March 1, 2014

Shame and forgiveness in pop music hits from 1986

Even the Cosmo girl of the '80s was open to the idea that what she was doing with men was shameful or wrong. Why not see how broad that phenomenon was? Turning next to popular music, let's take a look at the songs on the Billboard year-end charts for 1986, the same year as the magazine shown in the earlier post. Using these charts as a reference lets us see what truly resonated with audiences at the time, rather than cherry-pick songs that support our view, or sweep under the rug those that do not.

The most WTF moment on the old Cosmo cover was the fact that they used the word "ashamed" in a sexual context, asking "Is the pleasure worth the pain?" The tone was sympathetic, encouraging the woman-with-a-past to reflect on it all -- at which point "is it worth it?" sounds almost like a rhetorical question. She might seek forgiveness, even if just from herself, and then turn over a new leaf. People who never feel shame will never change, and stay stuck in their childish, annoying, corrosive ways.

So we ought to look for songs that touch on the themes of shame, admitting to doing wrong, seeking forgiveness -- and therefore expressing contrition (not just wanting the slate wiped clean for free), and wanting to turn over a new leaf and make the best of a bad situation. I found two clear cases (and you can't expect all 100 songs to be about shame), although discussing those will take a little longer than the single-sentence blurbs on the cover of Cosmo.

First, though, note what kind of song was not popular in the good old days -- the brash, unrepentant skank anthems that Pink has made her specialty. Her recent song "Walk of Shame" is about heading home from the apartment of a one-night-stand, hoping that no one sees her with rumpled clothes, etc., which would mark her as a woman who just had a one-night-stand. She doesn't agree that she did anything wrong at all, and is angry at the rest of the world who might look at her that way. The only hope she has of being rescued is that the elevator door will open already, so she can slip out of the building undetected. It's all, "Fuck society's standards of judgement!" rather than "I fucked up, I'll try not to do it again."

There actually was a song like that in the '80s, "Bad Reputation" by Joan Jett, but it went nowhere. It stalled out at 48 on the Rock charts, and did not make any of the other charts, here or abroad. Fun fact: although often held up as an example of an independent ballsy woman breaking open the Old Boys Club of rock 'n' roll, her two greatest successes were covers of older songs written by men: "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" by Arrows and "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells (kickass cover, BTW).

Now for the two songs of '86 that treated the murky themes of dating-and-mating with a mature person's mind. The clearest case is "Human" by the Human League.

While a couple had separated, both of them cheated on the other, and they're now trying to reconcile. They admit their wrongdoing, ask forgiveness, and try to move on with their relationship. The main point is that human beings are not perfect or perfectible, and that making amends for being human is just one of those things you have to get used to if you want to deal with other people. Only an egocentric shut-in is stingy with forgiveness, which keeps others at a comfortable distance. The lyrics for the bridge don't mince words about her own conduct:

The tears I cry aren't tears of pain
They're only to hide my guilt and shame
I forgive you, now I ask the same of you
While we were apart, I was human too

The vocal delivery is sincere and pleading throughout, not an empty pro forma apology, nor over-the-top wallowing in self-pity to make it look like the wrong-doer is actually the victim. In the video, Joanne Catherall's facial expression during the bridge is frank, then showing shame when she admits to cheating too. She was 23 when that song came out, yet in appearance and expression she comes off as more mature than most 30-somethings today.

The other song is "Papa Don't Preach" by Madonna.

You have to un-imagine how today's audiences interpret and use this song as an anthem for "Fuck you Dad, nobody tells me what to do except me!" If you just listen to the lyrics, she confesses that she ignored the warnings of her father and wound up in deep trouble -- getting pregnant as a teenager. But now that that has happened, it cannot be undone, and she's asking him for guidance through the rest of the ordeal. In context, the title simply means that she doesn't need hypothetical preaching after the fact. "What I need right now is some good advice," i.e. on how to concretely make the best of this bad situation.

