Times change. Tastes change. Social mores change. What was once taboo is now OK. What was once considered harmless is now objectionable.
Have you watched TV lately? Have you heard some of today’s Top Ten hits? Wow. Dialog and lyrics, and the subjects they explore now, go places nobody dreamed of 40, 50 years ago. From “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Cardi B’s “WAP,” we’re clearly in radically new territory here.
These days, too, everyone seems so damn touchy, so quick to find offense. There’s also this phenomenon that some call “cancel culture,” where something that’s been around a long time is now seen in a new light, and someone wants something physically removed or digitally deleted. Is it justified? Is it overkill? Well, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.
It’s my view that pop/rock song lyrics that condone or even celebrate violence, racism and misogyny should be held up to a bright light and exposed for what they are. You can make a case that today’s lyrics, especially in the hip-hop genre, are WAY beyond what most people find acceptable, but if you go back to tunes from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, there are some pretty glaring examples from that time of songs that cry out for re-examination.
I’ve selected 15 songs — hit singles and album tracks — from decades ago that, on second look, leave me speechless as to how they were ever given the green light. You might not agree with me, but for what it’s worth, I’m suggesting a reassessment is in order.
There’s a Spotify playlist at the end so you can give these tracks a fresh listen.
“He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” The Crystals, 1962
The sad irony behind this apparent endorsement of violent relationships is that it was co-written by Carole King, who later endured repeated physical abuse by her third husband, Rick Evers, during their marriage in the late 1970s. King wrote it back in 1962 with her first husband and songwriting collaborator Gerry Goffin after their babysitter, “Little” Eva Boyd, told them she’d been beaten by her boyfriend for seeing another guy. The song was recorded and released by The Crystals as their third single, but it never charted because of a backlash from listeners and radio stations. King has often said she wished she had never had anything to do with the song.
“This Girl is a Woman Now,” Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, 1969
Puckett teamed up with a songwriter/producer named Jerry Fuller, who seemed to write only about girls he couldn’t have. Fuller’s songs ended up as hit singles for Puckett — “Young Girl,” “Woman, Woman,” “Lady Willpower,” “Over You,” “Don’t Give In to Him” — but they had an undeniable creepiness factor that bordered on obsession. Perhaps most egregious was “This Girl is a Woman Now,” in which the narrator boasts about deflowering a young virgin. Songwriters Victor Millrose and Alan Bernstein were responsible for this overreach: “Our hearts told us we were right, and on that sweet and velvet night, a child had died, a woman had been born, /This girl is a woman now, and she’s learning how to give…”
“Cruisin’ and Boozin’,” Sammy Hagar, 1977
Let’s talk about drunk driving, shall we? Innocent people die every day at the hands of people who get behind the wheel while hammered, or even drink while they’re driving. (I confess I used to be one of them.) Do we need songs that condone this destructive behavior? Classic rock artists didn’t make it a dominant theme, but still, there are examples like Hagar, never one of my favorites, who wrote a drunk driving anthem called “Cruisin’ and Boozin.'” It wasn’t a hit, but the lyrics clearly celebrate what is both illegal and stupidly dangerous: “We got JD in the back seat, we drink nothin’ but the best, /Pump a buck in the gas tank, oh, we’ll drink up the rest, yeah, we’ll drink up the rest, /Cruisin’ and boozin’, trying to have a good time…”
“All in the Name Of,” Motley Crüe, 1988
The dudes in glam heavy metal band Motley Crüe — Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, Vince Neil and Mick Mars — were known for, and brazenly promoted, their image as druggy sex fiends, so perhaps it’s silly to call them on the carpet for over-the-line lyrics. The thing is, most of their material was arguably within most people’s idea of acceptable, but there’s at least one track that goes too far: “All In the Name Of” from their 1987 LP “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Sorry, but there’s no way Sixx and Neil can justify lyrics like these: “Says to me, ‘Daddy,
can I have some candy? /Wanna be your nasty anytime you want, /You know you can have me’… /She’s only fifteen, she’s the reason, the reason that I can’t sleep, /You say illegal, I say legal’s never been my scene, /I try like hell, but I’m out of control, all in the name of rock and roll…”
