Could Heavy Rock Be Just A Teeny-Weeny Bit Sexist?

a judges gavel judge court

I’m putting heavy rock on trial! Have your say!

  • Twenty five years on from the peak of heavy rock’s commercial popularity in 1988, this series asks why heavy rockers no longer dominate the charts and seeks to highlight the crimes that Heavy Rock is accused of, and give you the cases for and against.
  • At the end of each debate, you will have the ability to vote either “guilty” or “not guilty”, according to the evidence. And because this is a democratic process, you may also introduce your own evidence, in the comments section at the foot of the page to sway the jury.
  • By the end of the process we should perhaps have a clearer view of what went wrong with those eighties rock bands, and the pitfalls new bands might do well to avoid…

Part 4: Could heavy rock be just a teeny-weeny bit sexist?

The Prosecution:

Exhibits A: Whitesnake: “Lie Down, I Think I Love You”, Ted Nugent: Cat Scratch Fever, Kiss “Do You Love Me”, Poison: “Talk Dirty To Me”, Warrant: “Cherry Pie”, Mötley Crüe: “She Goes Down”, Def Leppard: “Armageddon It”.

From the Oxford English Dictionary: Sexism – “Behaviour, language etc reflecting the assumption that one sex is inferior to the other. Insistence on (esp. a woman’s) conformity to a sexually stereotyped social role.”

Almost all the blame for heavy rock’s reputation for sexist lyrics can be placed with just two bands: David Coverdale‘s Whitesnake, and Kiss.

BC, or Before Coverdale, heavy rock’s lyrical content was concerned with Satan (Sabbath, natch), Hobbits (Led Zep’s “Ramble On”) and inter-stellar space travel whilst squashing hedgehogs (Deep Purple’s Space Truckin’).

Then came Geordie Dave with his dirty limericks, and rock changed forever. He introduced the charming love sonnet “Lie Down, I Think I Love You” on a live album with, “Here’s what your tarts will be saying to you tonight”…

Indeed, “Lie Down”, “Slide It In”, “Slow An’ Easy” and “Spit It Out”, read more like a set of instructions in a brothel than a serious attempt to break down the mysteries of personal relationships.

In fairness, Rock tried to ignore this ocean of innuendo at first, with a few exceptions, namely Ted Nugent, who had a hit with “Cat Scratch Fever” and the aforementioned Kiss who had ploughed their own furrow in the US with songs such as “Christine Sixteen”, “Strutter” and “Plaster Caster“. In most of the songs, women are objects both admired and loathed. “You really like my limousine / You really like my seven inch / leather heels / and going to all of the shows” accuses Paul Stanley to an unnamed girl. “You like my credit cards / and private plane”, he stealth brags, “Money really can take you far” he sneers, “you like the hotels / and fancy clothes” he continues, rather pathetically, “But Do You Love Me?”

Of course she does, Paul. She especially loves your modesty and unprepossessing lack of ego.

On Kiss’ “Hotter Than Hell” album, the song “Goin’ Blind” contains perhaps the creepiest lyric of all time as Gene Simmons croons “I’m ninety three, you’re sixteen / can’t you see I’m goin’ blind…” Anyone want to tell me what that’s all about? *shudders*

Aside from these lone pioneers, real metalheads concerned themselves with more dignified themes, leaving soft-rockers Foreigner and Journey to dish out the mushy stuff whilst they focused on boys own adventures such as Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper”, Judas Priest‘s “Breaking The Law” and Blue Öyster Cult’s “She’s As Beautiful As A Foot”.

But then a refreshed and glammed-up Whitesnake scored a huge US hit with the 1987 album and hit song “Still Of The Night” which featured the writhing of Tawny Kitaen. Kiss jumped in with Crazy Nights -and recognising a sure thing when they saw one, record companies flooded the market with similar videos from bands who took the baton from Kiss and ran with it. Hard. (Ooerrr).

Poison gave us the sentimental folk song “Talk Dirty To Me”, Warrant gave us “Cherry Pie” and Mötley Crüe “She Goes Down”, none of which need any explanation, and are barely double entendres – perhaps we ought to label them single entendres. It was left to Def Leppard to come up with the worst pun of the eighties with the nod and wink of “Armageddon It”. Yes Joe, we geddit.

In the end whilst society gradually changed, it was perhaps the lack of imagination that the public grew tired of first. Just look at this breakdown of the lyrical themes in Motorhead, the first six Kiss LPs, and the debut album by Poison. It says it all…

Exhibit C: Rock’s Cherry Pie Charts: What Proportion Of These Heavy Rock LPs Are Songs About Girls?

Let’s start with Motorhead. A look at a breakdown of lyrical themes shows a wide variety of subjects, and about a third of songs (taken from their best of) being about women. Not great, but not ridiculous either:

Analysis of Motorhead lyrical themes

However, when we look at Poison’s debut album, we can see that there’s a shift to nearly two thirds of songs being about women (NB this might not mean that they are all sexist. But as it happens they are):

Analysis of Poison lyrics

However, an analysis of the first six albums by KISS show a very different picture. Indeed, there are albums where 100% of songs are about women – and only about women in a lascivious way. With KISS, nearly eighty percent of their songs are about women:

Analysis of Kiss Lyrics by theme

And on that bombshell, the prosecution rests…

For the Defence

Exhibit A: Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever”.

