The 1980s and early-1990s were strange for a lot of reasons. One of these is the odd collectives of theme that popped up here and there. It’s like pop culture seized on a notion and all the players at the time reported on it at once, then moved on to the next pop-up topic.
Case in point: the age of the abuse anthem. We are fortunate today to have, at least superficially, more room to discuss difficult subjects like being abused and to call out abusers. It’s a relatively new thing. Prior to the 1980s, threats of physical, emotional, and sexual violence against spouses and girlfriends (and yes, boys and men as well) were kept quiet. There was this toxic notion that if the man lashed out at the woman, she did something to provoke it. She might have actually deserved it. Speaking out against this would not have freed her from the hidden cycle of violence, but likely would have heaped an additional weight of shame upon her.
There was also a time when “beating your kids within an inch of their lives” was considered good parenting. “Spare the rod…” and all that. Partner abuse was tolerated, too. The Crystals’ “He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss” was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and that came out in 1963, not being as supportive to victims as it could have been, to say the least.
A seminal change in the atmosphere came in 1980 with the publication of Faith McNulty’s book The Burning Bed, and the 1984 television adaptation of it starring Farrah Fawcett. Thanks to critical praise for both endeavors, speaking aloud about such violence was finally acceptable, and pop music latched onto that.
In 1983, the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes found Arnold Jackson’s friend Dudley getting molested by the neighborhood bike shop owner. These stories were popping up in all kinds of unexpected places.
By the time we got to 1985, people became so comfortable with discussing this that one of the biggest hit movies of the decade hinged on whether the protagonist’s dad could keep his mother from being date-raped, thus nullifying said protagonist’s existence (Back to the Future). In five years, a lot changed, but when the substance of the change was tested, what really came of it?
Two of the four songs discussed in this piece were big hits, and two were not (and before people pick that nit, one of the four arrived on the far side of the ’90s, but its decisions lyrically demand a statement). Taken as a whole, we see two particular narratives emerge: those of the bystanding witness that may intervene, but likely won’t; and those of the “avenging angel,” either the victim him/herself or some super-heroic figure who swoops in to save the day.
Origins of the Victim Anthem – To say that there weren’t songs about victims before 1980 would be a fallacy, but they were few and far between. More prevalent were songs from the other side, being the murder ballad which sprang from the earliest days of folk and blues. Even in rock and roll, we can see the songs that purportedly justify killing or beating for love (or the presumption of love). See Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” or even The Beatles’ “Run For Your Life”:
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’a little girl
In Sgt. Pepper‘s “Getting Better,” we get:
I used to be cruel to my woman
I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved
Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene
And I’m doing the best that I can
Not that there weren’t similar threats coming even in the ’80s era of enlightenment. See Journey’s “Line of Fire” for details.
Many songs tackled the subject, but the majority stayed under the radar and relied on the listener to put the pieces in place. ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” makes bold nods to an abusive relationship, but they don’t really come out in the most direct form. “He wants me, but only part of the time. He wants me if he can keep me in line.”
Things didn’t break in pop until 1987 with Suzanne Vega’s surprise hit, “Luka,” and 1989’s “Janie’s Got A Gun” from Aerosmith.
Luka – The hit track from Suzanne Vega’s 1987 album Solitude Standing bares a fundamental truth about the consumers of popular music. If you can hum the tune, you probably won’t grasp the lyrics. On more than one occasion, I had to explain to someone that this is a song about a child being beaten by a parent. The replies I would get typically stayed in the “no, that can’t be” range. The tune is so sing-songy and bouncy. It couldn’t possibly be so. Give credit to Vega for her songwriting prowess that she got the song to so many people even if, sadly, they were clueless to its content.
The most telling part about “Luka” is the bystanding witness – barely a witness – narrative. Luka is talking with an apartment neighbor who is concerned that he’s being beaten by a parent. He responds that he’s clumsy. He falls down a lot and “it’s not your business anyway.” In other words, stay out of it.
This is the heartbreak about such violence. The victim frequently can’t talk about it. The abuser has all the power and the credibility. If the abused did try to break away, or just give voice to what’s occurring, the beatings would be more extreme. Luka has determined that self-preservation means taking it, and although the neighbor means well, her inquiries will only make things worse.
What’s really being confronted in the song is the idea that, yes, something should be done and, yes, you might be the change agent. You probably should be the change agent. Still, you are not a superhero and things can go from bad to worse when a perpetrator is confronted, shamed, and angered. It’s never stated outright, but for those really thinking about the lyrics, there’s a subtle implication that you should not turn that proverbial blind eye, but you absolutely should involve a professional, someone who understands how much more severe the situation could get if not handled properly.
