a genre is more conducive to gender equality and the empowerment of women than country music is. Country forces women into two boxes: the Daisy Duke sex object types, and the heartbroken male-dependents. Hip-hop allows artists like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Lil Kim to express heartbreak, success, sexual conquest, independence, and a whole spectrum of topics.

Music is inherently sexual, and this sexuality brings with it some misogyny and sexism. Eradicating sex from music is an impossibility, but recognizing that all genres contain an equal level of sexism and misogyny and learning not to let rap and hip-hop artists serve as scapegoats for the cowboy-hat wearing “bro country” artists of our time is a step forward that we as a culture are going to have to take.

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