Art or glorified abuse?

Claire McCarthy, MD

Is anybody as freaked out as I am by the fact that the #1 song in the United States talks about tying a girlfriend to the bed and setting the house on fire? That’s what Eminem says he’s going to do, in the last verse of the wildly popular song “I Love The Way You Lie.”

Here are the lyrics:

I apologize even though I know it’s lies

I’m tired of the games I just want her back

I know I’m a liar if she ever tries to f**kin’ leave again

I’ma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire

And to make things even worse, Rihanna (who has experienced very public domestic violence herself), sings a haunting chorus in between Eminem’s verses about violence:

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn

Well that’s all right because I like the way it hurts

Just gonna stand there and hear me cry

Well that’s all right because I love the way you lie

I love the way you lie

Picture 16

Picture 18Why aren’t people more upset about this? My 19-year-old daughter says that I’m missing the point. Michaela says that the song is about Eminem and Rihanna being honest about the past, and moving on from it.  Okay, so I’m 46 and I don’t follow pop culture quite as closely as she and many other people do.  But I’m guessing that there are other people out there who don’t know the backstory—including many kids—and who might be missing the point along with me.

Seems to me that if you were moving on, it might be good to include a couple of lines in the song about violence being bad—or about not letting someone be violent with you.  But there’s none of that in the song.  Eminem doesn’t say that it’s good to beat up (or burn up) your girlfriend, but he says that he can’t help himself, as if it’s just the way he is.  And Rihanna, by saying she loves the way he lies, is essentially admiring him for being that way—and accepting her role as victim.

I worry that people—especially teens— in abusive relationships, or relationships at the edge of being abusive, might feel justified by this song. That scares me. Did you know that:

  • 10% of high school students nationwide report being hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year?
  • 20% of female high school students report being physically or sexually abused by a dating partner?
  • 40% of girls 14-17 report knowing someone their age who has been hit or beaten by a boyfriend?
  • date rape accounts for 70% of sexual assaults reported by adolescents and college age women, with 38% being girls 14-17?

As much as I would like the song off the air, that’s not what I’m advocating. Censorship is a slippery slope. But I do think that parents need to talk with their kids about this song, and about healthy (and unhealthy) relationships. If you turn this song into a teachable moment, it won’t be so bad. For more information on intimate partner violence, including teen dating violence, visit

I’m guessing, too, that a lot of parents don’t even know that their kids are listening to this song. I didn’t, until a friend told me about it—and when I asked Michaela if she knew it, I discovered that she could recite the lyrics!

So this song can be a teachable moment for parents, a wake-up call to find out what your child is listening to.  For best results, do it in a casual, hey-what-music-do-you-like way. Let them choose the radio station in the car (I love cars for important discussions—the kids are captive, and nobody has to look at each other). If they always have their ipods in their ears, buy an ipod player for the car, or kitchen (another place where kids hang out and can be captive).  Don’t jump to judgment—remember what your parents thought about the music you liked at that age.  Just listen to the music, and to what your children have to say about it. And then, have a discussion about the messages, good and bad. Maybe they won’t listen.  But maybe they will. Which, as a parent, is all that we can hope for.

24 thoughts on “Art or glorified abuse?

  1. We are raising our grandchildren at this time because of our children’s inability to productively express their frustrations. A nice way of saying they are vilolent with eachother. It’s more than a culture problem. It’s several ‘cultures’ mixed together: Next Gen culture, Drug culture, Turbulent-Times culture. It truly is a disconnect between generations. And primarily adult children who have witnessed all this to the extreme on TV and in film. Love seems to have more passion and excitement when mixed with violence. It sells. And we buy it. I don’t, but we as a whole. Dialogue is essential, your right. And reenforcement of the joy of tenderness is key.

  2. This song is EXTREMELY disturbing! Someone posted it on Facebook & I love Rhianna’s voice but not what they were saying. I then heard my daughter listening to it (she’s 12) & she loves the song. Fortunately, this song created a discussion with her friend’s older brother who told them it doesn’t make any sense. I was worried that it advocates abuse. When I asked her what this song means to her & if she thought Rhianna is saying this is a good thing…she said that Rhianna is being sarcastic (YAY!!!). I let her know that all the things Eminem is saying are the typical excuses an abuser will make…the promises it won’t happen again, sorry,etc….and that if he hits once, it’s going to happen again! Guaranteed!!!

    It’s good that the kids were talking about it and I hope that they see that there is something wrong here…I’m hoping this song gets the word out that abuse is NOT okay.

    LOL…I know our parents probably didn’t understand our music….but wow…it wasn’t nearly as bad as what is being played now…was it????? I can’t stand the rap songs! I can’t stop her from hearing these songs anymore but as you pointed out, parents need to talk to the kids. Unfortunately, from my experience, alot of the parents don’t even pay attention to their kids. I, for one, also try to listen to the new songs myself to be more familiar with what my daughter may be hearing…It then isn’t a total shocker when she’s singing this stuff!!

