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September 01, 2006

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Jeremy Henty

Too much bold! :-)

Celebration of male weakness is nothing new. Exhibit A: Freebird. Exhibit B: Meat Loaf, especially "Two out of Three ain't bad". Revolting paeans to emotional cowardice. And I have to listen to people of *my* generation (I'm 41) telling me these are the classic songs of their youth. Has it really got worse since then?

I recall a review of a particularly narcissistic author that said "they show awareness, but little insight". These songs are the same, the singers are painfully aware of their misery but refuse to examine it ("I can't blame my Dad" is no more perceptive than "I blame myself"). Indeed the violence of their self-hatred looks suspiciously like a device to deflect any analysis and avoid responsibilty - "I'm just this way, there's nothing you can say and nothing I can do.". Self-absolution through self-contempt.

Douglas, Friend of Osho

I think these guys are just trying to fill a commercial niche. Wait until they get busted with drugs or hookers and we'll see just how seriously they take this pose of self-loathing. In a way, I don't blame them; rockers of earlier ages pretty much wrote the book on male swagger, which wasn't a book worth reading after one reached the age of about 35 or so. It all makes me glad my interest in music these days tends to be wondering what Renee Fleming or Michael Tilson Thomas are up to.

Hugo

Jeremy, respectfully, I disagree. "Freebird" is about a man leaving his girlfriend because he's exulting in his status as a perennial wanderer. The wanderer who won't settle down (think the old Dion and the Belmonts song) is not the same thing at all as the voice in "Hate Me."

And in the Meatloaf song, note that it is full of anger at the woman involved. Loaf sings:

I poured it on and I poured it out
I tried to show you just how much I care
I'm tired of words and I'm too hoarse to shout
But you've been cold to me so long
I'm crying icicles instead of tears

The blame in that song is on the girl, not the boy. I think my thesis that this is a fairly novel development in pop music still stands. But your line "self-absolution through self-contempt" is spot on. Thanks for that, I'll borrow it.

Douglas, I share with you a great admiration for Tilson Thomas.

karen corcoran dabkowski

" As many women find out, lots of men use self-loathing as an effective tool for deflecting female anger."

As I read through your thoughts and observations, that's the ONE comment that kept scrolling across my brain, and once again- when you said it- I wanted to yell, "Yes!" It's been my own observation that men tend to use self-abasement in order to manipulate, and it's done in the same way that I've heard men accuse women of using sex when they want something.

It reminds me of Catholics (of which I am an 'ex'- whatever that means) own abuse of the confessional. Confessing IN ORDER to go right back out and do it again. It's like a bowel evacuation, then on to the next meal. Hell, it's easy to be a sinner when you have self-flagellation as carte blanche to go right on indulging the same miserable behavior.

I'd rather see dialogue. Don't tell me how awful you are, change your behavior.

It's manipulation and glorious wallowing. And it's bullshit, through and through. Thanks for bringing up this topic. I'd never thought about current lyrics reflecting this, but you're right. They do.

karen corcoran dabkowski

Camassia

You've put your finger on what irritates me about the "Hate Me" song. I had a guy who had a similar line -- "I'm not worth it" -- and it was indeed a way of evading responsibility. Though to be fair I've heard a few female songs along that line -- Fiona Apple's "Fast As You Can" and Nelly Furtado's "Bird" spring to mind.

DaveTheRave

Isn't the term 'male self-loathing' contradictory? Self-loathing surely is a personal hate, not projected over an entire gender? Hating yourself is a symptom resulting from many possible causes. We can only guess as to the cause of Blunt's self-loathing. Indeed, it may be simply a method of song-writing and he's not really as self-loathing as his lyrics suggests he is.

Do you not think that a female listener could not relate to those lyrics? If it was Jane Blunt and the lyrics were the same, does that reflect specifically female loathing?

Think of Ian Curtis (Joy Division), Morrissey, Kurt Cobain as example lyricists. I hear a much more confessional, personal pain; specific to the individual. It could be argued that female lyricists like PJ Harvey, Janis Joplin, even Courtney Love (just as random examples) - were all expressing 'female self-loathing'. Hugo, are you giving female lyricists a free pass? Personally I don't buy it anyway. Self-loathing is specific to the individual. Its causes are manifold. We can attach all the loathing to the gender of the lyricist, but IMHO that is a blind assumption.

Hubbard

Hugo--

I don't follow top 40 music nearly as closely as I did a few years back, but I've noticed a fair amount of rage. As you observed, some of it is inward, self-loathing. But quite a bit of it is directed outwards: at society, at friends, especially at parents. Mary Eberstadt wrote about it awhile back; perhaps her article will be helpful.

http://www.policyreview.org/dec04/eberstadt.html

Lynn Gazis-Sax

Hmm, now I'm thinking of earlier "I'm no good" songs.

1) "Don't Marry Me" from the musical "Flower Drum Song." This one, though, is more humorous than confessional (e.g. "I'm devoted to my dear old mother, and if you and mama disagree, I will always side with her against you, Baby, don't marry me"), and in the musical plot, if I remember right, the guy singing it is trying to get out of an arranged marriage because he always had a girl friend. Not really self-loathing.

