As a woman interested in music genres of the more alternative scene I am often disappointed in how women frequently are portrayed on album covers and in lyrics of this type of music. It often appears as if the music that I listen to is not created with female fans in mind but is simply produced for men. Lyrics of all sorts are often criticized for their messages, subtle or not so subtle, and I am going to do the same.
I like the band Alien Ant Farm partly because of their lyrics. The band first emerged on the scene in 1990 and had their breakthrough with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” in 1999. They continued to make music and recently when I listened to their 2013 album Always and forever and the song “Sidelines” I reacted to the lyrics both from the perspective as a woman and also from my past experience as a student of Women’s studies. Before hearing “Sidelines” I hadn’t thought of their songs as in any way putting down on women. That’s why I was quite disappointed to hear this song. The song is catchy but when you listen to the lyrics, it is no longer that great.
In college I earned a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies and I also had a great teacher in a course on the study of men and masculinities. We talked about the concept of “homosociality” and the way that men interact in groups. “Homosociality” refers to social activities in same-sex groups, for example when men spend time together and do activities together. These groups are usually organized depending on the person’s or group’s local context, social, personal and local networks. What can be troublesome however is that male “homosociality” is generally characterized by the exclusion of women, violence towards women, and homophobic behavior.1 Homophobic behavior is closely connected to the notion of “heteronormativity”, the belief that heterosexual relationships are the norm and superior over other types of relationships.2
When hearing the song “Sidelines” I thought of it as a perfect example of homosociality. Here is why:
The song opens with the following verse:
This is a call out to the closed up
This is an anthem for the choked up
A girl walks by with her nose up
You can get her with a little bit of focus
Now I know you like to sit back
While all the guys spit the game try to hit that
Boy you know it’s time to man up
Don't need an invite you just show up
When’s the last time you felt some skin?
I bet you can't remember when
The first two sentences of the song describe it as an anthem for the closed up and choked up. In the next couple of sentences we understand that it is an anthem for closed up and choked up men since it says: ”A girl walks by with her nose up, you can get her with a little bit of focus, now I know you like to sit back, while all the guys spit the game try to hit that.” There are several issues with these sentences that can be connected to homosociality and heteronormativity. The lines: ”Boy you know it’s time to man up, don’t need an invite you just show up, when’s the last time you felt some skin? I bet you can't remember when” tell us that the closed up and choked up man needs to grow up, to stop being a boy and become a man. He must become someone who does not take no for an answer, who can focus and get what he wants, and who is sexually active. It is assumed that men are sexually interested in women and that it is acceptable for men to police other men’s sexual behavior, in terms of manning up, stop being passive and having sex to prove that you are straight (three examples of heteronormativity). The woman in the text is not regarded highly and the fact that a woman is described as “that” and something to “hit” connects to the fact that homosociality excludes women or is characterized by violence towards women. The words “Don’t need an invite you just show up” also bother me because I cannot help but associate these words with “catcalling” or sexual harassment and the belief that a man does not need to ask permission.
The verse is followed by the chorus:
Nobody scores from the sidelines
Everyone’s in the game now it’s your time.
Quit running and come out of your shell
And when you do you're gonna raise all hell.
Nobody scores from the sidelines.
It is interesting that this verse uses sports references to make the point of heteronormativity and broadcast masculine norms. First we can analyze the chorus from a sports perspective, that nobody scores from the sidelines. Secondly, it refers to the fact that nobody scores (sexual “scoring”) from the sidelines. In order to get that girl, or to score, you have to be active, quit running and hiding and take what you want. Expectations of men as always on the prowl, as confident sexual explorers and thrill seekers can all be found in this short chorus. The text also mentions something that men are expected to know and relate to and that is sports. To really make the point, the song also incorporates chanting cheerleaders in the chorus.
After that, in the next verse, the song goes:
Take your time find a place to begin
I know that sounds like a lot to take in.
Now I'm not saying you should live in sin
It’s just more fun to be had than a has-been.
So here we go your gonna come through
You owe it to yourself I know you really want to.
Now I'm gonna' tell you how to win
Just listen close to my choked up anthem.
When’s the last time you felt some skin?
I bet you can't remember when.
What makes you shy away?
Never have a single thing to say.
Who’s stepping on your self-esteem?
If you don't get that girl
You know that someone will.
You've gotta make some noise if you wanna be seen.
Here, the type of competition that is mentioned above is shown with the words: “Now I’m gonna tell you how to win” and “If you don’t get that girl, you know that someone will.” The message here is that you need to get the girl before someone else does and that it is important to measure oneself to other men in terms of “scoring” and “getting girls”. The sexual policing that is mentioned above can clearly be seen in the following sentence: “You owe it to yourself, I know you really want to” and “When’s the last time you’ve felt some skin. I bet you can’t remember when.” It is also interesting to reflect on the last verse because here again men are expected to not shy away, to have self-esteem, to always have something to say and to make noise. Here, simply in the lyrics to a song, we are bombarded with norms and expectations of what it means to be a man and how the men of today are expected to act. Homosociality is partly characterized by the exclusion of women and yeah, I do feel excluded as a consumer of the band’s music and not so great about listening to a song that refers to women as “that”.
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor´s Degree in Psychology and a Master´s Degree in Women’s Studies from University College Dublin. More from Elin can be found online at FWSA, Thefword, RealStars, Feimineach and Metapsychology Online Reviews.
1Flood, M. (2008). Men, Sex, and Homosociality: How Bonds Between Men Shape Their
Sexual Relations with Women. Men and Masculinities 10 (3) 339-359.
2 Connell, R.W. (1987). Gender and Power. Stanford University Press.
Connell, R. W & Pearse, R. (2014). Gender: In World Perspective. Cambridge: Polity Press.