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.







The wisdom of pop songs – violence

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
hey joe
Check the lyrics: “I’m going down to shoot my old lady”.

It’s a thin line between love and hate. We know that because the song of that name says so.

In 1934 Cole Porter, the composer of countless classic songs, brought us the sad tale Miss Otis Regrets, in which the lady in question got so upset when a man had his wicked way with her and didn’t love her afterwards that she shot him. Killed him.

So much for the misty-eyed notion of the past: “Ah, more innocent times”. This was an era when Al Capone was in prison and sufferering from syphilis-induced dementia, and John Dillinger breathed his last in a hail of bullets.

Perhaps that is why there seems to have been no furore about Porter creating a bad role model and inciting people to violence. When you can’t see across the street for flying lead, what is one more seducer in the graveyard?

In today’s politically correct world, such a story of mayhem would probably be banned. That the world of rap music has largely escaped such censure for its litany of bitter diatribes and stories of drive-by shootings can only be due to the fact that the people who would like to have that sort of thing banned can’t understand the words because of da way dem muthas sing.

Confessions account for several notable pop violence ditties. When Jimi Hendrix made an international hit out of a song, Hey Joe, that had been kicking around for a few years (and we’re not even sure who wrote it), he wasn’t expressing murderous thoughts, but explaining why he had shot his girlfriend. It wouldn’t get him very far in front of a real judge and jury (ask Oscar Pistorius), but somehow Hendrix came over as a nice guy in spite of what he was telling us.

On a completely different note, Bessie Smith once sang about domestic violence and apparently excused her man for hitting her. “I’d rather my man would hit me, than for him to jump up and quit me,” and “I swear I won’t call no copper if I get beat up by my papa” must have raised eyebrows in the 1920s, but nothing like they would today. They are not her lyrics, in fact, because the song was written by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, but even so, she was delivering the message. When Mary Coughlan recorded it in 1985, the strong-minded Irish singer switched “hit” and “quit” in the first of those lines, making her disapproval clear, and changed the second to “I swear I would call a copper…”

And yes, I have a load of spare ammunition under there too

Messing around with a lyric in that way wouldn’t always work (Hey Joe, where you going with those heavy thoughts in your mind? I’m going to have a word with my old lady…), but then some songs are obviously just youthful rock’n’roll bravado while others seem relevant in reality.

A more modern take on domestic violence came in Suzanne Vega’s 1980s song Luka, which drew attention to the fact, even though the Luka character seems resigned to her fate, urging her neighbor to ignore anything that sounds like violence late at night. It is not pop music’s job to offer solutions, but it can draw our attention to things.

No laughing matter: Suzanne Vega gets serious

Quite what Bob Marley thought he was doing when he admitted he shot the sheriff but denied shooting the deputy is not clear. Was shooting sheriffs okay in Jamaica at that time? Although his work is streaked with trouble with the police, Marley’s general message was that he and his fellows should be left alone to smoke ganja as and when they wanted, because they weren’t doing anyone any harm.

All of these songs, though, are from the fringes of pop: blues, rock, rap and reggae. In the simpler, more peaceful world of true pop music, from Doris Day to One Direction, no such skullduggery lurks. And anyway, it’s only rock’n’roll, so we can’t take it too seriously.