I think that most of us know well enough not to be charmed and flattered by, say, the lyrics of Flo Rida’s song “Low.” It’s catchy, but it’s also about a bunch of men ogling a stripper. If my date was speaking about me that way, I hope I’d have enough presence of mind to throw my drink at him and leave.
It’s can be trickier to decipher misogynistic lyrics when a song isn’t expressly aggressive and lewd—sometimes, even the singer himself clearly thinks he’s being romantic. Dig a little deeper, though, and many songs today deliver some ugly messages and attitudes about the women they’re describing.
I’ve started paying attention to lyrics, because I’d like to be able to teach my daughter the difference between what’s flattering and what’s a big red flag in relationships. Here are some great examples of sweet romantic songs that should actually be a girl’s cue to get out of that relationship ASAP.
Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”
To be honest, a lot of Sheeran’s songs could be on this list, but “Shape of You” is particularly egregious. You can see what he’s trying to do: describe a relationship where the sexual spark between two strangers is powerful enough to jumpstart an actual boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. He’s “in love with [her] body,” admittedly, but he also loves “discovering something brand new” about her every day, as their relationship evolves. They even start going on dates! So far so good? But look how he talks about her:
Girl, you know I want your love
Your love was handmade for somebody like me
Come on now, follow my lead.
It’s all about what he wants and what he gets. Her body and her love were “handmade” for him—that is, designed just for his own needs and wishes. He tells her what to do and what to say: “Say, boy, let’s not talk too much, grab on my waist and put that body on me.” She’s not a full person to him, she’s a body who’s willing to give him what he wants. Ouch.
Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”
We all want to see vulnerability in a potential partner; it’s a crucial part of any lasting relationship. And that’s the vibe Smith is going for in his major hit. He’s lonely, and he’s chiding himself for letting his feelings come up to the surface: “Why am I so emotional? This is not a good look, gain some self-control.” He’s trying to come across as a character who’s fully human, not some repressed macho-man. This is fine, but unfortunately, from here, he crosses the line from “honest” straight into “manipulative.”
Guess it's true, I'm not good at a one-night stand / But I still need love 'cause I'm just a man / These nights never seem to go to plan / I don't want you to leave, will you hold my hand / Oh, won’t you stay with me / Cause you’re all I need / This ain’t love, it’s clear to see / But, darling, stay with me.
The male actor in this song has reduced the person he’s serenading to a Band-Aid for his bleeding emotional wound. He’s happy to admit that he’s not in love; what he needs is somebody to keep him company and comfort him. In other words, he’s using them—perhaps not so much for their body as for their comforting presence, but using is using. The manipulation part comes through his attitude. Maybe he’s not like those other men who just want a one night stand...so stay and give him what he needs. It’s entitled, and it’s a subtle guilt trip.
Shawn Mendes’s “If I Can’t Have You”
He can’t stop thinking about her; he can’t stop writing about her; life has no meaning without her. Setting aside the fact that what such words describe is much closer to obsession than love, it’s one line that gives Shawn Mendes away here: “You’re the feeling I’m missing.” Oops. What we’ve got here is not a person, so much as an accessory to his life. She’s the means by which he gets to feel like he’s living a meaningful, fulfilled life.
I want to be in a relationship where I do supply my partner with a sense of security, peace, happiness, meaning, and love. But I don’t want to be the only thing in his world supplying that. When “everything means nothing if I can’t have you,” what you’ve got is more pressure and responsibility than any person should have to bear. Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own fulfillment, and it’s immature to expect any other person to do that work for us.
Bruno Mars’s “Marry You”
How sweet, a pop song about a man who wants to commit! “Hey babe, I think I want to marry you.” Until he says … “If we wake up and you want to break up / That's cool / No I won't blame you / It was fun, girl."
Wait a sec. This isn’t a song about commitment. It’s a song about following your impulses, without any real expectation that it’s realistic or even possible to follow through on your marriage proposal.
When somebody is so in love with you that he wants to marry you, but he has no problem framing that as “something dumb to do,” and he fully expects it not to last? That is maybe not as flattering as he thinks it is.
Ellie Goulding’s “Close to me”
It’s not all men on this list. This is a highly problematic song from a female vocalist (although technically, it’s a duet with Diplo).
"I don't want to be somebody without your body close to me.” She’s trying to say that their relationship, as wild and unhealthy as it is (“Even though we both know we’re liars…”) is what makes her life worth living. She’s not enough on her own, she’s essentially saying. Her life is worthwhile only when it’s accompanied by his body. That’s okay, she insists, because they’re both “animals,” and what they’ve got going is a very animal relationship.
But then, what she’s describing here isn’t just a relationship fueled by animal instincts, because after all, “If it wasn’t you, I wouldn’t want anybody close to me.” Not just anyone’s body would do. She does seem to love him, in a sense—but it’s a love that she uses to supply her own sense of self-worth. That’s just not what love is for.
So while we may find ourselves bopping along to these frequently played hit songs, it’s worth taking a moment to consider their lyrics and remind ourselves these aren’t healthy relationship scripts where both parties are respected as equals in value or dignity. And if a man ever tells you to fulfill his needs, provide meaning to his life, or eliminate his loneliness? That may be a good time to get your boots for walking.