This week, I’m tackling some of the cheekiest songs to hit the charts. The fact that these songs were able to find widespread success despite their controversial nature speaks to their universality and captivating nature. From garage punk to vaporwave, music has long served as a vehicle for dissension and insubordination. Here, we’ll see how cries against “the man” ended up propelling music artists to fame within “the man’s” framework!
Tip: Click on the song titles to listen to these one-hit wonders in all their glory!
- “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats (1982, Billboard #3): The new wave movement of the 70s and 80s is a fascinating example of how the crowd-pleasing sounds of pop and the nonconformist mindset of punk can work hand-in-hand to create fun catchy music with a heavy dose of attitude. The Canadian group’s lead singer, Ivan Doroschuk, wrote “The Safety Dance” after he was thrown out of a nightclub. The reason for his removal was, as you might have guessed, unsafe dancing. The early 80s were a time of transition from the peak of disco to the emerging new wave style. Both of these genres thrived in the nightclub scene. But evidently their coexistence was fraught with tension, and clubgoers saw Doroschuk’s rebellious pogo dancing as a threat to both their safety and their way of life. The song can be seen as a battle cry for the new wave movement, endorsing escapism and freedom from authority through dancing, dressing, and acting however one pleases. While the roots of the song are specific to the new wave era, Doroschuk assures listeners from every generation that its themes are universal. Today’s youth can certainly empathize with the idea of acting independently rather than conforming to preconceived notions of what’s appropriate and what’s right. Another issue that remains relevent is the belief that if we must take personal action against environmental damage. In the words of the song, “if we don’t, nobody will.” Doroschuk specifies during an interview with the Montreal Gazette that he wrote this song in the midst of the green movement’s emergence. Environmental consciousnessness is still seen as threatening to “the establishment,” especially to corporations who are unwilling to change financially lucrative practices in order to protect the future of the planet. Considering this song’s persistent themes and its international success, it’s no wonder that Doroschuk was recently inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. For another great transgressive new wave one-hit wonder, check out Devo’s classic “Whip It!”
- “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks (1997, Billboard #2): Once you get over the shock of finding out this song isn’t by Alanis Morisette, the shock of the actual lyrics begins to set in. Clearly a censorship nightmare, “Bitch” has arguably taken on a more anti-patriarchal meaning than Brooks intended. The singer herself takes the lyrics at face value and has made some claims about their meaning that now seem controversial, such as that “all [men] want us to do is admit that we can be irrational and illogical sometimes, and then it’s their job to put up with it.” Feminist listeners, however, praise the song’s confrontation of the Madonna-whore complex, demanding men to accept women as complex beings with nuanced identities between good and bad. Brooks intended to reclaim the word “bitch,” stating that it has become a term of endearment between her and her friends. Rather than directly pointing the finger at toxic masculinity, Brooks suggests that the song is indicative of self-acceptance. She agrees with the guys who call her a bitch. But she’s also accepted that component of her personality. Most men in the industry seem to have missed the point, with reporters like Entertainment Weekly‘s Chris Willman repeatedly calling her a bitch as a joke in his article as well as suggesting the only reason she got away with such a controversial song is because of her beautiful cheekbones. So did Brooks dismantle the patriarchy in one fell swoop by dropping the B-word on the radio? Not really. But she did create a dialogue about the way we address women and the way women talk about themselves that served as a predecessor for songs like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” and Taylor Swift’s “The Man.”
- “Handlebars” by Flobots (2008, Billboard #37): This song wasn’t quite as successful on the charts as the previous two, but it was a smash hit on YouTube and MySpace as well as a staple of my middle school. With a killer violin pizzicato and a slow-building crescendo that haunts me as much today as it did in sixth grade, this song is an earworm that is impossible to remove. It starts off unassuming, with the childish and silly narrator boasting about his ability to ride his bike with no handlebars. In the song’s second verse, the narrator delves into capitalistic endeavors, listing different professional paths and concluding with the idea that he “can do anything with no resistance” before claiming he can lead a nation. The song began with largely benign accomplishments, but here we see a narcissistic streak and a hunger for power. This unleashes a dystopian nightmare of tyranny led by the narrator, who brags that he can inflict widespread harm with no personal consequences. The narrator screams that he can “end the planet in a holocaust” in the song’s climax before returning to the first verse and reminding the listener of his humble beginnings. The song is about human potential and the implications of such power. Regarding the narrative’s violent ending, lead vocalist Jamie “Jonny 5” Laurie has stated his disappointment toward global leaders in knowing that “the appetite for military innovation is endless, but when it comes to taking on a project like ending world hunger, it’s seen as outlandish.” The music video emphasizes this perspective, directly comparing military aircraft to a predator bird killing a dove and showing a stream of violence that leads to mass civilian murder committed by riot-control officers. Needless to say, the song remains germane to conflict in the streets of the United States where officers disturb peaceful protest with violence against unarmed people. The song’s video even features a fist symbol almost identical to that used by the Black Lives Matter Movement. The dangers of power are a timeless and universal criticism, and this song could just as easily resonate with a global audience today.
I’d love to know your favorite critical/transgressive songs! At the end of the day, music is a form of art, so I’m glad artists are able to use it to question the world around them.