The implications of gendered language in popular songs through a music therapy lens.
There’s no doubt about it, the early 2000s were full of bops and some of the best break-up anthems, with “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood (2005) and “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson (2004) being arguably two of the best. I can remember screaming the lyrics to these songs with 15 other girls in the shower room after swim practice, alone in my car during high school, and right now, writing this piece as a junior studying at Penn.
If you aren’t familiar with these two songs, here is what you need to know: they are both basically about a girl (Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson) who discovers that her boyfriend has been cheating on her and decides to retaliate. Even though the situation that plays out through the course of the song didn’t apply to me at the age of ten, I was still able to immediately relate to both the singers and the subject matter of the songs. This is because I, like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, am a cisgender white woman with a history of heterosexual relationships.
I dug my key into the side
Of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive
Carved my name into his leather seats
I took a Louisville slugger to both head lights
I slashed a hole in all four tires
Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats
— “Before He Cheats,” Carrie Underwood
These songs are just two specific examples out of the many that subscribe to the cisnormative and heteronormative views of society, both of which have had a heavy hand in developing my views and shaping my experiences. Although I wasn’t aware of these blatant cisgender and heteronormative themes that manifest themselves as pronouns and prepositions in the lyrics, they are a large part of why I was able to relate to the singer and understand their emotions at the age of ten. The fact that these themes and pronouns were a cue for me to insert myself into the narrative of the story means that they were most likely a deterrent for someone else, especially someone that identifies as non-cisgender or non-heterosexual.
When analyzing the lyrics, “Before He Cheats” obviously uses gendered language as there is a consistent use of male pronouns to discuss and describe the singer’s partner, or the recipient of the song. The use of these pronouns creates a very specific scenario that might affect someone’s ability to relate to either the singer or the recipient of the song, especially if they are a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Although “Since U Been Gone” has gender neutral lyrics, there is an insinuated gender to the ‘U’ figure in the song (which is revealed to be male in the music video) which may cause the same barrier for LGBTQ+ folks.
Since you been gone
I can breathe for the first time
I’m so moving on, yeah, yeah
Thanks to you
Now I get what I want
Since you been gone
— “Since U Been Gone,” Kelly Clarkson
Thinking about these songs by themselves is one thing, but when thinking about them in a music therapy setting, being informed and sensitive to a client’s preferred pronouns becomes a matter of creating and maintaining a safe space within the therapeutic relationship. This becomes especially important when working with an individual who identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, as sensitivity regarding non-cishet relationships and experiences need to be considered within the environment of therapy.
This past spring my sister graduated from the College of Wooster with a Bachelor of Music Therapy, during which her senior capstone was focused on “Exploring the relationship between lyrical pronouns and song relatability within the queer community: A descriptive, phenomenological study.” This came about as a result of her interest and studies regarding the intersection of music therapy and queer theory, both of which support the notions of general open-mindedness and the use of appropriate terminology.
For this study, she had participants listen to three songs from various genres and decades: “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood from 2005, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something from 1993, and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns n Roses from 1987. These three songs were specifically chosen because they are outwardly romantic, contain explicitly gendered lyrics, and have appeared on multiple Music Theory repertoire lists as well as the Billboard Top 100. After listening, participants then answered a series of questions where they were asked to rate on a five-point scale their overall experience, emotional impact, ability to identify with the performer or other actors in the song, as well as the effect that the pronouns used had on their ability to relate to the song.
Table displaying the participant’s personal and overall experience with “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood.
Additionally, participants were asked to share their gender identity as well as what sexuality they identified with. Of the ten participants, seven identified as lesbian, five as bisexual, two as gay, one as pansexual, and one who described themselves as “graysexual.” Information regarding sexuality and gender identity was used when analyzing gender identity and song relatability, which can be seen in the following chart concerning “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
At the conclusion of the study, she found that half of the participants agreed that the use of certain pronouns in the lyrics had an impact on their experience listening to the songs. She also found that of the three songs, “Before He Cheats” had the highest relatability rating, rationalizing that this might have been due to the fact that 90% of the participants identified as female. Although she did not pursue this idea further in her thesis, my sister concluded these findings might indicate that one’s ability to relate with the performer might have more impact on overall experience than the pronouns used to refer to the recipient of the song.
She also expressed her frustration in how little research has been done regarding queer music therapy, especially relating to the emotional impact of pronoun misuse and the prevalence of heteronormative music that is typical in music therapy sessions. She mentioned that there are actually only two articles that talk about any type of issues regarding gender or sexual identity in any music therapy related research. For these reasons I believe her research is valuable to the profession of music therapy as a whole, but also has themes applicable to a broader audience, such as the importance of challenging and undermining the dominance of cisnormative and heteronormative societal norms, namely through the acknowledgement and use of preferred pronouns.
On a more personal note, the first time I read her thesis, I felt guilty about being ignorant of and in some respects complacent with the fact that I am largely removed from the consequences of the cisnormative and heteronormative themes in popular music. It wasn’t until I entered college a little over two years ago that I was asked what my preferred pronouns were or learned about the dominance of these societal norms. So for me personally, as someone who is currently trying to be an educated ally to the LGBTQ+ community, her research served mainly as a reminder for me that questions of “who is this for,” “who is being excluded,” and “what are ways I can be more inclusive” are questions we should be asking ourselves more often.
Illustration is by the author.