Monday, May 27

Examining rock’s treatment of rape

Examining rock’s treatment of rape

What’s that Noise?

Michael Tatum

Rock ‘n’ roll is no stranger to the subject of rape. Countless
male blues artists used traditional images of masculine power as a
means to threaten women in their songs, and though a few of their
female counterparts turned those threats around, many more sang
about being slapped around and liking it.

By contrast, white male artists worth their salt have been
careful to keep their attitudes toward rape more ambiguous. Whether
you want to chalk up their strategy to compelling storytelling or a
dishonest concealing of their true motives is entirely

In this vein, probably the most notorious example is The Rolling
Stones’ "Midnight Rambler," in which Mick Jagger sings from the
point of view of an unrepentant rapist. Many objected to his
portrayal of the character, who though clearly evil, came off as
seductive and glamorous as well.

Nirvana’s "Polly" takes an entirely different approach. Part of
why the song works aesthetically lies in Kurt Cobain’s creepy vocal
performance ­ in a song about a woman’s forced submission, he
sings lines like "Let me take a ride/ Hurt yourself" with complete

When a few ignorant boys mistook "Polly" as a pro-rape tract,
Cobain got rightfully pissed off and penned "Rape Me," which takes
the same subject from a different angle: The narrator wants to be
violated. In this fashion, the song works as a viciously ironic
commentary on exploitation in general, particularly by the

Other than what the respective artists have said in their
interviews, it can’t be conclusively proven that these songs either
glorify or condemn rape. Even after repeated listenings, the
intentions behind "Midnight Rambler" still trouble me. The fact
that Jagger is rock’s master of persona and convoluted irony
comforts me little ­ his performance is far too

Is he really exposing the twisted impulses and desires of his
audience, as rock critic Robert Christgau has suggested? Is he
telling a story? Or am I just willing to explain away such gray
areas because the Stones are one of my favorite bands?

It’s hard to imagine any sensitive listener coming away from
these songs without a feeling of disgust, either toward the artist
or (as I do) toward the character the artist portrays.

Either way you look at it, one thing remains certain: These
songs, horrifying and shocking as they are, treat rape as a serious

* * *

I got to thinking about these issues with regard to another song
concerning the same topic: Sublime’s "Date Rape."

I’m sure you are all familiar with its storyline: a young woman
gets drunk with and is raped by a stranger she encounters in a bar.
By the song’s end, the villain ­ the predictable fraternity
guy caricature ­ is incarcerated, after which he gets his
"comeuppance" in the form of sodomy at the hands of a fellow

The noxious musical setting, which has as much to do with ska as
Collective Soul’s "Shine" has to do with alternative rock, should
be an immediate tip off to the meager merits of this song. As pure
music, "Date Rape" reminds me of something that Greil Marcus once
said about USA For Africa’s "We Are The World": "Bad politics,
which can be rooted in real desires, can produce good art; bad art,
which can only be based in faked or compromised desires, can only
produce bad politics."

"Date Rape" epitomizes the latter. Even if the song boasted a
lyric as powerful as "Midnight Rambler" or "Polly," any insight it
might hold would be rendered impotent by the inanity of the music,
which conveys nothing that approaches any level of sincerity or

But appropriately, the lyric is as wrongheaded as the music that
surrounds it. This strikes me as ironic, since "Midnight Rambler"
­ an undeniably great song ­ refuses to take a side,
while "Date Rape" makes no bones about who is "right" and who is

Unfortunately, the guys in Sublime are nowhere near as
articulate as Jagger, nor do they possess his talent for
storytelling, which is of course where all the problems start.
Unlike Jagger’s "Midnight Rambler," the characters that inhabit the
world of "Date Rape" amount to nothing more than cardboard cutouts
­ the innocent young lass, the dastardly pick-up artist, etc.
Thus any sense of realism or immediacy, two dramatic elements that
a story like this deserves, are lost.

Meanwhile, the plot itself panders to the most dangerous
misunderstandings about rape. Most rape survivors, for example,
know their attackers beforehand (in many cases, they dated them
­ hence, another reason why "Date Rape," as a song title and
as a coherent lyric, doesn’t make sense). Furthermore, since most
rape survivors never report their experiences to the police, most
rapists are never apprehended.

But what bothers me most is the song’s warped perception of
justice. Is the villain’s "butt rape" (the song’s choice of words,
not mine) meant to fill us up with a sense of rectitude? Obviously,
his "payback" is intended to be viewed not only humorously ­
as if rape is ever humorous, regardless of who commits it ­
but it is also designed to appeal to the homophobia of the song’s
audience. I mean, really, "butt raped"? Did the guys in Sublime
make this song up during fourth-grade recess?

This particular aspect of the song has been addressed by a far
worthier artist, Michael Franti of the Disposable Heroes of
Hiphoprisy. In "The Language Of Violence," a group of boys taunt,
beat and eventually kill a boy whom they perceive as different than
themselves ­ "faggot, queer, sissy," Franti spits, with a
vitriol clearly directed at the boy’s attackers.

One of the boys is sent to prison, where, of course, he is
approached by a group of men who want to "welcome" him to the fold.
"Never thought about his own sexuality," Franti raps, and the boy’s
rape is meant to interpreted not as some wacky cosmic punishment,
as in "Date Rape," but as a larger statement about the cycle
perpetuated by a society that refuses to address openly and
honestly issues of homosexuality and identity.

The guys in Sublime are too dim for such illumination. I pity
any young woman who has actually endured date rape who has to
suffer through that song every time it blares from a radio. What
kind of reaction does Sublime wish to elicit from her? "Tee hee, he
got ‘butt raped,’ how funny. I guess that makes it OK? Even though
the guy who did that to me got off scot-free?"

I also feel for any closeted gay teen who has to hear this song.
These young men and women, who repress who they are on a daily
basis, have to suffer through enough homophobia as it is. Are they
supposed to laugh along at the villain’s "butt rape"?

And before you protest that "Date Rape" is just a cute little
song, think about the paradox inherent in that statement: a cute
little song … about date rape?

"Midnight Rambler," "Rape Me" and "Polly" are not cute little
songs. They are scary, frightening glimpses of sexuality and
violence that show a side of the world that people rarely discuss
in their public lives, though in one way or another, nearly
everyone brushes by it in their personal lives.

"Date Rape" is far more dangerous, even though it pretends to be
sympathetic toward its heroine. It presents rape in the most
simplified, stereotypical, two-dimensional terms. Through the
triviality of its words and its music, it treats rape as a

And as I think we all know by now, rape is no joke.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.