Topical, Wellbeing

Taylor Swift: The Latest Contributor to the Normalisation of Domestic Abuse and Rape Culture in Music?

I think I may have reached ‘that’ age where I moan about how newly released music is ‘just noise’. I promised myself I wouldn’t but here I am.

I am that person that listen to music from her hormonal teenage years on Spotify while driving or getting ready if I don’t have the radio on, but I’m also a bit of a sucker for the well-used 4-chord progression in pop music (and especially like this parody of 4-chord songs by the Axis of Awesome that illustrates this musical phenomenon).

But Taylor Swift’s latest song – ‘ME!’ – caught me off-guard this week. Before I talk about that, I’ll provide a little bit of background.

Domestic abuse spans a multitude of behaviours, but there are common behaviours that link them all (Source: Women’s Aid). They include:

  • Destructive criticism and verbal abuse
  • Pressure tactics
  • Disrespect
  • Breaking trust
  • Isolation
  • Harassment
  • Threats
  • Sexual violence
  • Physical violence
  • Denial

Rape Culture is defined as a prevailing societal attitude that normalises sexual assault, abuse, and violence (usually towards women in a male-dominated world, but it does affect men too).

Misogynistic themes or the glorification of issues related to rape culture and domestic abuse (including violence) is not a new thing in music. Although we are becoming more aware of it (Robin Thicke’s song ‘Blurred Lines’ was banned from multiple student unions in the UK due to promoting rape culture with the lies “I know you want it”; “I hate these blurred lines”; and “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”), there are still plenty slipping through the net; songs that impressionable children are listening to, and are risking internalising the underlying messages as normal ways to behave.

In terms of music from previous decades – before there was more of a public outcry about domestic abuse and rape culture – we can see lots on incidences of normalising the abuse of women; even in tracks that are still played today (though because of when they were written we accept them as a product of their time – the zeitgeist of the era, as it were). Some examples include:

  • He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss) (The Crystals): He couldn’t stand to hear me say / That I’d been with someone new / And when I told him I had been untrue / He hit me, And it felt like a kiss / He hit me, And I knew he loved me. (Physical violence towards a partner, and convincing them that they hit them because of something the partner did or they ‘love them’, is Domestic Abuse)
  • Every Breath You Take (Sting): Every breath you take, And every move you make / Every bond you break, every step you take I’ll be watching you. / Every single day, And every word you say / Every game you play, every night you stay I’ll be watching you. / Oh, can’t you see You belong to me? (Stalking, harassment, and not allowing any privacy are forms of Domestic Abuse)
  • Run For Your life (The Beatles): Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man. / You better keep your head, little girl Or you won’t know where I am. / You better run for your life if you can, little girl / Hide your head in the sand, little girl / Catch you with another man / That’s the end, little girl (Threats to life, and accusing the partner of affairs, are Domestic Abuse)
  • Just the Two of Us (Bonnie and Clyde) (Eminem): Mama’s too sleepy to hear you screamin’ in her ear, That’s why you can’t get her to wake / But don’t worry, dada made a nice bed for mama at the bottom of the lake / Here, you want to help dada tie a rope around this rock? We’ll tie it to her footsies then we’ll roll her off the dock / Ready now, here we go, on the count of three, One, two, three…weeeeeeeee / There goes mama splashin’ in the water No more fightin’ your dad, no more restrainin’ order / No more step dada, no more new brother, Blow her kisses bye-bye, tell mama you love her / We’ll go play in the sand, build a sand castle and junk, But first, just help dad with two more things out the trunk (I’m really hoping I don’t need to explain why this one is perpetuating Domestic Violence given that it’s a man who has killed his partner and is putting her in the lake… But it’s important to note here that although the child hasn’t been hurt directly, that anything they witness is still considered Domestic Abuse towards the child).
  • All The Way (Busted): Cause you said that you would, But then you changed your mind / How could you do this to me, It’s just so unkind. / And it’s cruel if you say that you’ll go all the way / I can’t wait for the day That you don’t change your mind. / You’ve got to understand / Things are getting out of hand / You can’t just leave me sitting here unseen to. (Forcing or pressuring someone into having sex when they don’t want to falls under the umbrella of both Domestic Abuse/Violence and Rape Culture).