  3. I love how you suggest holding the children “captive” in the car or kitchen to talk to them, I thought it was very funny and so true, also a great idea. It’s important for parents to try to step into their teenager’s world and try to see how they are seeing certain issues or how things are being projected in their eyes in the world around them. You’re daughter is right about the story about Eminem and Rhianna. One thing about the kids today is that they actually follow up with the stories on the artists that they listen to. It wasn’t as easy before the internet, but now that the information is right at their fingertips they actually search for information about the music and the artist they like. I had grown up in a time when Eminem had first came out and believe it or not he seemed much more violent and immature back then than now. Although this song may send mixed messages to some people, it is actually trying to show people that abusers never change. (Without help, that is.) They promise that they will never do it again, and sure enough eventually they do. This song actually brings up the issue of the victim’s psyche wanting to believe the lies and repeatedly returning to the abuse. The end of the song is trying to show that if one continues to return to the abuse, they would eventually kill you. Is this an appropriate song for teenagers and children? Probably not, but it is a great oppertunity to talk to your kids about abuse. Although this song may bother parents that are trying to raise their children in a safe and healthy environment, we don’t know what experiences they may come across in the future or who we are raising them beside. They might know a friend that is going though some type of abuse and etc, and it is also good to see how they are percieving songs like this and not internalizing them in a negative way.

  4. I totally noticed this, as my 14-yr-old niece was singing along to the Rhianna part of the song. It’s so damaging and so negative to sell this type of scenario. Having volunteered in the area of domestic violence for many years, it makes me totally sick and I do plan to talk to her about it.

  5. I don’t necessarily disagree with what you all have written. But I think there is another way to look at what this song is doing and what Rihanna and Eminem may be trying to do (whether or not they are successfull doing so is a whole different question).

    Frequently when you hear about situations of domestic violence/intimate partner violence you hear things like “she should just leave him” or “why does she stay?” And questions such as this disregard the fact that there are often a whole range of emotions-fear, love, happiness, and sadness- tied up in relationships that are plagued by violence. Expecting women to just walk away is, too be honest, unreasonable. There are reasons they don’t just leave. Maybe she is financially dependent on the man or maybe when he’s not hitting her, he simply makes her feel good, or maybe she is just too scared. Until our culture stops ignoring this mess of emotions that are entangled around intimate partner violence we can’t truly help the victims or survivors.

    I wonder if the song can help to bring about awareness of some of these emotions and the complexity of violent relationships. I agree with Dr. McCarthy wholeheartedly that there needs to be conversation and that this song can truly provide for a teaching moment. But before we go blaming Rihanna for supporting something she is herself trying to cope with, we need to recognize that the way DV is addressed in our culture may not be the most appropriate. Yes, I do with we lived in a society where women had the support and resources to leave and to call out their abusers but that is not the case.

    I do worry that the music video sexualizes the violence and that the visual portrayal of this song dictates how the song is to be interpreted whereas the song it self leaves the interpretation to the listener.

  6. One of my friends told me about this song. I thought to myself I have to hear this song since i have kids that are at an inlfuentual stage. I listened to the song and by chance got to see this video last weekend. This song is difinitely sending our youth the wrong message about accepting abusive relationships. What even tops the cake is RHianna is singing the hook. Please play an active roll in the youth today.

  7. my 19 year old daughter also said, I was missing the point and he begged Rihanna to do the song with him, BECAUSE of her PAST abuse and that it was a good thing to bring awareness. I am just the messenger from a 19 year olds prospective.

  8. This is gross…ESPECIALLY coming from a real-life victim of domestic abuse and a real-life domestic abuser.

  9. Lauri is right. I am all about raising awareness regarding domestic violence, but I think you’re missing the point of the song. It’s about a man asking himself how he could hurt the woman he loves the way he does. Basically, it’s calling out guys like Chris Brown.

  10. Dr. McCarthy,

    I thank you for sharing this with us. As a parent of two young adults and a 13 year old, I am always eager to learn new and effective ways to talk to our youth, not just my kids. This was very insightful and I agree with you 100+%. The messages sent through these and other lyrics are so distorted that it takes an experienced, worldly person to put the pieces together.

    Our youth can speak effortlessly and surf the web and text at record speeds, But their minds are tender, and real life experience comes with age.

    Abuse, in all sizes, shape and form is a RED flag and it calls for an intervention. It always hurts and destroys in the end so it’s necessary to seek support from a trusted person.

    Our youth represents the future and every smart decision they make today will make a tremendous impact on their future and those of others.

    It is human nature to be kind. Peace and understanding to all.

    With love.