Not many people got that.
Janie’s Got A Gun – I’m sorry, but there is a major disconnection in the idea that the Toxic Twins would be the presenters of a victim revenge song. Up until that point, I think a lot of people might have assumed that Aerosmith would have been the abusers in the tale, seeing how tough they made things for each other and their many significant others. The ’80s, man, they were weird times.
The song “Janie’s Got A Gun” became one of the band’s biggest hits, but the subject matter bears almost no gravity musically. It sounds surprisingly bouncy, even if it is connected to an avenging angel lyric. After a lifetime of being molested by her father without anyone intervening, not even the cops, Janie takes the law into her own hands.
I think audiences understood all they needed to about the song by this time. The lyrics aren’t all that subtle. It is strange that the band took this song to heart the way that they did. I will presume that the music video directed by now-celebrated filmmaker David Fincher went a long way in pushing listeners past their qualms about subject matter. It is, after all, an empowerment song but also rather exploitative. Fincher’s lighting in the video gives everything a spooky film-noir sheen, and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry infuse the track with callbacks to “Dream On,” the band’s biggest hit at that time. It could be that any subject that was proffered would have worked, just to hear the band sound like themselves. The audience knew they were getting an abuse anthem, but maybe they just didn’t care and took it for what it was worth.
As big as Aerosmith’s previous album, Permanent Vacation (1987), was, Pump (1989) was bigger. It set the band on a career resurgence even they could not have fathomed. It makes things more unsettling that a large fraction of that revitalization came from a song about such a topic.
See You In Black – I want to bring up this track by Blue Oyster Cult, from their 1998 album Heaven Forbid, to see how a hard rock abuse anthem could go very, very wrong.
Sympathy is one thing. I think that, in general, most of these songs mean well and display a common cause with the victim. “See You In Black,” therefore, becomes really difficult and morally wonky. In the tune, Eric Bloom witnesses the constant abuse of a woman by her husband. He states that he’d “like to see you in black,” meaning at the husband’s funeral. He expresses that he’d really like to be the guy that does the dirty deed. She deserves better than that.
Okay…it’s a bit creepy, but okay. That’s what BOC is known for, right? By the end of the song, the singer would like to strip all that black off of her and make love to her. Um. Uh. Er. In this case, the narrator is the avenging angel…or is he?
It’s kind of on-brand for BOC to take this position. This is, after all, the band that famously equated love and death on “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Even so, we’re left with the awful aftertaste of lyrics that imply taking advantage of a woman who has been abused, and that sits uneasily within one of the band’s better efforts during that decade. (Seriously, “Harvest Moon” and the remake of “In Thee” are surprisingly good.)
Say what you will about “Janie’s Got A Gun,” but at least toward the end of it, Tyler didn’t insinuate that he was glad she killed her dad because now he could get with Janie.
The notion of the “knight in shining armor” is toxic, too. You hear this a lot in pop, even as recently as 2016’s execrable “Treat You Better” from Shawn Mendes. It suggests that the path to true love is if the girl being abused by her douchebag boyfriend would only wise up, she’d realize he was the right man for her. Correlating to this, it would take a demonstration of his goodness to show her the boyfriend’s badness. The upshot here is that good guy would need to save her from bad guy and that would require the girl being victimized. If only he could save her from the tongue-lashing or the potential sexual abuse or, if after the car crash, he gets to be the first face she sees, dutifully perched beside her hospital bed. How is that a sentiment worth getting behind?
It also negates the girl’s choice. Yeah, the boyfriend is terrible, but it is her choice, and ultimately her choice to leave him should she want to. The notion that she must be saved by some peripheral “gentleman” who waits for the boyfriend’s punch that clears her head feeds this ugliness rather than alleviating it. In this, while BOC is far sinister in tone, the aim is the same. “Save” the objects of their affections (emphasis on “object”) and then have them for themselves.
This is a lousy message to send to women, but an even worse one to send to men. It suggests that true love is just a tragedy away, so let’s root for the tragedy and make prom plans.
Family Business – The song least likely to be heard by the most people is “Family Business” from Fish, from his 1990 debut Vigil In A Wilderness of Mirrors, arriving a year after his departure from the band Marillion. His is a clear example of the bystanding witness as he recounts what he’s heard “on the other side of the wall” that separates him from the titular family. Daddy’s rage is bad and getting worse, and when he’s not beating mom, he’s seemingly spending more and more time in the kids’ room. The stakes are getting higher. What does the neighbor do?
