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 http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/teen_dating_violence.html

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.