  11. I’m in my early 30’s and so I was in my late teens when I first listened to Eminem and other artists in the Hip Hip genre. I agree with you that censorship is a “slipper slope;”and so I don’t feel taking away the right to express oneself (verbally) is the solution. Every person of every culture in every generation shares their own perspectives based on their own experiences. I think we have to tolerate and accept the artistic expressions of others for the personal reflections they are. I myself do not condone violence in any form. Therefore I feel it is the duty of all parents and other adults responsible for a child’s/teen’s well-being to be indiscriminately involved in preparing them for such exposures. We can’t control the media. We must recognize the need to talk and just listen to the younger generation. This is the only way to really know and understand them; not to mention have an impact in their lives.

  12. I’m glad that you brought this to the public’s eye. I personally am a big Enimen fan and I respect his music along with his lyrics. We as a society has become so dysfunctional / violent and the communication IS NOT THERE ANYMORE. Family discussions are not there anymore – children are growing up way too fast (even if they HAD a childhood) – I am also a preschool teacher for a HeadStart program and I see this kind of dysfunctionality EVERY DAY – there is a major societal breakdown. Perfect example was back in the 80’s everyone was in a twist about N.W.A. and Public Enemy – they were trying to send us a message about what was going on in their “worlds.” Was it translated the best? I don’t know – I just know that they sent it they way THEY KNEW HOW TO. I guess what I am trying to say is, maybe the translation is not the best way to put it out there, but Enimen is putting many many many examples of how families/couple relationships are….period…listen to the lyrics, forget about the profanity, and really try to understand what the artist is trying to say. Then COMMUNICATE / EXPLAIN it to whom you see fit. When every form of communication stops….that’s when we are in trouble.

  13. I see your point; however I don’t really agree. My 14 year old daughter actually introduced my husband and I to the song and we both found the lyrics to be shockingly honest, clever and crafty. Relationships aren’t always what they seem to be on the outside and I think it’s refreshing to let our kids know that violence is out there, and not just on TV. I do agree that this is a good teaching opportunity. There are many ways that our kids are exposed to violence today. I don’t think that music or videos are going to teach my daughter how to have a healthy fulfilling relationship, or, on the contrary persuade her to think that violence is OK or cool. Those lessons come from her parents!!!. If a teen is in an abusive realtionship or on the edge of one becoming abusive, I don’t think the focus should be on a song, but on the parents of the teen. If people are that worried about how music and TV ect… will affect their children, then they let their kids watch to much of it and aren’t spending enough time talking to them; parenting them. All this time blabbering about what our kids shouldn’t hear or see could be spent talking to them about their thoughts and feelings about these songs, movies, videos, news and relationships. We can’t control the media, but we can have an impact or how our children perceive it.

  14. Uhhh Eminem has been singing about this stuff for a decade now… get with the times.

  15. My boys, ages 17 and almost 13, and I have heard this song almost every day in the car on our 40 minute ride to camp these last couple week. They are the ones who explained to me that the song is about Riyanna’s relationship with Chris Brown. They get it. They know what Chris Brown did was terribly wrong. To expect Eminem to build into the lyrics domestic violence is bad would be preachy and ruin the message.

    Bottom line: Communication is the key. Every age is different and every kid is different so you need to make sure your child is getting the right message out of the song.

    Rap is difficult for me to listen to also but my wife and I have explained that rap songs that advocate violence or disrespect for women are trash and not allowed on iPods or to be played in the house or car.

  16. Seriously its a song! I have dealt with domestic violence myself and its nothing to glorify but this is an amazing rapper/singer(Eminem) just doing what he loves. And has anyone asked Rhianna her opinion? I am sure she would not have sung the lyrics if it was a problem for her. Adults (I am 30 with three children of my own) need to realize there is a difference between art and glorifying abuse. If you don’t approve then change the station when it comes on.

  17. Kudos for taking this position. I know its easy to get defensive about this, after all its just a song. Its art, self-expression, etc. I can understand that in context and I get the point of the song—really I do. The problem is that young teens (a large majority of pop starts audience) might not get the meaning that mature adults do. Instead, they are playing the victim role and internalizing this as the standard for relationships—abuse, lies, and pain.

  18. I’ve survived domestic violence too and yet I do understand the influence of culture on people. Culture (music, videos, stories, movies) sets the standard for what is normal acceptable behavior, much more so than parents do when it comes to teens. If culture didn’t an influence then there wouldn’t be billions of dollars spent on advertising.
    I’ve read the lyrics and yes it’s not nessecarily an ode to how much fun abuse is but it’s not something that should pass without discussion. You could start with how the woman in the song hasn’t got much to say and it’s all about the abusive man’s emotional pain cause that is pretty one sided and misogynistic in it’s own right. And what’s with all these folks saying we can’t change the media? Why not? How come that free speech bit doesn’t apply there? If speech is so free then how come the people we hear the most from have millions of dollars?