Using the caveat of the previous music being a product of its time, we should expect less of it in music within the last ten years; especially given public campaigns about both Domestic Abuse and Rape culture. Sadly this is not the case. See below:

  • Love The Way You Lie (Eminem ft. Rihanna): Next time I’m pissed, I’ll aim my fist at the dry wall / Next time, there will be no next time / I apologize even though I know it’s lies / I’m tired of the games, I just want her back, I know I’m a liar / If she ever tries to fucking leave again / I’m a tie her to the bed and set this house on fire
    Just gonna stand there and watch me burn / But that’s alright, because I like the way it hurts / Just gonna stand there and hear me cry / But that’s alright, because I love the way you lie
    (Again this one is relatively obvious – there are obvious attempts to scare the partner, and threats to her life (first paragraph) but the scary message in this is the normalisation of staying in the relationship and accepting ‘loving the liar’ as normal – even romanticising it – where she inevitably dies at the end. There is no resolution or message that this isn’t how it should be).
  • E.T. (Katy Perry ft Kanye West): Take me / Take me / Wanna be your victim / Ready for abduction
    I’mma disrobe you / Then I’mma probe you / See I’ve abducted you / So I’ll tell you what to do
    (Although it could be argued that she’s asking to be ‘taken’ and ‘abducted’ (which is concerning in itself – unless part of a consensual and respectful Dom-Sub BDSM relationship, but that’s a topic for another day!) part of the problem is her wanting to be a ‘victim’; when society has been trying to progress away from victim-blaming in rape and Domestic Abuse and instead trying to put the blame back where it belongs; on the side of the abuser. Kanye’s reply depicting taking her clothes of and ‘probing’ her because he’s allowed to tell her what to do since he’s the one that’s ‘abducted’ her is also a good example of Rape Culture).

Back in the present, how does this all relate to Taylor Swift’s latest track?

When listening to it, I felt the familiar pang of recognising the normalisation of domestic violence behaviours in pop music (so to be clear, I’m not saying this song perpetuates rape culture – but it was addressed as part of the background as the perpetuation of both is a wider issue in music). This is despite the abundance of kittens, engagement rings, cupids, hearts, and pink flouncy outfits in the accompanying video; and the happy and familiar 4-chord progression.

Some listeners may not see any problem with it – I believe Taylor Swift herself said the lyrics were about embracing your individuality and bringing positive vibes into the world – but it’s important to notice when things can be viewed differently from another perspective (as an example, someone who used to be a size 6 who is now a size 16 may be unhappy with their body image, but another person who was a size 26 and is now a size 16 will be thrilled with their new figure). (This is also important when considering helping someone escape from Domestic Abuse – as how you see it may not be how they see it, and you cannot force someone to change their mind – but you can safely educate and support).

The song is a conversation between Taylor Swift and Brendon Urie, and it does have a ‘couple’ vibe to both the song itself and the video. They are essentially telling a story about rifts in their relationship, listing their own faults, but telling each other how the other would be worse off without them despite that. The video shows them arguing in their flat at the beginning, with Brendon calling Taylor over-dramatic (minimisation and trivialising her experience – under the umbrella of ‘gaslighting’); Taylor pointing out that they are doing so in front of their ‘young daughters’ (yes they are cats here, but it sends an important message in terms of the damage done to children that witness domestic abuse); and Brendon trying to win her over with gifts, with Taylor eventually settling on a kitten (and showering with gifts after committing abuse is a common behaviour from the perpetrator). This could have been an opportunity to send a message about toxic behaviours in relationships, but instead… Well, let’s look at some of the lyrics a little more:

  • “Baby Doll when it comes to a lover / I promise that you’ll never find another like me” ;
    “I promise that nobody’s gonna love you like me”;
    “I’m the only one of me”.

