What Makes You Beautiful? Disturbing Messages In Pop Music

Originally published June 6, 2012 on MissRespresentation.org

Intern Rachel Grate looks at the scary messages for girls embedded in seemingly innocent pop songs

By Rachel Grate

In the length of my hour commute to work it’s not unusual to hear One Direction’s hit “What Makes You Beautiful” upwards of three times on the radio. The pop music phenomenon is just the most recent of a series of artists that have topped iTunes charts and captured the hearts of young girls everywhere. But have you ever listened beyond their catchy beats to focus on the lyrics?

“What Makes You Beautiful” begins with the observation that the girl is “insecure” and the band “don’t know what for.” However, despite the entire song essentially being a list of compliments, the band members never encourage the girl to stop being insecure. In fact, the chorus croons, “You don’t know you’re beautiful, Oh oh, That’s what makes you beautiful.”

The band is telling their target audience of teenage girls not to be confident in their appearance (even if they are as beautiful as the girl from the song), but to remain insecure because low self-esteem is literally “what makes you beautiful.” Is that really a healthy message for young girls to be absorbing?

Disturbed by this song that seemed permanently stuck in my head, I delved deeper into seemingly innocent pop music. Turns out Justin Bieber, the icon of the teen pop music scene, isn’t actually that innocent either. His songs seem to subtly imply that women can be bought, are a source of property, and that being showered with cash is all they need to be happy.

In his first hit, “One Time,” Bieber promises to give his girl “everything down to my last dime.” In “Baby,” Bieber tries to stop his girlfriend from breaking up with him by promising to “buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring.” In his newest hit, “Boyfriend,” he flaunts that “I got money in my hands that I’d really like to blow/Swag swag swag on you.” Over and over again, his songs support the idea that women are just after men’s money and – judging by how many pre-teens wish he was their actual boyfriend – the message is sticking.

According to One Direction, what makes a girl beautiful is insecurity 

Admittedly, it can be a little difficult to take anything seriously in a song that includes the word “swaggie.” It may seem a bit nit-picky to be analyzing the misogyny in these light-hearted songs when so many other artists (from rap to rock) seem incapable of referring to women as anything other than “bitch”. (Even when Akon, with David Guetta, tries to “find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful,” the best he can do is “sexy bitch.”) So why bother focusing on these pop songs?

Because so many pre-teen girls listen to Justin Bieber that you can actually buy a bed cover with his face on it, or an entire Justin Bieber dental care set. Because these artists’ target audience are at an age where they are most vulnerable and most likely to take these messages as valid life advice. Because the fact that these messages are so subtle compared to those in some rap songs means that it’s actually more difficult to identify and avoid them.

It’s not just male pop singers sending these messages. In Orianthi’s hit “According to You,” she lists all the (disturbingly abusive) insults her boyfriend has hurled at her: stupid, useless, difficult, hard to please, a mess, boring, moody, inattentive and more. But instead of supporting girls to leave an emotionally abusive relationship because of their own self worth, her only defense against this boyfriend is that another boy thinks she’s “beautiful.” The whole song is defining her value according to other people – never once is her target audience given an example of generating healthy self-esteem based on their own thoughts.

I’d love to think that pop songs will change their tune and start encouraging girls’ self-confidence, but given their commercial success, it doesn’t seem likely. Even less likely is that “Beliebers” will suddenly cease to exist. What is possible, crucially so, is to make sure young girls are aware of these hidden messages. The secret is that you don’t have to stop enjoying catchy music to resist the messages it’s
implying.

Raising awareness is as simple as one car ride with my dad. “My Life Would Suck Without You” by Kelly Clarkson came on the radio, and I was singing along to the chorus (which is the title of the song).

“You should never be so emotionally dependent on someone to believe your life would suck without them,” my dad commented. “That’s unhealthy.”

I thought about it, I nodded in agreement, and I went back to belting out the song. Though my action stayed the same, my mindset, if only just a little bit, had changed for the better. And with enough little changes like that, girls will become conscious of these negative messages instead of absorbing them subconsciously.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.

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