I think everyone at this point knows that Every Breath You Take is a song about a creepy stalker that has been used at weddings adopted by couples as their song because they mistook obsessiveness for romance. But that isn't the only pop hit that seems to celebrate dysfunction in romance. Lots of pop songs seem to celebrate psychosis. I discuss a few here.
Run For Your Life
John Lennon was known for two things during his time with the Beatles, his wit and his temper. That makes it hard to know if he was joking or not when he wrote Run For Your Life. The opening lines are "I'd rather see you dead little girl, than to be with another man". The chorus repeats the sentiment, stating "Catch you with another man that's the end little girl". The fact that it was the last song on the album may indicate that it was meant to be taken less than seriously. Unfortunately so many women have been murdered because of this "if I can't have you no one can" mentality that it sours the joke. It's even more disturbing if it's not seen as a joke. What makes it even more jarring is that it seems so out of place with the rest of the Beatles' catalogue, which tends to promote love and harmony, hammer wielding serial killers aside.
He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss
Carole King and Gerry Goffin were married songwriters responsible for hits like Will You Love Me Tomorrow and The Locomotion. The Crystals were the group who had scored hits with And Then He Kissed Me and Da Doo Ron Ron. King and Goffin wrote He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss when they noticed their babysitter Eva (who had a hit as Little Eva singing the couple's song The Locomotion) had bruises. When they asked her about it she told them that her boyfriend hit her out of love. They wrote the song and Phil Spector insisted The Crystals Record it. The group wasn't comfortable with this song that seemed to not only excuse but to actually celebrate domestic violence, but apparently Spector really identified with this song (which makes total sense in retrospect). The song disappeared from radio pretty quickly after people started complaining about it's subject, and it's mostly forgotten now. The Crystals and Carole King have expressed regret for the song.
Under My Thumb
Mick Jagger has defended Under My Thumb by saying it's not about a toxic relationship where a man is oppressing a woman, but is rather about a henpecked man turning the tables. I'm not sire this excuses lines like "the way she talks when she's spoken to" and "the way does just what she's told". Just because the abusive behavior has changed which partner it's coming from doesn't make it less abusive. Maybe rather than changing the power dynamic to be the one who bullies rather than the one being bullied, the subject should have left the relationship to look for one that was healthier. And Jagger does seem to be celebrating that his woman now keeps her eyes to herself while he can look at whoever he wants. While the song never states what methods were used to achieve the role reversal, the woman's behaviors have all the earmarks of someone who has been mentally and/or physically intimidated.
This one may not be as egregious as the others, but it still documents a relationship in which the dynamics are sick. Diana Ross states in the song that she knows he's cheating on her, but she is willing to overlook it because he is so charming and no one else can make her fell the way he does. This is obviously meant to be a profession of love so true that nothing else matters, but is actually a profession of self esteem so low that she is willing to put up with anything rather than risk losing the man who gives her attention. The song seems so upbeat and joyous it can be easy to miss the fact that she is declaring her love for a man who cannot or will not be true to her. It's so bizarre that this came out two years after I Will Survive.
I Never Loved A Man
This song has one of the most amazing performances by one of the greatest singers of all time. Her voice is so powerful it almost knocks you over. But while we are used to hearing Aretha sing about giving her respect, or making her feel like a natural woman, this song starts with "You're a no good heart breaker, you're a liar and a cheat". Her friends tell her he is mistreating her, and she knows it but she refuses to let him go. The sad truth is this song was probably more representative of most women's experience than the feminist anthems that were to come. And if you only listen to the chorus, where Aretha breathily proclaims she never loved a man the way that she loves you, you could be forgiven for thinking this is one of the most romantic songs ever written. Instead it's just another example of a woman whose self esteem isn't high enough to allow her to get out of a toxic and probably abusive relationship.
I know there will be people who get their undies in a twist about me saying anything negative about these songs. They will claim that they are from a point of view from a different time period. They will state that cheating is just something that people do. I have had and seen these conversations before. I will just let you know two things up front. I really like most of the songs despite their icky subject matter. I am not calling for them to be cancelled, only pointing out their problematic content. Also, if you defend the viewpoint offered in these songs you're probably not a great person. You can feel free to comment all your defenses of these lyrics if you want, but the only thing you're going to convince me about is that I feel sorry for anyone in a relationship with you.