Do you have a girl power playlist? You know, a playlist dedicated to songs by fierce females to keep you going during a workout or pump you up before a job interview. Maybe it’s Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” or “Roar” by Katy Perry.
But let me pose another question: Is your girl power playlist more girl power or boy hate? A friend once asked me this question. It seemed frivolous at first, but it has since opened my ears, so to speak, to themes of empowerment in music.
Although my own playlist tended toward “girl power,” I found that among many encouraging songs for women by women, other anthems of female empowerment are really more like man-hating set to music.
Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” for example, tells of a woman who overcomes doubts and presses toward her goals; it’s an anthem of resilience and self-reliance, an example of female empowerment at its best. “Fight Song” reminds us that real power comes from pushing ourselves further rather than throwing punches at others.
On the other hand, classic femme anthems such as Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” are less positive (OK, these are both about cheating, which might explain the negativity, but still). Swift’s 2014 song “Bad Blood” laments a relationship (supposedly a female friendship) gone wrong. However, she chooses retaliation over closure: “And time can heal, but this won’t / So if you come in my way / Just don’t.” In “On My Mind,” Ellie Goulding vacillates between thinking about a guy and resenting him for bending the truth: “But my heart don’t understand / Why I got you on my mind / You think you know somebody,” she sings. While the lyrics keep things tame, the music video taps into a deeper desire for revenge. With breakups come revenge motifs—naturally. But no matter the justification, is a song about disrespectful retaliation really getting us anywhere?
January’s trending hashtag #WasteHisTime2016 ignited this conversation of blame games and bad behavior in the dating world. While some of the hypothetical scenarios were funny—and perhaps all too real—the hashtag hinted that we women become our most powerful when mimicking men’s behavior. But do we? If we start embracing a mantra of man hate, in my view, we underestimate ourselves and put our proudest behavior on par with men’s worst.
The back and forth between women and men in music—blaming each other for “the dating apocalypse,” failed hookups, and infidelity—does little to further dialogue between us. If men and women could truly respect each other, perhaps our music (and culture on the whole) would sound more in sync than discordant. “Boy hate” songs and the like suggest that we’re our most empowered when we take men down, when we take a stab at the patriarchy in a sense. I don’t think it has to be that way.
A lot of power anthems express overcoming bitterness, sadness, or maybe even regret and anger, but the best ones do it without condemning the other person. Adele, for example, has a talent for turning heartbreak into poignant, beautiful music. The catchy “Send My Love (to Your New Lover)” could have described a deep grudge; instead, Adele sings a story of letting go: “I’m giving you up / I’ve forgiven it all / You set me free.”
I also think of Katy Perry’s latest album, Prism, which recounts the unexpected end of her marriage, depression throughout her divorce, and learning self-acceptance once again. She could have easily condemned ex-husband Russell Brand; however, she seems to seek closure through songs such as “Ghost” and “Love Me.” And she comes out triumphant. “I put one foot in front of the other / And I looked in the mirror and decided to stay / Wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way,” she sings in “By the Grace of God.”
Songwriting in itself can be a means of revenge, if not closure, an art that Swift mastered early in her career. Even Swift pokes fun of her own reputation as a serial dater and revenge-seeker in her hit “Blank Space.” Its music video revels in the revenge motif but in a way that’s too ridiculous to be taken seriously, as Swift jabs a knife into an ex’s portrait and then into a heart-shaped cake. Yet, as her most recent album suggests, “Bad Blood” aside, even Swift desires to come “Clean” rather than cling to grudges. “Rain came pouring down when I was drowning / That’s when I could finally breathe / And that morning, gone was any trace of you / I think I am finally clean,” she sings.
Blaming another person may make us feel powerful, but in reality, “the blame inherent in resentment makes us powerless,” Steven Stosny, Ph.D., explains. “If you feel bad about anything at all and blame it on someone else, what can you then do to make yourself feel better? Not a thing. The act of blame renders you powerless, which is the internal source of all the frustration, anger, and resentment that go with blame,” Stosny says. Resentment hinders us from properly connecting with others and can even compromise our mental and physical health.
Of course, bad behavior should be condemned, but playing the blame game does not elevate us. Not to mention, it’s not true that all men are jerks based on the actions of some. The same could be said of women. Instead of resenting men for some of the reasons mentioned in the #WasteHisTime2016 campaign, we can learn from them—from their worst behavior, sure, but more importantly from their best. More than measuring ourselves by men’s standards, we can learn from other women, whether inspiring historical figures, film and literary characters, or the women in our own lives.
In college, novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre won my heart through inspiring heroines and lessons of personal growth, strength, humility, and even loving others. These novels taught me that pressing toward virtues leads to growth; by cultivating strengths such as these, women in fiction and reality become powerful. While some of my English major classmates mulled over patriarchal oppression in literature, I found it far more interesting to focus on the strengths of characters. But beyond the literary world, I believe that dwelling on the vices of men or women gets us nowhere.
Gender aside, we tend to treat others as they treat us. “Both compassion and contempt are extremely contagious,” Stosny writes. “If you’re around a compassionate person, you’re likely to become more compassionate. If you’re around a contemptuous person, you’re likely to become more contemptuous.” At the same time, how we treat others has an effect on their perception of themselves. Stosny explains: “If you project on to others that they’re compassionate, they’re likely to become more considerate. If you project contemptuous characterizations, such as ‘loser, abuser, selfish, lazy, narcissistic, irrational, devious, etc.,’ they’ll almost always become more so.”
While we need a strong female presence in our culture, we can’t forget that men too have much to offer, which should go without saying. It’s important to have our heroes and heroines alike. We should support women and be proud of the strides we’re making year after year—but not at the expense of forgetting that men matter, too.
Perhaps we can be our most empowered when we choose to encourage rather than condemn, uplift rather than belittle. So next time you crank up the volume for a female power hour, remember to pick the tunes that build you up without tearing others down. Those are the ones that will likely make you feel your best.
Photo Credit: from “Fight Song,” Rachel Platten