If she thought her father was an idiot or an authority figure to mindlessly rebel against, why would she be solicitous about his potential loss of faith in his daughter, why would she turn to him alone for counsel, and why would her tone be pleading rather than defiant? In fact, it's her friends who she's rebelling against -- the ones who are saying she should be young and have fun, and give the baby up for adoption.

After seeking forgiveness, she tries to reassure him that she will act better in the future -- first, by not aborting the child or giving it up. But moreover by getting married to the father and sacrificing what could have been an exciting teenage life for the benefit of raising the kid in an intact, loving family. So, we also see the shame attached to brash single motherhood and bastardy. Most people remember this song as an odd anti-abortion hit by someone you'd think would be all pro-choice, but it's important to remember that it struck another blow against the status-striving career woman by saying it was better to forego that path and/or single motherhood in order to make sure her child doesn't grow up in a broken home.

On a related note, there are two other songs that enforce shame on a woman who's too forward in her advances. Not fire-and-brimstone stuff, though: playful in one, and playing-it-cool in the other. In both, the message is that women shouldn't be so presumptuous as to think that just because they make a pass at us, we're going to drop everything we're doing and jump in bed with them. The woman being too aggressive also takes some of the fun out of it for the man, who feels like his role in leading things has been usurped, almost like he's just a pawn in her game. Holding her back, and reminding her that her behavior is bordering on shameful, is an assertion of his autonomy and not being totally pussy-whipped by any random female.

"We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off" by Jermaine Stewart (who should've listened to his own song's advice -- died of AIDS in 1997). Key line: "So come on baby, won't you show some class? Why you want to move so fast?"

"I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" by Robert Palmer

Now, there are two songs that are more unrepentant in singing about shameful behavior like infidelity. One doesn't really count, though, because most listeners aren't going to understand that the singer already has a girlfriend who's out of town for awhile. It's set up only in the first line, and sounds unintelligible. Everybody heard this song as being about strangers in the night, a one-night-stand, etc., but not as a song about cheating, where the singer believes that adultery is fine as long as nobody finds out about it.

"Your Love" by Outfield

That leaves only one clear counter-example, where the two duet singers are each cheating on their partners, rationalizing it away because it feels "real" as opposed to the ordinary / sham relationships they're in, and further rationalizing that their partners may have secret lovers of their own. It's not wrong if other people are doing it too. And you can't expect blacks to set the highest standards for faithfulness.

"Secret Lovers" by Atlantic Starr

How does this tie in with the cocooning vs. connected cycle? Shame serves a pro-social function, getting you to behave more agreeably after having offended the group. Forgiveness on the other side allows the offender to be rehabilitated, as it were, back into the group. You can't expect to see them much on display when everyone is sealed off in their own little world.

Socially avoidant people are rather going to say, "Who needs to apologize to some stupid group or partnership that I don't even want to belong to?" And even if they did, the socially avoidant jury is going to say, "Ah, screw forgiving them -- their wrong-doing just proves how worthless they are, and that we ought to keep everybody at arm's length because you can never be safe when you let others get close."

Americans had a lot more people who they discussed personal matters with back in the mid-'80s, compared to the 21st century, according to an analysis of the General Social Survey. They're also more likely now to be kin rather than non-kin -- AKA friends, peers, neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues, and so on. I think that played a big role, too, in confessing and confiding -- are folks actually open and supportive to hearing you approach them? Here's another hit from '86 that shows how much more open the social climate used to be:

"Talk to Me" by Stevie Nicks

The songs here were chosen from a single year, and yet there's still enough detail to see the same picture emerge as it did from the Cosmo cover. In our paranoid cocooning culture, we imagine tight social connection as a nightmare -- all those eyes beaming down judgement on our increasingly less private behavior. In reality, folks are pretty understanding and forgiving when everyone is part of a cohesive group -- the only alternative to that would fragment the group, just as we have seen over the past 20-odd years. And seeing that everyone else does not enjoy an unblemished record alleviates our anxiety when we see our own -- not that we just ignore it as common background noise, but we come to appreciate that we're only human.