So I become an accessory
And I don’t have an alibi
To the victim on my doorstep
The only way I can justify
It’s family business
This is a pointed lyric, mainly because apathy and ignorance, and a lot of fear all factor in society’s decision to do nothing when clear victimization is taking place. Fish, born Derek Dick, nails this right between the eyes. He wants to be the avenging angel, but he can’t bring himself to even call the cops. He’s going to stay in his lane and let them sort it out, even if that comes to a fatality.
No one is advocating flat-out vigilantism, but it never fails to perplex me that the default of the common wisdom is either/or, burn down the city or do nothing, drive a million miles or go nowhere. Given myriad options of ways we can make change in this world, we remain stubbornly fixed to a binary solution: on or off. There is no in-between.
Every day, our culture suffers because we can’t – or won’t – pursue solutions between all or nothing.
Where Are We Now? – The 1990s led into Alternative Nation, and some of the era’s biggest music heroes regularly sang about being abused, and the subsequent self-loathing it generated. By mid-decade, that pretty much ended. Except for the odd entry, such as the Blue Oyster Cult track, escapism returned. Britney Spears’ “Baby Hit Me One More Time” was not about being hit so much as it was about being “hit up” and “gotten with.”
Pop/R&B singer Chris Brown was charged with felony assault for beating then-girlfriend Rihanna the night before the 2009 Grammys. The initial backlash from the music industry was no backlash at all. Friends and industry peers wished the typical hopes and prayers for Rihanna and Brown. He was, after all, a massive hitmaker at the time and everyone throwing out the “much love” to them equally were protecting themselves (more succinctly, their future profitability) by not rejecting a rainmaker, even though he pummeled his girlfriend.
When musicians do go for that big “special episode” kind of song now, tackling the subject of abuse, it only goes with the weakest of stances. The songs tend not to look at the act of violence to say that it is not and cannot be tolerated. Instead, lyrics come as pep talks. “Your dad beat you? Your boyfriend punched you in the eye? Forget all that. You’re amazing!” Okay, maybe she is “amazing,” as you incessantly choose to say, but what about the crime?
Fault the Eighties for its cheesiness or preachiness, but I feel like its collective heart was in the right place. Band Aid and USA For Africa spawned a lot of well-intentioned but ridiculous charity knock-offs, but the sincerity was there. In between hits of cocaine, it seemed like celebrities (in this case, musicians) were not afraid to care out in public.
Such efforts invoke the ire of some, shouting down said celebrities as “arrogant social justice warriors,” and “why don’t you just sing and look pretty?”
And so they do. That’s why we get tune after tune where the sin is briefly mentioned, but hey, you’re amazing! You’re totally killing it! Nobody is better than you!
This is the worst kind of activism, the kind that does the very barest minimum and still walks around satisfied, like something important was accomplished. Worse, the bandage of compliments versus a real bandage is self-defeating. When things are at their worse, these suggest, no one’s going to help you, not even by dropping a call on someone who can intervene. But damn, you are so good just existing there. Keep on existing. Don’t ask me for any more than that because I don’t want to get hit, too.
Conclusion – Pop culture is at a low point. It’s cool to look like you care but not actually care. Drop your generosity off on Instagram, but don’t get any of it under your fingernails. Don’t be caught trying. You’ll get called an SJW. Don’t use your talent as a method for introducing ideas that could be thorny, problematic, or at worst, screw up your marketability.
Women, girls, young boys, and even men are being victimized today. Movements have sprung up to offer support, yes, but in terms of music’s response, it’s been self-protectionism. “Much love. Sorry about the bruises, but you’re still hot as hell.”
We need a revival. We need an artist with cache to stop with the superficial pep-talk and be a role model. We know that’s going to draw fire, but the biggest challengers usually do because they have the biggest presence. They’re a big target because everyone can see them, and that visibility is crucial. It would be nice if they used their massive size, footprints, and egos for a worthwhile purpose.
As messed-up a decade as the ’80s was, it proved this could be done. It proved that those who stepped out could do so without losing their relevance. They came out with all the real bravery and swagger that are merely cosplayed today. Our present-day – just as celebrity obsessed as it ever was – could use your voice for real. If not, you’re just one more neighbor hearing what’s going down and doing absolutely nothing.
If you are in an abusive relationship and need help, you can reach out to a few organizations for help.
P.S.: It is a noxious thought that, yes, “We Are The World” was co-written by Michael Jackson. His story – of so many being harmed and so many others turning that blind eye because, come on, who would want to cross the King of Pop – is so similar to how industry people reacted to Chris Brown and Rihanna years later, and shows how brave we are not, still. May we get much braver before the next tragic and preventable time happens.