    These are repeated throughout the song, in almost every verse/chorus in some form or another. This was the first one that stood out to me. One of the criticisms and pressure tactics abusers use is to repeatedly tell you how good you have it now (when you don’t), and to remind you that you won’t have it as ‘good’ as you do now, because no-one else will put up with you, find you attractive, or love you. The fact it was repeated throughout the song made for some uncomfortable listening.
  • “I know that I’m a handful baby, uh / I know I never think before I jump”
    Although there isn’t a solid description of abusive behaviour, there is an implication of not being the easiest person to be in a relationship with, and possibly not thinking before they act on impulse (possibly to the partner)
  • “I know that I went psycho on the phone”
    ‘Went psycho’ (while a terrible phrase and adds to the stigmatisation of people with mental illness and psychosis or psychopathy being bad or dangerous people) in this context does imply negative behaviours directed at the other person – such as shouting/screaming, insulting them, threatening them, or acting jealous – towards the other person (seen in domestic abuse).
  • “I never leave well enough alone”
    Never leaving someone alone constitutes stalking, harassment, and not allowing the partner to have privacy (domestic abuse behaviours).
  • “And trouble’s gonna follow where I go”
    This implies that rather than accepting responsibility for their own behaviour, it’s everyone else’s fault but theirs and just happens to ‘follow’ them (blaming someone else – especially the partner – for their abusive behaviour is also domestic abuse).
  • “I’m the only one of me / Baby that’s the fun of me”
    This could be seen as trivialising and minimising their behaviour, making the other feel like they are overreacting, and actually it’s all just a bit of fun (gaslighting is a domestic abuse behaviour).
  • “I know I tend to make it about me”
    In domestic abuse, everything is about the abuser being happy, not the partner.
  • “I know you never get just what you see” In domestic abuse, the partner is very different person to when they first met their partner and charmed them, and usually act respectful and patient in front of others; then it all changes when they are alone.
  • “When we had that fight out in the rain / You ran after me and called my name / I never wanna see you walk away.”
    Couples are advised to give each other space after an argument to calm down, especially if one is prone to outbursts. Here, this isn’t being allowed by ‘running after’ the partner and not giving them space. Equally, this could be seen as someone having the power to walk away from a relationship but being the only one with the power to do so (to be used as a control tactic), but never allowing the other person to leave.
  • “Girl there ain’t no ‘I’ in team / But you know there is a ‘me'”
    This is shifting the focus from that of a ‘team’ and ‘equal relationship’ to the importance and happiness of one person only (and using a popular/familiar statement and positive message to do this)
  • “Strike the band up 1 2 3 / You can’t spell ‘awesome’ without ‘me'”
    In a similar vein to the above, one person is being placed above the other, with a sense of grandiosity and self-importance (often seen in perpetrators of domestic abuse); and telling the band to ‘strike up’ and support the delivery of this statement implies that everyone else will agree with their inflated ego (OK I think I’m having a flashback to analysing individual lines in books during A-Level English Language and Literature here, but the premise still stands).

Some may argue that it’s a non-issue, and it’s just a case of people enjoying music, but it isn’t just about how it sounds; it’s about what the message is underneath. Research has repeatedly shown links between misogynous thinking when exposed to music that describes physical/sexual assault and violence against women, and aggression in general (Source: 1, 2), and this also applies to perception of intimate partner violence in music videos.

These are the songs our children are singing along to in the car, or with their friends in the park while playing it on their phones – and they could be internalising it all. Abusive behaviours are being portrayed as normal underneath the familiar and happy-sounding progression of 4 chords (C, Am, F, and G in Taylor Swift’s case, if you’re interested) – we take comfort in the familiar, and assume it’s right because it ‘feels’ right (another reason people stay in abusive relationships is because it’s familiar, and that equates to comfort and relative safety).

So let’s think next time before we sing along. What is this song really saying?

If you need some support for Domestic Abuse for yourself or someone else, there is help and advice available from the Women’s Aid website (remember to use Private Browsing or delete your history to cover your tracks if you need to), and the National Domestic Violence Helpline (0808 2000 247)

If you would like to learn more about Domestic Abuse (either as a survivor is as a perpetrator – including the role of attitudes and beliefs) check out The Freedom Programme

If you would like to book an appointment, please get in touch via the Book An Appointment page.

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