Songs that directly address rape culture

By Will Doolittle

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Official "Thao and The Get Down Stay Down" Facebook Page

(Official “Thao & The Get Down Stay Down” Facebook Page)

With a message so powerful that Joe Biden had to introduce it at this year’s Oscars, Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” potently addressed the prevalent issue of sexual assault and delegitimization of survivors’ voices.

While its purpose as a tie-in for “The Hunting Ground,” a 2015 documentary about rape culture on college campuses, likely hit close to home for UMass students, “Til It Happens To You” is just one in a canon of recent songs addressing this topic. Here are a few more recent songs that analyze rape culture in many different forms.

Braids – “Miniskirt”

Among the largely non-inclusive narratives in Eve Ensler’s episodic play “The Vagina Monologues,” one piece that captures a more universal experience of women remains: “My Short Skirt,” which discusses the belittling idea that a survivor’s clothes could provoke their assault.

Braids’ “Miniskirt” revisits the ideas of “My Short Skirt” years later, and while it’s depressing to see how little has changed, an impassioned voice addressing the issue is always welcome.

“It’s like I’m wearing red and if I am you feel you’ve the right to touch me, ’cause ‘I asked for it,’” singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston snarls, after contrasting the sexually-shaming female pejoratives (“slut,” “bitch,” “whore”) with their comparatively light male counterparts (“womanizer,” “Casanova,” “lothario”).

Musically, “Miniskirt” is a bait-and-switch, spending a minute and a half building up to what sounds like the most epic EDM drop of all time only to pull back and fall into an understated shuffling rhythm. Its underlying message, however, still rings as clear as when Ensler and women before her addressed it: Your skirt is your own.

Empress Of – “Kitty Kat”

In 2014, a viral video of a young woman being repeatedly catcalled as she walked through the streets of New York garnered both praise and criticism. Regardless of framing, visceral reactions among female viewers seemed indicative of the prevalence and trauma of such unwanted advances.

Empress Of’s Lorely Rodriguez shared a similar experience for Yours Truly, commenting “I was so mad but I couldn’t say anything back at that moment. What would be the point?”

The product of Rodriguez’s pent-up anger is “Kitty Kat,” whose scorching percussion and firehose synthesizers reflect the inner anger of having to ignore such come-ons for your own dignity and safety.

“Don’t kitty-kitty-kat me like I’m just your pussy,” Rodriguez demands in scorn of her own degradation, chunks of distorted sound swirling around her. It’s a loud platform for a quiet anger, but like the woman in the video, who at one point is silently pursued for five minutes, it boils down to Rodriguez’s chorus chant: “Let me walk away.”

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – “Meticulous Bird”

As a sociology and women’s studies major whose last album was inspired by her time doing prison rights advocacy, Thao Nguyen seems like just the person to write an anti-sexual assault piece. “Meticulous Bird,” the climax of this year’s excellent “A Man Alive” album, is that takedown, and Nguyen’s boldest foray into spoken word yet. “It’s about various abuses of power,” said Nguyen of the song. “I wanted to maintain whatever level of activism I can maintain.”

Nguyen’s typical degree of ambiguity and metaphor is cleared for the repetitions of “I find the scene of the crime, I take my body back,” a lyric she “wanted whoever to be able to scream,” and her delivery shifts from relaxed to aggressive in the span of a few lines, adjusting to fit the morphing environment around her. By the time you get to the end, Nguyen has built herself into a towering beast, reveling in her assailant’s new diminutive form with a calm “Now I perch above you, meticulous bird of prey.”

tUnE-yArDs – “Manchild”

Merrill Garbus’s songs as tUnE-yArDs have always discussed a wide range of social issues, and “Manchild” is a full dressing-down of expected submission of women. In an imagined but probably all-too-familiar interaction, Garbus criticizes the fragility of masculinity (“Oh there were some times among the times when I could stand to do this little jig with you… It’s time to meet it head on”) after skewering apparent male hyper-sexuality (“Oh little manchild look at your pants/An accident happens each time we dance”).

Premature ejaculation references aside, “Manchild” is blunt commentary. Its opening melodic repetitions, which reference the common,  “Yes means yes, no means no” slogan of consent campaigns, even position it as something of an anti-“Blurred Lines.” Men-children don’t “know she wants it,” and whether or not she actually does is none of their business.

William Doolittle can be reached at [email protected]