(lyrics bolded for easier reading)
So I’ve been listening to Unorthodox Jukebox a lot recently (sidebar: Bruno Mars is great at naming albums) and simultaneously having a lot of conversations about the representations of women in pop music, sexual liberation, rape culture, etc. etc. Unorthodox Jukebox presents a few conflicting views about women. There are songs like “Natalie” and “Money Makes Her Smile” which essentially portray women as gold-digging bitches who will inevitably screw you over. Then there are the songs, “Treasure” and “When I Was Your Man”, which are very romantic and place women as something to be cherished and respected. Overall, even with negative portrayals, Unorthodox Jukebox never seems to demean women in the way that a lot of popular music these days does.
Leaving the general two-faced nature of Mars’ music to a later discussion, I want to instead focus on “Show Me” - and particularly how it differs from Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty”. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard Derulo’s track - it has over 150 million views on YouTube and is played on the radio quite a bit. Have you heard “Show Me”? I hadn’t until I bought the album. The official audio track only has over 3 million hits on YouTube (granted, not a music video like “Talk Dirty”, so there’s that). Bruno Mars clearly didn’t release it as a single so, unlike “Treasure”, it didn’t have mass exposure. On one level that makes sense - musically, it isn’t the strongest on the album (unlike “Talk Dirty”, which I hate to admit is extremely catchy). But lyrically, Bruno Mars does something extremely interesting.
"Talk Dirty" is no "Blurred Lines" - it doesn’t have that brazenly rape-y vibe that we spent most of last summer and fall talking about. But it isn’t exactly empowering either. The central message of the song is, "I know what all women need and I’m going to give it to them". He’s not outright singing "I know you want it" (thanks, Robin Thicke), but he does sing "’Cause I know what the girl them wants”. Not too far off.
I’m not going to bother posting the whole 2 Chainz rap here, but it is extremely objectifying, the highlight of the lyrics being “Anyway, every day I’m trying to get to it/Got her saved in my phone as ‘Big Booty’”. Yikes.
This is pretty commonplace for popular music these days and has been the norm for quite some time. Strong male sings about how hot a woman is, how much he wants to have sex with her, and how much she will enjoy it. This is not new and something to which we don’t often pay much attention (with the exception of “Blurred Lines” of course).
The problem is not with writing lyrics about women and sex. But these men are either commanding sex or bestowing it upon women as if it is some sort of gift. With this follows the assumption that of course any woman would be lucky to have Jason Derulo (or Robin Thicke or whoever) and will have sex with them whether they express interest or not. And the only logical conclusion to draw from songs like these is, “As a man, I can take sexual pleasure from a woman whenever I want”.
So where does Bruno Mars come into this? Well, there are two hyper sexual songs on “Unorthodox Jukebox”: “Gorilla” and “Show Me”. The former has a music video with over 33 million views and got a lot more radio play. Both the video and song of “Gorilla” are extremely sexual and objectifying, though more power is certainly given to the female than in “Talk Dirty” or “Blurred Lines”. Again, that’s a different discussion for a different time.
"Show Me" is a totally different animal however: it more or less gives all the power to the women. The song is a breezy, reggae-esque tune that talks about a casual fling. The song initially flirts with a little bit of the “you know you want it” vibe, as Mars sings: ”Your eyes say, ‘Oh, please me’, but your lips scared to ask/No need to fight it, when you know it feels alright”. But then the song shifts focus as the lyrics continue, “You say you’re a woman who knows what she likes/Then show me, you gotta, you gotta show me”.
The whole song is along those lines: recognizing a sexual tension that exists between Mars and this woman and - instead of simply acting upon it - asking her to act upon it. The second verse croons, “Love the way that you laugh, the way that you smile/makes me feel like you been waiting a while/But guess what darling, I been waiting too”. In this instance, the man wanted sex, was fine with waiting, and then asks the woman, “Tell me girl what you gonna do”.
This respect for both the woman involved and her consent is evident in almost all the lyrics. The pre-chorus begins, “No, I won’t think you’re easy, no I won’t think you’re fast”. Acknowledging that a woman enjoys sex without slut-shaming her? I may die of shock. In the bridge, Mars sings “We can take it slow, we can zoom zoom zoom/Baby if you’re ready for that”.
The moral of the song is essentially, “I want to have sex with you, I think you want to have sex with me too, so you let me know if and when we can do that. We can do it however you want and I’m sure we’ll both enjoy it immensely”. In “Show Me”, the woman’s consent is not only necessary, but desirable and sexy. Mars isn’t saying that he wants to put a ring on it and shower this woman with love and gifts for the rest of her life. He’s just saying that casual sex between two consenting adults is a totally legitimate and enjoyable thing. The guy isn’t a player who brags about his conquests (I’m looking at you Jason Derulo) and the girl isn’t a slut who either uses or gets used and then has to feel ashamed.
I’m not saying that Bruno Mars doesn’t play part in the sexual male fantasy that is rampant in pop music, nor that there are not other artists who recognize and respect women’s sexuality. I am merely suggesting that we don’t think enough about the male pop star role in rape culture. Sure, when songs like “Blurred Lines” come out, we are outraged and make parody videos for months. And that’s healthy and helpful. But then we laugh at Thicke’s silly performance at the VMAs while simultaneously slut-shaming Miley. Fast forward a few months and “Talk Dirty” is breathing down “Happy“‘s neck on the charts.
It’s all well and good to talk about the cultural pieces that do it wrong - but we should also start recognizing who is doing it right. Bruno Mars is one of the biggest names in music right now. Not only does he have two well-received albums of his own, but he also writes for a lot of other popular artists. We need to start pushing men to help change the sexist culture in this country. Telling girls to be careful about what they wear and how they conduct themselves is nice, practical advice but we need to stop having that conversation. We need to instead focus on educating our young men - who undoubtedly know all the words to the 2 Chainz rap in “Talk Dirty” - that just because a woman likes or wants sex does not mean she doesn’t deserve respect. As small as insignificant as they are, songs like “Show Me” are a step in the right direction.