Related: an earlier post going over the history of songs about friends who'll be there for you.


  1. When I first heard "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On," by Robert Palmer, I thought it sounded familiar. It was a cover of a minor hit by the group Sherelle a few years back. It was an odd choice for Palmer, as he struggled to hit the lower notes.

  2. Me again. During the 1970's, there were hits about wishing one could cheat because they had met the right one, but were already spoken for. "It's Sad To Belong" by England Dan and John Ford Coley and "Where Were You When We Were Falling In Love" by Lobo come to mind. Another from the 70's was "Let Her Cry", in which a man secretly in love with an abused wife and standing by helplessly as her husband destroys her due to the sanctity of marriage. They despair over their fates but don't break anyone up in spite of bad circumstances.

  3. "Bad Reputation" is by far the best Joan Jett song. Never thought of it as being in the vein of anything by Pink or whatnot, but I tend to categorize music based on sound rather than lyrics, and it sounds more like the Ramones. In a similar vein, I've been repeatedly listening to "Oh the Joy" recently, whose lyrics are all in the title, because it sounds like the Distillers. I skip past the more lyrical "Meet the Foetus" part of the song because it sounds like Spinnerette, and who needs that.

  4. Punk doesn't offer anything musically, it's music for people who don't respond to music. It's all about energy and attitude. So it boils down to: what is all the energy and attitude being directed toward, perhaps nothing in particular?

    In "Bad Reputation," it's just raging against the community who's trying to make her act less shamefully. Hard to identify with that unless you're a bratty slut yourself, and hard to get on board if you're not. The punk spirit is supposed to be about young vs. old, citizens vs. the government, fun-lovers vs. killjoys, etc. It's not supposed to be anti-social, though there are songs like that ("Bad Reputation," "Anarchy in the UK," etc., which generally stink).

  5. Punk was supposed to build a scene and glue a group of peers together. You can build a scene around a birth cohort, around being out of work and disenfranchised, or around any other shared trait that brings people together to rebel *as a group*.

    Being a slut is fundamentally an individual and egocentric thing. In high school or college, it's not like there's a cohesive clique of "the sluts" -- they're dispersed throughout various cliques, or stand apart from any clique (not wanting to join, or having been ostracized).

    Contrast that with the psychos, the badasses, the burn-outs, etc. Their behavior as a group can often be anti-social, but they still form a cohesive group, like a band of thieves. Sluts do not even cohere at the "band of thieves" level.

    Hence, Joan Jett screaming about not giving a damn what anybody thinks is off-putting and annoying. It's not "I don't care what some enemy group thinks," it's "I don't give a damn what any of you think -- if you like me, good for you, if not, fuck off." It's shouting about how she doesn't want to belong to any group, and that forming a scene would cramp her style.

    Well, grow up and let us know when you graduate from kindergarten, bratty little dork.

  6. I think you're giving short-shrift to the musicality of early punk. Latter era hardcore could sometimes seem to consist of nothing but aggression (like its extreme metal contemporaries), but both "Anarchy in the UK" (admittedly not as good as "God Save the Queen") and "Bad Reputation" (which now brings to mind "Don't Dictate", similarly anti-social?) are catchy tunes.

  7. Early punk at least had simple riffs, but that's about it. Little harmony, no solos or musicianship generally, no singing ability, no richness of instrumentation, and simple phrasing / structure.

    The official story goes that this was a reaction to the overwrought prog rock of the '70s, of disco, of etc., and punk was returning rock to its roots. Well, except the early rock singers could, y'know, sing. And write bass lines. And sing in harmony.

    The Clash are the only big punk band that sounded musical. There's an attempt to hit different notes and convey different emotions in the singing. The bass is asserting itself melodically. Good guitar playing. And they have a richer structure that guides you through different phases -- usually an intro, verse / chorus, some kind of interlude, and then a winding down.