  19. I first heard this song and paid attention to the lyrics while driving with my daughter, now 20 years old. I was horrified. I also didnt realize that it was Eminem and Rhianna. I didn’t get the concept that they were “working things out” from the lyrics. I really don’t think that rock/pop/rap stars for the most part care all that much about being healthy role models. It is bad enough that this message comes from individuals with personal experience with violence.

  20. Point taken, but why does this song bother you guys so much when Rihanna’s song “Rude Boy” (which is constantly playing on the radio) signifies the root of the problem. The lyrics to the song are sexually explicit and when I thought it couldn’t get any worst, I saw the video, which is even raunchier. I am a straight guy who defines myself as being too sexual despite my frequent attempts at being celibate, so trust me when I say that sexualizing/itemizing/objectifying women is at the very root of the problem. As a man that appreciates every part of a woman, I understand how easy it is to look at a woman and not see a person, but an object of desire. Sometimes the only thing that matters is the desire; and respect for the person’s feelings, rights and life is, unfortunately, disregarded. At the beginning of Eminem’s video “The Way You Lie,” the couple fights and immediately begins to have a make-out session. I didn’t watch the rest of the video, but I think they had sex or it was just a lot of passionate grinding. Nonetheless, we need to teach our young: women should not be looked at as acquisitions or conquests.

  21. I don’t think this song is glorifying abuse at all. I love it, but I’ve been taking it as a warning song about how these situations almost never change. It starts out as a one-time thing, with the abuser apologizing and promising he’ll never do it again, but each time escalates. The victim stays even though she really does know it’s going to happen again.

  22. Yes, children are vulnerable, but maybe it’s the parent’s responsibilty to explain to them what the song is REALLY about. It’s not glamourizing the violence. It’s about horrible masochistic, love-hate relationships that happen in real life. Eminem is saying that he doesn’t understand what makes him hurt her, and Rihanna’s wondering why she’s staying. Her saying “That’s alright, cause I love the way you lie” is just her trying to make sense of the whole situation. Her reasoning is that the reason she’s staying in the dysfunctional relationship is because she must be in love with his flaws as much as everything else.

    Maybe the song doesn’t have the best meaning, but it’s shedding light on the reality of many other dysfunctional relationships in this world that go completely unnoticed. People have to learn to use their minds and think things through more, instead of accepting something at face value and then speaking upon it, and for those parents that are worried about the kind of message their kids are taking in: BE A PARENT AND TEACH THEM RIGHT FROM WRONG. If you did, this debate wouldn’t even be relevant.

  23. The song is called “Love The Way You Lie” and it features Rihanna. On the song, Rihanna starts by singing, “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn, well, that’s alright because I like the way it hurts/Just gonna stand there and hear me cry, well, that’s alright because I love the way you lie.” From there, Em raps three verses which provide the details of a troubled relationship. There’s arguing, domestic violence, apologies and (eventually) a resolution that those within these types of romantic relationships are probably all too familiar with. Despite the subject matter, Em doesn’t pull any punches (no pun intended, obviously) and does a nice job of driving home the point that domestic violence is a vicious cycle.

    The reason it works, though—and the reason I’d say “Love The Way You Lie” is Em’s most important track to date—is that he sends a clear message about domestic violence without making it so blatant that you’re forced to hit the “Next Track” button. It’s as if Em and Rih-Rih have tricked us into thinking about domestic violence in our society. There’s no intro or outro with Em addressing the subject matter. There’s no bridge where Rihanna breaks down in tears and sings her heart out. They just let the song speak for itself.

    That Em practically made a living off rapping about domestic violence in the past (“KIM,” anyone?) only makes it that much stronger. It gives a lot of those older tracks purpose, almost as if they’ve set Em up to make a statement on domestic violence today without it seeming corny or over-the-top. It’s as if he’s saying, “Here’s all the twisted thoughts that go through the mind of someone that batters a female—are you sure this is what you want? And are you sure that you’re ready to go through this over…and over…and over again if it is?”

    By adding Rihanna—who struggled through domestic violence with her former boyfriend Chris Brown—the song becomes more believable, too. It’s the type of track that will do more than just become a hit on the radio. It’ll give girls (and guys) in troubled relationships something to think about. It’ll get played at schools and shelters and on the radio and generate discussion. It’ll make a difference.

    “Love The Way You Lie” may not be Em’s best song of all-time. It not may feature him taking shots at pop stars, raging against the machine or giving the middle finger to the rest of the world. It may not dazzle you with wordplay or make you want to stand in front of the mirror and rap every word. But when it comes to his legacy, it very well may go down as the most socially important track of Eminem’s career. Of course, only time will tell. But for now: I love what “Love The Way You Lie” says about how far Em has come.


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