“A Man Needs a Maid,” Neil Young, 1972
It’s hard not to interpret the lyrics to this tune from Young’s #1 album “Harvest” as pretty chauvinistic. He has tried to defend it over the years by saying he has always struggled with personal relationships and that maybe he’d be better off living alone and just hiring someone to cook and clean. Well, if she remains an employee, I suppose that’s acceptable, but he ends the song by asking “When will I see you again?” which can be interpreted as carrying on a romantic relationship with her as well. It all sounds a bit too misogynistic for my tastes: “I was thinking that maybe I’d get a maid, find a place nearby for her to stay, /Just someone to keep my house clean, fix my meals and go away, /A maid, a man needs a maid…”
“Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck Berry, 1958
When rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy, most song lyrics were geared toward the intended audience — teenagers, and their school woes, their first loves, their cars, their dreams. Berry, one of the chief architects of the new genre, wrote some beauties (“Maybellene,” “School Day,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode”). One of his biggest, “Sweet Little Sixteen,” appears sketchy now for a couple of reasons. He was already 32 when he wrote it, and not long afterwards, he was arrested and convicted for sex with an underage girl, which makes lines like these seem disturbing: “Sweet little sixteen, she’s got the grown-up blues, /Tight dresses and lipstick, she’s sportin’ high-heeled shoes, /Oh, but tomorrow morning, she’ll have to change her trend and be sweet sixteen, and back in class again…”
“Illegal Alien,” Genesis, 1983
The members of Genesis have protested that “Illegal Alien” is a sympathetic satire of the plight of the undocumented immigrant’s challenges, but under closer examination, that just doesn’t wash. The speedy Gonzales-type accent Phil Collins uses as he sings, the litany of disrespectful Mexican stereotypes found in the lyrics (even a line about “I’ve got a sister who’d be willing to oblige“), and the cheesy costumes worn by the band in the accompanying music video all combine to create a racist portrayal of the immigrants in question. Critics called the lyrics “misguided” and “confusing and confused” and described the video as “seemingly well-intentioned” but ultimately “a train wreck.”
“Run For Your Life,” The Beatles, 1965
To their fans, John, Paul, George and Ringo could do no wrong. We wouldn’t learn until much later about Lennon’s traumatic childhood and emotional issues regarding anger management and abandonment. He apparently hit his first wife Cynthia more than once, and his second wife Yoko as well, before coming to terms with it through intensive therapy. In his song “Run For Your Life” from the group’s 1965 “Rubber Soul” LP, Lennon’s narrator warned his woman not to make eyes at anyone else or she might meet a violent end: “Let this be a sermon, I mean everything I’ve said, /Baby, I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead, /You better run for your life if you can, little girl, hide your head in the sand, little girl, /Catch you with another man, that’s the end of little girl…”
“Every Breath You Take,” The Police, 1983
Interestingly, Sting fully acknowledges that the lyrics to this massively popular song (#1 in a dozen countries in 1983) are sinister and passively intimidating. “It’s clearly about an obsessed former lover who is jealously stalking his ex,” he said, adding that he was disconcerted by how many people regard it as a love song. “One couple told me, ‘Oh, we love that song! Its was the main song played at our wedding.’ I said, ‘Really? Well, good luck.’ It’s not a love song, it’s quite the opposite.” The dark theme is undeniable: “Oh can’t you see you belong to me? How my poor heart aches with every step you take, /Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you…”
“Ahab the Arab,” Ray Stevens, 1962
I can hear some people scoffing at this choice, saying, “Oh come on, it’s a novelty song, a parody done for laughs, and it was friggin’ 1962!” That’s all true, and overall, it didn’t present a derogatory image of Arabs (although all the stereotypes are present). Still, the way Stevens imitated Arabic speech was pretty condescending, and even the title pronounced Arab as “Ay-Rab,” which is the way ignorant Americans pronounce it when they don’t think much of people from that part of the world. It’s interesting to note that Stevens took this track to #5 in 1962, one of his most successful singles in a decades-long career. I don’t know if he still performs it in concert, but perhaps he ought to consider retiring it now.
