By Gabrielle Wilkosz
Better known by his stage name, The Weeknd, Abel Tesfaye has distinguished himself as an artist with catchy, distorted beats and along with actor/rapper/Nicki-Minaj-fan-club-President Drake, is considered by many to be Canada’s apology for Celine Dion and her consequent 30 year career of belting sad French songs.
However the fact of the matter remains, while trip-hop artist Tesfaye’s song The Hills spends a second week at No. 1 becoming the best-selling and most-heard song in the U.S, the methods by which Tesfaye and other popular artists push boundaries to distinguish themselves has been following a remarkably dark trend: running women over with a big, fat truck of misogyny, calling it ‘trendy’ and then backing up and running over women again.
Putting aside Tesfaye’s endorsement of serious drug use, an element of the artist’s work that’s perhaps more problematic than expressing a love for the hard stuff is Tesfaye’s repeated desecration of the women he encounters in his songs, objectifying, ignoring, and poetically disenfranchising them. Yet he does this with such tact and precision that when held against the bumbling sexist lyrics of 90s rappers like Ice Cube and the more comedic Biz Markie, Tesfaye is almost undetectable in his deconstruction of the female psyche. Almost.
Anyone with access to metrolyrics.com can see for themselves Tesfaye, or at least the stage presence he sings as, has little interest in finding sexual partners on his level. Rather, Tesfaye’s person as The Weeknd capitalizes on lording over women before telling them they should have known better than to get involved with him. In The Hills, Tesfaye sings threateningly to a female sexual partner, “I just fucked two bitches ‘fore I saw you/And you gon’ have to do it at my tempo.” Tesfaye prides himself in only valuing this woman as a resource for casual sex, but also makes his intensions of controlling her in the bedroom clear. As far as he is concerned, she’s just going to have to deal with it.
This is not the only time Tesfaye’s interactions with women unfold in a clearly unhealthy manner. The Weeknd’s latest album Beauty Before the Madness is riddled time and time again with motifs of abuse, female denigration and the double-edged sword of female sexual freedom. In all of its addictive yet bizarre glory, by this time Tesfaye’s music and his sexually backwards lyrics are no longer the one-time magic formula of a one-hit-wonder, but rather his recipe for “gangster falls in love with the trashed beauty queen” pop success.
In September Forbes’ Nick Messitte noted the “curious streak” behind The Weeknd’s chart-topping, attributing the success of Tesfaye’s depressed pop vibrato to a certain predictable behavior of music listeners. Messitte argues Tesfaye’s I Can’t Feel My Face mirrors predecessors such as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Lorde’s Royals.The Weekend now follows the same trend of satisfying listeners’ once-in-a-blue-moon cry for atypical pop seeped in genre and subject matter. However, instead of Kobain’s angsty nonsensical poetry or Lorde’s abstract, glittering commentary on European classism, Tesfaye chooses women as an artistic target upon which to throw sexually-charged darts. Unfortunately,he’s not the only one to pick up on the trendiness of this female subordination motif in music. Females, notably pop-noir queen Lana Del Rey, has been getting in on the anti-women sentiment too.
For artist Lana Del Rey’s pop noir to openly push self-deprecating verses is nothing new. When comparing her work in previous albums, chiefly Born to Die, Paradise and later Ultraviolence, Del Rey takes artistic license in sensationalizing aspects of female helplessness, neediness, addiction, and relapse. But with the release of her latest album Honeymoon, this time it’s different. This time it’s worse. Del Rey’s glassy, velvet vocals are cushioned by more hopelessly dark instrumental accompaniment than ever before, leaving Del Rey in drug or abusive relationship relapse and liking it. So as Del Rey relaxedly romanticizes these situations setting back women 30 years, should we as listeners analyze the implications of her psychologically troubled lyricism or should we instead ignore the behavior and enjoy the art, most of which to many of us feels hauntingly relatable?
Like Tesfaye, Del Rey also casually if not thematically puts women down in a tragic way. Incident after incident the 1960s Baroque pop artist’s anti-feminist sentiment seeps in. Del Rey is unable to function without men or drugs comparing them in the song Religion to guess what? Religion. In Del Rey and Tesfaye’s world women are unable to live without men making young women nothing more than sexualized children who go on occasional drug binges. Here women are social, financial dependents of men, not their equals.
There’s no hard-lined answer to what casual listeners, music connoisseurs or die-hard fans should make of these graphic slights to women in music. On one hand, the nature of art, especially the art of song, should not be limited or restrained. If artists like The Weeknd and Del Rey are truly expressing their negative sentiment towards womankind through song, art exceptionalism suggests we acknowledge the artists’ claims, before privately accepting or denying them. But another part of me, the humanist part of me, calls B.S. And you should too.
As an educated society the nature of understanding and proliferating social justice for people groups, i.e. women, should not be compartmentalized nor restrained to just one part of our lives. When we apply justice in allotments instead of extending justice for women to all areas of life, we’re left with a lack of expectations for what is immoral vs. moral.
Ultimately, Del Rey and Tesfaye know better. I have to laugh when I think of Tesfaye’s Canadian upbringing and how he grew up with a culture so unlike the culture of many prevalent American hiphop artists. Where Ice Cube as I mentioned earlier, grew up in radically oppressed ghetto with little precedent or notion of female equality in society, Tesfaye received universalized healthcare, was educated in a country with substantially better schooling and a reportedly slimmer gender gap, yet he goes on to say equally profound things about women.
I may be oversimplifying Tesfaye’s life experience, but we as youth immersed in the vogue of political-correctness need to decide what we’re about. Are we about directing our parents to news sources rooted in unbiased reporting so that all viewpoints are represented? Or are we about letting the meaning behind Del Rey and Tesfaye’s songs slide ‘just this once’?