2) "That's What You Get For Loving Me," sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary. In that one, the guy is quite cheerful about how he loves and leaves women, and doesn't even pretend to think badly of himself for it.

3) "Wasting Away in Margaritaville": This one comes closer to self-loathing.

It occurs to me that what you're talking about is what in medieval times was called the sin of acedie.

Lynn Gazis-Sax

I've never really understood "Two Out of Three." On the one hand, he seems to be saying that he can't love current girl friend because his heart was broken by some other woman "so many years ago." On the other hand, he seems to be saying that current girl friend has been cold to him for so long that he no longer cares for her. Unless current girl friend and the woman he loved "so many years ago" are the same woman, it seems contradictory.

But my candidate for grimmest portrayal of male/female relations in a Meatloaf song is "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."

Hugo

Lynn, it's telling that all three of your examples are tinged with humor -- compare the sunninness of Jimmy Buffett to the lads in Blue October!

Hugo

Oh, and I do hope that this thread doesn't turn into a sustained listing of pre-2000 pop/rock songs that feature abject male apologies for emotional incompetence. I mean, that's part of what I blogged about -- but the more important topic is the FUNCTION of this sort of behavior. I'm more interested in discussing the male strategy of playing hang-dog, "I'm a worthless piece of shit".

DaveTheRave

I'm more interested in discussing the male strategy of playing hang-dog, "I'm a worthless piece of shit".

Hugo, do you think the self-loathing/self-pity type lyrics are the exclusive domain of male lyricists, or are you just focussing on male lyricists? Seems a bit selective if you ask me.

Arwen

I came from the goth subculture in the late 80s/early 90s; the Smiths, and the Cure, and Sisters of Mercy etc. all had songs that were six feet deep in self loathing. We LOOVED them. I think we're seeing a re-emergence - although I guess it didn't go away... "I'm a Creep... I'm a Loser.." (Radiohead)...

I guess the main thing I feel about all these lyrics is that they didn't generally demand anyone else fix it, or even ask for pity. They just shared the pain of the singer's humanity. I personally don't need songs to have the answer, per se, but to show a moment in time; if every song had its happy ever after contained in it, what would we listen to when depressed and needing company? I'd be a little worried if someone got stuck on "Morrisey"; but it's nice that his angsty-black-angst (which is meant to be slightly tongue in cheek), isn't about the nasty wench who dumped him or the girlfriend who died or sacrificed herself for him or some such.

Lynn Gazis-Sax

It could be argued that female lyricists like PJ Harvey, Janis Joplin, even Courtney Love (just as random examples) - were all expressing 'female self-loathing'.

What, like Janis Joplin singing "women is losers ... men always seem to wind up on top"? Men and women do both get plenty of sad, angry, and self-pitying lyrics, and might even be even in lashing-out-at-the-opposite-sex songs, but I think Hugo is right that the hang-dog "I'm a worthless piece of shit" and not-good-enough-for-you role is usually a man speaking.

The flip side is all the songs women, and not men, have traditionally sung about rescuing those hang-dog men (I say traditionally because I can easily think of Broadway examples, but am not sure if the theme is still as prevalent in recent popular music). Tragic example: Nancy singing "As Long As He Needs Me" about abusive Bill. Comic example: pretty much the entire Guys and Dolls musical.

Xrlq

Soy un perdedor, I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me? Pretty sure the Beatles had a song called "I'm a loser" too, or that at least said so in the lyrics. But I agree with the prior commenter, it's not really male (or female) self-loathing unless the self-loathing is based on his (or her) sex.

Hugo

Perhaps I need to be clearer -- the songs I cite are where men are singing specifically to women about their shortcomings. The Radiohead song ("Creep") is hostile -- "you're so fucking special" (changed to "very" for radio play.) And X, the lyrics to the Beck song you cite are hardly in the same category -- look them up and try and make sense of the whole piece.

I think this is a specifically male phenomenon because these songs are contextualized into a very specific kind of male-female relationship.

prefer not to say

I agree with many of your points about the passive-aggressive use of male hatred. Right on. Something I hear all the time about marital fights, especially.

But I have to take issue with your critique of pop lyrics.

1) The lyric, as a form, tends to express moments of intensity and excess, not moments of assured accountability. So what you're looking for simply might not be accomodated by the lyric form. Read the Psalms -- these are rather expressions of fear, intense love, giddy appreciation of the outer world, fearfulness of separation from the object of love. Not really the model of calm accountability that might be found in other scriptural prose. Lyrics might not be the form where accountability is best modeled, for any gender.

2) It's my understanding that Blue October's lyricist struggles with clinical depression (the album version of the song in fact begins with a phone call from his mother saying she's worried about him, and reminding him to take his meds). The song also includes a verse about how he's struggling to at least stay sober, and that's one thing that he's glad he's taken away from the relationship.