“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” Steely Dan, 1975
The captivating, compelling music that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker created for the Steely Dan catalog is often accessible, sunny pop, but if you delve into the lyrics, you’ll find serial killers, outlaws, drug dealers and even pedophiles. In this track from their 1975 LP “Katy Lied,” they sing of a creepy dude named Mr. LaPage, who evidently invites neighborhood teens into his house to…watch porn movies? Expose himself? It’s not crystal clear, but there’s no question there’s some creepy shit going on. Did they go over the line with this one? Maybe: “Kids if you want some fun, Mr. LaPage is your man, /He’s always laughing, having fun, showing his films in the den, /Come on, come on, soon you will be eighteen, I think you know what I mean, /Don’t tell your mama, your daddy or mama, they’ll never know where you been…”
“Johnny Are You Queer,” Josie Cotton, 1981
This notorious tune, written by Bobby and Larson Paine, was intended for two audiences: young women who had dated guys who turned out to be gay, and interestingly, the gay community, who appreciated the punk-rock attempt to win back the ironic use of the word “queer” from the bigots and homophobes. The Go-Go’s sang it live, but it was a new talent named Josie Cotton, managed by the Laine brothers, who made a record of it in 1981. The song never did much on the US charts because the radio stations were afraid of it or disapproved, but the gay clubs loved it and it went Top Ten in Canada. The evangelicals went ballistic, and the haters laughed and held it up to derision, posing the question menacingly to gays: “Oh, why are you so weird, boy? Johnny, are you queer, boy?…”
“Hot Child in the City,” Nick Gilder, 1978
Gilder, a native of Vancouver, Canada, had been in the glam rock band Sweeney Todd but went solo in 1977 and scored a Juno Award (like a Canadian Grammy) for “Hot Child in the City,” which also reached #1 in the US. Said Gilder, “I’d seen a lot of young girls, 15 and 16, walking down Hollywood Boulevard with their pimps. Their horrible home environment drove them to run away, only to be trapped by something even worse. It hurt to see that, so I tried writing a pop song from the perspective of a customer.” Gee, thanks, Nick — not sure we needed this: “So young to be loose and on her own, /Young boys, they all want to take her home, /She goes downtown, the boys all stop and stare, /When she goes downtown, she walks like she just don’t care, /Hot child in the city, hot child in the city, runnin’ wild and lookin’ pretty…”
“Used to Love Her,” Guns ‘n Roses, 1988
A hard rock band like Guns ‘n’ Roses, aiming to follow in the footsteps of The Stones and Zeppelin, offered lyrics that painted themselves as bad boys, capable of anything. Well, fine, I guess, but yikes, surely there are limits. I thought I’d found their most offensive lyrics in “One in a Million,” when they railed against “immigrants and faggots…starting some mini-Iran or spreading some fucking disease…” But then I found another one called “Used to Love Her” that’s totally beyond the pale: “I used to love her, but I had to kill her, /I knew I’d miss her, so I had to keep her, /She’s buried right in my back yard… She bitched so much, she drove me nuts, and now I am happier this way…” Both tracks appear on their “G N’ R Lies” LP, which reached #2 and sold five million US copies.
“Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones, 1971
It’s one thing for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to push the envelope of what a pop song might be about by focusing on interracial sex, S&M, oral sex and hard drug use. We can at least assume (or pretend) that everything is between consenting adults. But I submit that slavery and rape never were and never will be appropriate subject matter for the Top 40, let alone the #1 song in the country for multiple weeks. How did this one get by? Simple — Jagger blurred his pronunciation so most listeners really didn’t know the words. Bet you never actually read the lyrics before: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans, /Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright, hear him whip the women just around midnight…”