Young Ears are Listening: Gender, Body Image, and Top 40 Music

Yesterday, I was in the passenger seat of my roommate’s car. We were guiltily enjoying some Top 40 in the background as we enjoyed the gorgeous scenery, when suddenly we were accosted by these lyrics:

“Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby
Let me know
Girl I’m gonna show you how to do it
And we start real slow
You just put your lips together
And you come real close
Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby
Here we go” (Whistle, by Flo Rida)

So, not exactly what I want to hear on my car ride. Or, um, ever. Not to mention that it took us a good minute to even hear the lyrics. The song has a repetitive “whistle” riff that makes it sound like children’s music. I can’t help but wonder who the target audience is here.

It’s not news that sexism and negative images of women are rampant in popular music. All you have to do is turn on MTV or VH1 to be bombarded with lyrics and images that portray women as disposable sex objects. Considering that the main demographic of these music television channels is teenage girls, the images and not-so-subtle undertones become even more problematic. A fourteen year old girl that is trying to maintain any sliver of self-confidence in an environment that completely over-sexualizes women certainly doesn’t need to be further exposed to these images and lyrics, especially since they’re often coming from the people they idealize most: musicians.

The whole intention of pop music is to be catchy and easily stuck in your head. It’s important to remember which heads these lyrics are going to be stuck in. Just for a quick comparison, here are some lyrics from a few of the Top 40 hits right now:

“Got no drink in my hand
But I’m wasted
Getting drunk off the thought of you naked” (Scream, by Usher)

“I’ve been everywhere, man
Looking for someone
Someone who can please me
Love me all night long/ Where have you been all my life?” (Where Have You Been, by Rihanna)

“Pimp no caddy, she wish she never had me
Treat her like a dog, called the bitch Lassy
Young savvy, bang her like Cincinnati
Above average, fly like I’m Aladdin” (Faded, by Tyga & Lil Wayne)

Just to recap…we’ve got the objectification of women (Usher), the notion that a woman is helpless on her own (Rihanna), and…well…then there’s Lil Wayne. I’ll leave that one up to you all.

Thanks to tumblr for the One Direction photo

That being said, I’m always excited to see male performers push against this particular norm within the music industry. So, as much as I may be ashamed to admit this, I’m kind of digging One Direction. The group is a UK-based boy band put together by Simon Cowell. Since coming together, they’ve had mega-success amongst the teenie boppers. And for once, I’m okay with that!

Their hit single “What Makes You Beautiful” seems to encourage self-confidence and body-positivity in young girls (whether or not that was intentional, we’ll never know).

“You’re insecure
Don’t know what for
You’re turning heads when you walk through the door
Don’t need make up
To cover up
Being the way that you are is enough”

Okay, that’s more like it! I’m putting the whole silly boy-band thing aside and focusing on the messages that their music sends. And that message is a good one!

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About Michaela


Michaela is a recent Seven Sisters graduate with a self-designed degree in Sexuality Studies. When she's not blogging, you'll find her teaching Health and Wellness and A Cappella to high school students, helping women find properly fitting bras, and working as an editor on a documentary. She hopes to continue her education one day with a PhD in Feminist Anthropology.

  • Anonymoose

    I really don’t know how black people can stand their own culture due to their nasty, repulsive music lyrics that have have been the same for more than 20 years. Songs about getting paid and taking some other rappers riches and bitches, etc. etc. etc. It seems that they have nothing else to sing about.

    When I drive through a black neighborhood and I watch a slender and attractive black women walking down the street, I notice that every black man who they don’t know has to try to stop them and proposition them. I often wondered if black women purposely because obese so that they can walk down the street so that they don’t even have to thing about brothas saying anything to them.