some thoughts on misogynistic songwriting
In which I discuss the hold steady, misogyny-core emo, and the dare.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about misogyny in music and the places I find it. Well, the places I find it and the places I don't and all the discussions I watch happen about music.
In November of last year I made a tweet about how there are a good amount of Hold Steady lyrics that are dated specifically in the sweeping generalizations being made about men and women. It was just some offhand comment said as an excuse to talk about how I was listening to "Girls Like Status" because I was really into that song for a while. It got some replies that I didn't care much to read as I could tell the tweet was being taken as something they needed to defend the band from. Stuff like Craig Finn can get away with stuff behind the guise of telling stories or pointing out that the lyrics have shifted to more individual and specific on the last couple albums. I think that's all true, I just didn't want to talk about it because my tweets are for me, but someone replied saying how the blatant misogyny within "You Can Make Him Like You" has made it impossible to listen to the song. That sentiment has been haunting me almost everyday since.
I like plenty of misogynistic music. I'm critical of its presence in emo and pop punk, but I'll let it slide if I've liked the song for a long time. I think everybody does that. That particular Hold Steady song, though, never read to me as misogynistic. I think it reflects a sort of ugly sentiment full of detachment and insecurity, but it shies away from passing a judgment on the subject of the song. Craig Finn doesn't skirt misogyny by simply writing character driven stories, he skirts misogyny by writing those characters as ultimately sympathetic people.
"You Can Make Him Like You" was one of the first Hold Steady songs I ever liked. I named a zine after it I like it so much. There is so much palpable fear and insecurity wrapped up in the song. This idea of simultaneously shrinking behind a boyfriend and keeping that person at a distance emotionally strikes a balance that is devastating to me. It feels human and real and it's something I relate to. It doesn't feel judgmental. It doesn't feel like that experience is being painted in a blanket negative light. Just like in movies, writing a song where a woman (presumably, there isn't any real gendering in the song, but I'm willing to guess it's a woman in the song) is a complex figure will always be more interesting and more legitimately interested in women's place in media. What I'm looking for in depictions of women is not necessarily a flattering light, I'm looking for something that feels real and ultimately sympathetic because it feels real. At the end of the day, it feels like Craig Finn knows some women. It feels like he's talked to some women and the women he sings about feel like real people, so most of his music will never feel misogynistic. Some of it is dated, but that's neither here nor there.
I think misogyny can come forward in two ways in a song written by men. I leave a song feeling like the man who wrote it either (1) wants me to believe this person is worthy of hating and his hatred and anger are totally valid; or (2) is describing some vague idea of a woman driven exclusively by sexual interest to a level of dehumanization.
The former is obvious. It's why the old pop punk songs I loved when I was 12 are hard to defend. I love Hit The Lights, but the anger and vitriol wrapped up in those songs is shocking. Early 2000s emo is full of that anger and violence. Young men being angry about a girl not liking them or doing them wrong in some way then selling that to you as an excuse for being hateful. It's easy to dissect that for what it is. It's misogynistic and violent, but it's not the only way misogyny comes out in music.
Recently some people I know have been talking about this song "Girls" by The Dare. To my shock, they've been discussing it positively. It's getting comparisons to LCD Soundsystem and bloghouse and that's fine. I think it's annoying first and foremost, but that's no cardinal sin. I like plenty of annoying music. It's the lyrics I find immediately off putting and impossible to ignore. If you want to write a song about all the kinds of girls you like to fuck, whatever, I guess, but I remain intensely suspicious of men who invest in a pseudo progressive version of sex positivity. It comes off the same way men who insist being into choking is normal and expected of every woman.
There is some discussion online about why younger people are more "puritanical" today and I understand that position. Of course having sex scenes in movies is normal and not inherently superfluous. Sex should be viewed as a normal, healthy part of life and portrayed in media, but when I was a teenager the dominant brand of feminism online was hyper-sexual and it caused legitimate damage to me and many of my friends. Years of being told it's antithetical to feminism to take sex seriously and that I should be amenable to light BDSM at very least or else I'm boring. It opened me up to violence at the hands of "feminist" men. Maybe that's why it'll always be difficult to listen to men take on those ideas and spin them into something that makes them look more progressive. Maybe it's my problem that I'm pushing my own baggage onto the song. At any rate, I think it's irritating.
Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, and law school drop out based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter to stay updated on whatever else I find annoying: @mirandareinert. I closed the paid tier of this newsletter, but you may just send me small bits of money at @miranda-reinert on venmo if you want. Thanks for reading!