The wisdom of pop songs – Rebellion, morality and abuse

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
Standing by their man: the girls don’t care what anybody says. He’s not a troublemaker, he’s sweeeet

It is not pop music’s job to present the world in a politically correct way. When pop and rock were young they were about rebellion. It was all about F*ck you, I’m doing it my way. But the songs are written by individuals, people with their own views on morality, and things have certainly changed.

Rock’n’roll began in the 1950s, when the transition from child to adult acquired a new stage and a new name: teenagers. Even then, though, the kids who were riding on Elvis Presley’s coat tails were pioneers and the world had yet to see how they could gain power and independence.

What Elvis did looks pretty mild to a generation that grew up looking at porn on the internet. So he waggled his hips a bit: whoopee dee. Go man go.

The main problem affecting teenagers in those days was that they had nowhere to go and no privacy. Being promiscuous is a lot easier if your parents aren’t on the premises on guard duty 24 hours a day. And that is what teenage rebellion is concerned with really. Yes, it’s about what you wear and having to go to school when you don’t want to and being expected to eat what’s put in front of you. But for many, if the girl or boy of your choice was in bed waiting for you, you’d have that homework done and that broccoli eaten in no time.

to sir
Just say no, Sid

Notable among the few who didn’t go along with the rebellion were the Beach Boys, whose early material contained wimp-outs like When I Grow Up to be a Man and Wouldn’t it be Nice. Good songs, but it seems that Brian Wilson was resigned to not getting his rocks off until he was 21.

Such tame acceptance was the exception, though. Everybody else was trying to kick doors down.

Songs with a moral message didn’t start to sneak through until the second wave of rebellion, in the hippie-powered late 60s, some of the barriers had been knocked down. While the barriers are up and stopping you from getting into trouble, you can rail at them all you like because nothing’s going to happen.

Thus it was okay in the 1967 for a schoolgirl to sing a love song to a teacher, as in To Sir With Love, written by men but sung by young Scottish minx Lulu.

A friend who taught me right from wrong
And weak from strong.
That’s a lot to learn.
What can I give you in return?

don't stand
And you’re not helping the situation by clowning around

Twenty years later Sting, who had been a teacher before finding fame with The Police, was urging her Don’t Stand So Close to Me, because there was every chance they would end up at his place doing an intensive class in sexual intercourse. And while that wouldn’t have gone down too well at any time in history, the AIDS scare of the late 70s had seen the start of what looked like (but wasn’t, as it turned out) a new Victorian era.

The issue of teenage pregnancy, which the contraceptive pill had promised but failed to resolve, was treated as a source of shame until Madonna got on the case in 1986 with Papa Don’t Preach, in which she informs her Dad that she is keeping her baby.

And now look at the world, dads might say.

Keep, it, love. Nobody’s arguing with you

There was a saying in the hazy hippie days and into the aimless early 70s: If it feels good, do it. It wasn’t an original thought, and the song that came out of it (Della Reese and others recorded it) wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last to bear that title. Not different versions of the same song, but different songs with the same name, because it’s a thought that strikes similar characters of different generations.

As so often, it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but then it’s just a snappy title and they are just pop songs.


Sexual and physical abuse may never have been fashionable subjects for songs, but then they weren’t talked about much until relatively recently.

Two that must embarrass the Who’s highly respected leader Pete Townshend are both on the band’s 1969 rock opera album Tommy, and both written by the late bass player John Entwistle. First there is Fiddle About, in which wicked Uncle Ernie gleefully describes molesting a young boy, while Cousin Kevin brings us a similarly gruesome tale of tying the deaf, dumb and blind kid to a chair and torturing him. What larks we had in the 60s, children. Many people – presumably including Townshend and Entwistle – actually thought they were quite funny at the time.

Suzanne Vega wiped the smiles off with Luka, in which the girl of the title asks the neighbours to ignore her plight as she gets audibly knocked about.

You’re only hit until you cry
And after that you don’t ask why
You just don’t argue anymore.

Compare that with the Crystals’ 1962 song He Hit Me (and it felt like a kiss), written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. This was apparently inspired by an abusive relationship suffered by their babysitter (Little Eva before she became famous with The Locomotion) and was meant to condemn the violence, which perhaps goes to show that irony (saying the opposite of what you mean) doesn’t really work in print or in song. The story goes that Eva had provoked the boyfriend by her relationship with another man, and saw his violent reaction as proof that he loved her. It’s a festering stew of twisted logic, masochism and sheer stupidity that wouldn’t be allowed to enter our ears nowadays.

he hit me
Yes, them again. Hmm, so you’re not going to press charges against this ‘rebel’, then?

But that’s how we got to where we are now, the age of political correctness: people wanted to save us from ourselves.

There is a very different take on hedonism, which tends to take hold soon after the carefree boom has started to fade: “If it feels good, it must be risky and bad, immoral and dangerous to your health.” But that’s a fine, upstanding, clean-living adult thought, and there’s very little room in pop music for that kind of thing.







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