So, I kind of wonder if the song isn't a bit more complex than you make it out to be -- it seems like it's a snapshot of something in progress, not a "you should start sleeping with me again because I just figured out I was an asshole and now I need comfort" song (for that, check out Lit's "My own worst enemy." Or, one of my favorite variations on the theme, The Offspring's "Self-Esteem." Both are songs from about ten to fifteen years ago, that might punch a hole in your "increased self-absorption" hypothesis.)

3) As someone who spent some (rather long ago) late adolescent years in a relationship overcompensating for and taking a lot of emotional abuse from someone who needed to get his shit together, one of the things I like about the Blue October song is how well it evokes the moment of release from that relationship -- the moment where both people realize, wow, this is actually bad for both of us. We can't do this anymore.

And that's the beginning of accountability. What the lived experience of accountability looks like might not show up in a pop song (how many pop songs are there about sobriety, after all?), but I think even having that moment of release recorded on the radio can be a powerful model for someone who needs to be prodded away from infantile self-pity and into manhood. Or -- in the case of women -- away from excessive caretaking and into womanhood.

empicalvoid

Hugo's quest to prove male self-loathing is just another chapter in his never-ending confessional projections.

When Hugo the academician does "research," he follows the tried-and-true feminist methodology:

Step 1 - Decide in advance what you want to "prove."
Step 2 - Work backwards to select "evidence" that supports your a priori conclusions.
Step 3 - Avoid/deflect any critiques of your assumptions or methodology.

Hugo could find male self-loathing in any pop culture expression, because those are the lenses he looks through.

You see what you find, and find what you see.

Seen?

BriBri

Hugo, I think you may be exaggerrating how new this trend is in contemporary music. On the other hand, you are absolutely right aboyt how men use their self-loathing to try and get women (me) to back off! I COMPLETELY agree with this:

Many women find out sooner or later that male expressions of self-loathing are usually a passive-aggressive technique designed to avoid conflict. It's a technique that invariably undermines and eventually destroys the relationship. It leaves both partners depressed and exhausted. And it has no place in a healthy relationship.

That is my ex, absolutely. You hit the nail on the head with that.

I am sorry about your Cal Bears! My Trojans are winning!!

just a random reader who may not have a point worth discussing

you asked, "But am I wrong in saying that in recent years, we've seen a marked increase in the number of what my be called "I'm such a hopeless piece of shit" music?"

No, you're not wrong. During the last two years the emo-genre has emerged as the mainstream pop-generation hit, just as the late 90's, early 2000's were blessed with the sounds of teenaged agnsty pop-punk bands gracing our airwaves.

But perhaps i am a feminist optimist (or opportunist, as it may seem) when i think that these songs of "male self-loathing" reflect a stronger image of the women in these relationships. i imagine the author sitting helplessly lethargic, a "hopeless piece of shit," only after realizing that his (newly acquired) ex will no longer accept his shortcomings- again.

am i being too realistic to assume that these songs are the end result of a relationship that has exhausted all attempts to reconcile?

Hugo

Bri, that Cal loss today really, really surprised me. I felt like I was in a time warp, watching the Golden Bears of old: outclassed, under-prepared, woeful. Incredibly disappointing. My wife is also happy about the Trojan win.

Random, that's a possibility. Watch it though, the MRAs will end up suggesting that too many aggressive and confident women have caused widespread despair in poor lads.

DaveTheRave

Perhaps I need to be clearer -- the songs I cite are where men are singing specifically to women about their shortcomings. The Radiohead song ("Creep") is hostile -- "you're so fucking special" (changed to "very" for radio play.)

Well, no wonder you 'discover' that your preconception turns out to be 'true'. As empicalvoid says, you're looking for something in a selective way, so you're bound to find it. I can see similar words penned by female lyricists, so I don't think it's a gender-specific 'phenomenon'.

Sean H

Karen,

You clearly were not properly catechized. If one goes to confession with the intention of clearing the decks to in order to sin again, that is not a valid confession. Never has been. I am annoyed by ex-Catholics who clearly don't know what they are talking about.

I have to agree with empicalvoid about feminist scholarly work - sorry Hugo - but he is right. They always back into a conclusion.

karen corcoran dabkowski

Sean, two things: first of all, I don't recall saying 'all' catholics treat the sacrament of reconciliation this way and secondly, your annoyance is precisely the kind of face slap that i have come to recognize as the usual reaction to criticism within the Roman Catholic Church.

What you could have said -instead of that knee-jerk response - is that although what I refer to is certainly is not the proper understanding of the sacrament (which is to amend one's life through sincere sorrow for having sinned) it does seem that many may view penance as a kind of 'get out of jail free' card, not a true understanding.

Your assumption that I have not been 'properly catecized' is both bullying and reactive. I don't know where you live, but I have lived in the real world with real Catholics, and what I described in my original post happens all the time - is an attitude held by many (not all) - and one I have always deplored for its hypocrisy.

(And all of this, I might add, is off topic.)

DaveTheRave

Another thing Hugo - lyrics are meant to be from the heart - including all the weaknesses, faults and fears of the artist. Do you want lyricists to be whiter-than-white and write nothing that could possibly offend anyone? Do you want them all to write pamphlet-style prose, where all races, genders and sexual orientations are supported and approved of? Sounds very boring to me.

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