Student Question

How can music lyrics be ambiguous and thus lead to wrongly interpreted feminist ideas? What misunderstandings can result from this?

Quick answer:

Though anything in art can be misinterpreted, femininst song lyrics may be especially open to this possibility because various critics and commentators are either unsympathetic to feminism in general or because they dislike popular music and/or particular singers. Ambiguity is a quality inherent in much poetry and music that adds to the likelihood that the meaning of song lyrics will be misunderstood or misrepresented at times.

Expert Answers

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Two songs from the contemporary pop repertoire illustrate, arguably, that an underlying or an obvious feminist message can be misconstrued or seemingly negated when a listener views it through a narrow lens.

Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" (2008) received mixed reviews, with some critics thinking it an unserious bit of fluff. It was even seen by some as a negation of feminism because it (especially the video) allegedly depicts women in conventional images as sex objects, and its message doesn't really support an alternative lifestyle, because the singer repeats that she hopes her boyfriend won't mind that she "kissed a girl and liked it." Yet one should ask why the theme, merely because it is couched in socially "acceptable" terms, should not be considered as liberating as anything else. Shouldn't feminism be a term applicable to any form of freedom of behavior for women, even if it doesn't necessarily embrace what society would consider the most radically "different" lifestyle? Perry's song has apparently been caught in a crossfire between those who believe it doesn't go far enough, and those on the other hand who would probably regard the ideas it celebrates as bordering on the obscene.

Lady Gaga's "Alejandro" (2010) is more inherently ambiguous and open to interpretation than most mainstream pop songs. Again, the video probably introduces ideas that wouldn't occur to someone just listening to the song. Those inclined to prejudge independent intentions on the part of a woman might evaluate the song as anti-male. Not only are the lyrics intentionally vague,

You know that I love you boy,

Hot like Mexico rejoice

along with,

Don't wanna kiss, don't wanna touch,

but it's often difficult to make out the exact words. Yet these lines, and a close reading overall, indicate the singer is pulled in two directions. She likes men but does not want to be controlled. Much of one's interpretation, as with any song or poem, depends on whether one is sympathetic to begin with to the ideas expressed. A hostile listener would be much more likely not to understand the intended message.

Do the two songs really illustrate "feminism," one might ask? I would suggest only a narrow definition would exclude them from the concept. Others might contend that these examples don't really have a "serious" theme at all but are mere "entertainment." But they illustrate that any song or poem has a message to convey regardless of how deliberately it's put forth and regardless of the direct intentions of the songwriters and the singer. That such messages can be ambiguous and misinterpreted is inevitable in the artistic realm.

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