The summer after grade 11 I left my boyfriend Jim at home and hopped on a plane with 40 other kids. We were bound for Three Rivers, Michigan to spend 6 weeks doing a leadership training program at a summer camp. The program turned out to be a bit of a joke (we learned a lot more about smoking cigarettes than we did about being leaders of tomorrow). There was, however, one event that stood out for me.
One of our roles as budding leaders was to run avtivities for the campers. So once a week we were assigned partners and told to come up with a thought-provoking session for kids.
Most of my activities had involved silly games or baking cookies. But this time I was assigned to work with a girl named Becky. Becky wore green Doc Martins, came to Three Rivers armed with a stack of books by authors I had never heard of, and had a great idea for an activity. We would get the kids to analyze songs to see if they were sexist.
To do so we collected a bunch of songs like Guns ‘N Roses, Used to Love Her, the Beastie Boys, Girls and the Beatles Run for Your Life. Then we made a mix tape (remember this was the nineties), got our assigned kids together and pressed play. Afterwards we played them Fugazi’s, Suggestion, which was about sexual harassment, to counter the messages of the previous songs.
Now I don’t know if the eight-year-olds we were working with actually got a lot out of our session. But I certainly did.
Though had lead Becky to believe I was as aware of this issue as she was, the idea of listening to music for the message was actually pretty new to me. But it also was something that I had been thinking about more and more. Mainly, that was because of a really uncomfortable experience I’d had at a concert the previous spring.
It was the Public Enemy / Anthrax show (again, blame the decade!). I went with Jim and some of his guy friends. As the bands belted out some early version of a rock / rap hybrid, three women came out on stage. They were wearing thong bikinis and heels. They didn’t sing or dance or play an instrument. Instead, they strutted around the stage as the bands encouraged the crowd to scream, "Pussy! Pussy!"
I was 16 and aside from the women on stage, I felt like the only female there. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood miserably, smoking, as everyone around me chanted.
However, it wasn’t until Becky’s dissection of lyrics, and her introduction to bands that sang politically and socially charged songs, that I realized just how prevalent sexism was in music, and that it was possible to find bands I liked that didn’t make me uncomfortable.
It’s not that I poured over lyric sheets before buying new music after that. But thinking about the issue definitely made me more conscious of what I listened to, and which bands I supported.
And I’m happy to report that since then, I have never again found myself stranded in the middle of a crowd as a band whipped the audience into a screaming frenzy of misogyny. Of course, I’m also happy to report that I never again played Guns ‘N Roses for eight year olds…
Have you ever had an experince like mine? Do you care about lyrics in music?