  8. How odd were the Clash in the grand scheme of punk? Four of their singles made the *dance* charts in America: "Train in Vain" (#30), "The Magnificent Seven" (#21), "This Is Radio Clash" (#17), and "Rock the Casbah" (#8).

    They were also unique in paying attention to, enjoying, and incorporating black music into their own, mostly reggae but also funk, rap, and ska (a black-and-white movement). That's why there's a strong beat in their music, and why they were popular on the dance floor.

  9. It's weird how intolerant you are of commenters who voice even modest quibbles with your posts. My God - someone finds early Punk lyrical. That clearly requires multiple rebuttals on your part.

    You seem as intolerant of dissent as cocoon-era PC-obsessed liberals.

  10. "Dissent" -- get real. If anything mine is the dissenting view about what punk was as a movement and style, and how I respond to it. Rock critics love punk, mindlessly talk about it as a "return to early rock, over-turning the overwrought prog rock," etc.

    I dig the Clash in a way that I don't the other punk bands, and explained clearly what traits of their music I'm responding to.

    TGGP was continuing a debate about the musicality of punk, which I continued in return. I didn't take aim at anyone's tastes -- I could care less what people like. It was a substantive argument about how musically rich punk was or was not.

    I take way more crap for liking dance music and dancing, where people are taking aim at the preference itself rather than anything substantial I said. But I'm used to that. "Yeah well, y'know, that's just, like... your opinion, man."

  11. People are much less promiscuous today, and much less impulsive, like you've documented, so it's hard to enter into that mindset of having promiscuous sex on a whim, I think.

    "Slutty" girls are more outliers.

    That would make songs about women who've made mistakes and want to seek forgiveness rare - its not an experience girls have very much, or which anyone in their social network would have.

    I'm not sure why that would lead to songs about not needing to have any shame to become popular, although I could see that being due to the post 70s increases in status signalling and impression management, people not admitting any fault due to that.

    Only an egocentric shut-in is stingy with forgiveness, which keeps others at a comfortable distance.

    No offence, but you seem to see sociability as strongly linked to every positive, halfway desirable trait, i.e. almost every positive trait we have is learnt or brought out by sociability and no negative traits are. It just seems like such an odd worldview, as nearly no one else seems to see sociable people in this light. Like if humans ever do anything worthwhile, it's as a kind of expression of sociability and extroversion and the desire to connect with others.

    For instance on forgiveness, I don't think any of the research into it has ever found population variance on the trait or history of forgiving behavior that varies with social network size, self rated forgiveness, number of outgoing behaviors, etc, such that more sociable people tend to be more forgiving or shyer people are less forgiving. I could see more sociable people as less forgiving - they're socially confident and can more afford to burn their bridges, etc.

  12. I mean, expanding on the above, I'm a person who doesn't have very much in the way of strong social connections (trying to fix a lot of this).

    But I've never been harsh or unforgiving, or described as such by anyone else (light on enthusiasm and spontaneity, yes).

    I forgive people or not depending on whether they appear to be sincere and how harmful what they did wrong was (usually in a fairly slow paced, non-spontaneous way after a bit of thought).

    And then separately afterwards, I just don't spend that much time with them, usually.

    This whole schema where people try to avoid forgiving others in order to keep them distant, it might happen sometimes, but it seems quite bizarre as an extreme set of lengths to go to, when people have complete discretion how socially engaged they are with others.

    I can see someone who is concerned with cultivating an extremely sociable exterior for public consumption to engage in this kind of weird workaround ("It's not like I'm, like, a sperg or anything, he's just a jerk!"), but most low sociability people seem likely to just forgive or not, and then not spend much time with people.

  13. I concur with agnostic that he is the dissenter with regard to punk, but I do think because of other aspects its musicality is often overlooked in discussions of it.

  14. Used to think "Papa don't preach" was Madonna's cynical triangulation attempt to appeal to the largest common denominator and thus become a superstar by being somewhat controversial but not too controversial in a PG-13 way.
    It's like how that girl got addicted to caffeine pills in "Save by the bell", since real drugs would have been too edgy for that show.


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