This song’s lyric includes the line “I make that pussy purr / with a stroke of my hand”. The suggestion is that this is somehow prurient. I counter that if you think there is anything untoward in such an innocent statement, you just have a filthy mind. Unless the recipient is extremely gifted and has vocal chords in an unusual place, this is clearly about a cat.

Similarly Warrant sang only of a fruit-based dessert with “Cherry Pie”, Cinderella’s “Push Push” is about a girl whose car has broken down and Mötley Crüe merely spoke about half the duties of an elevator attendant with “She Goes Down”…

Risqué lyrics have a long tradition in rock and pop. A close examination of the lyrics to The Coasters’ “Poison Ivy” reveals this is a song about an STD. When Robert Nighthawk sang on the ’50’s Chess Records classic “Sweet Black Angel”, “I’ve got a sweet black angel / I like the way she spreads her wings” the listener was left under no doubt his thoughts were not entirely theological. Whilst not everybody has the neat turn of phrase of the RnB and Blues greats, the result is the same. So heavy rock is not unique if on the odd occasion it is somewhat er, ungallant.

Not all heavy rock is or was sexist either. There is little sexism in the songs of the big 4 thrash bands, and not just because they are far too concerned with death and Satan. Indeed these bands have all written politically charged songs rather than dwell on the female form.

Is sexism why people might think heavy rock is outdated? Perhaps not. The preponderance of sexist lyrics in one of the most currently popular music forms – hip hop – would suggest that whilst sexism is unpalatable, it is alive and kicking in music. Even if heavy rock has been guilty of sexism, it is far from alone – and blatant sexism has been far from harmful for (say) Robin Thicke‘s record sales…

But the final point I want to make is to show what music might be like if it cleaned up its act.

Exhibit B: Depeche Mode – “Somebody”.

I want somebody to share / Share the rest of my life / Share my innermost thoughts / Know my intimate details / Someone who’ll stand by my side / And give me support / And in return / She’ll get my support / She will listen to me / When I want to speak / About the world we live in / And life in general / Though my views may be wrong…(ad nauseum)

This is a ballad which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, was sung by Martin Gore in the studio in the nude. My wife loves this song, despite it being the sort of earnest written-by-a-sixth-former slush that even Barbara Cartland, having woken from a scrummy dream about ponies, and just tucking into a breakfast of marshmallows and chocolate would have rejected as too sickly sweet and sentimental.*

There’s no doubt that in some respects this is groundbreaking. Gore treats his lover as an intellectual equal and with dignity and respect and love, rather than focusing on the size of her décolletage. This is all too rare in pop and is to be heartily applauded. The trouble is, he also sounds wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume. Any song that makes you want to dust yourself down, scratch your cajones and listen to Kiss isn’t really achieving it’s aims…

* Yes I know he tries to write a kicker at the end to show he’s not really like that, but by then it’s too late.

  • It’s Time To Vote!
  • Was (and is) heavy rock hugely Sexist? Or, as Spinal Tap would have us believe, is heavy rock Sexy?
  • Vote GUILTY if you think it is sexist.
  • Vote NOT GUILTY if you think it is sexy.
  • SWAY the jury by sharing your views below!

Record #245: Kiss – Do You Love Me?


27 responses to “Could Heavy Rock Be Just A Teeny-Weeny Bit Sexist?”

  1. 80smetalman Avatar

    Not guilty. Think of country music where there a number of songs about men who come home from work and expect their dutiful wife to have their dinner made and a can of beer ready for them. Talk about outdated stereotypes. For the defence, you can take many lyrics and reinterpret them to suit your agenda. They did that with the song “Hand Jive” back in the 50s.


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      This is true – although comparing anything to bad country songs is a low bar I think. I’m sure rock can do better than that!
      To be fair, I think most of those songs *were* actually supposed to be double entendres…


  2. mikeladano Avatar

    Not guilty (hello, rap!)


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      Just because someone else is guilty of murder doesn’t make another person innocent!
      I’m going to need more persuasion than that!


      1. mikeladano Avatar

        Well we may as well condemn all kinds of music then. When Little Richard was singing Tutti Frutti, he wasn’t talking about ice cream. I don’t think hard rock is any more guilty than every other kind of popular music. Especially rap, but even going back to old jazz and blues. Meanwhile, Zappa’s lyrics offended, but were pure genius.


      2. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

        I appreciate you sharing these thoughts. I have some sympathy with the argument, but think Purple Mary makes a good point, namely that Heavy rock appears to be just that little bit more obnoxious about it than Little Richard ever was.


      3. mikeladano Avatar

        I just can’t fathom heavy rock being more obnoxious than rap. I think a lot of the humour in heavy rock lyrics is outdated.


      4. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

        I would agree that rock and rap are both guilty…with rap possibly the worst of the two. Good point about the humour being outdated too.
        To paraphrase David Brent, ” this was the seventies – before sexism was wrong…”


      5. mikeladano Avatar

        I’ve been thinking about this a lot all day. Congratulations for that, it takes a lot to get my brain working like that!

        Anyway, I grew up during the worst part of the 1980’s, and I was fully aware that some of these lyrics were pretty nasty, but I honestly had no idea just how many. I was a Catholic kid, very sheltered. Many of these terms, I had no idea were sexual innuendo. Mr. Coverdale, I’m looking at you. Spit it out indeed.

        I was given shit at times in the record store for playing Poison. I recall playing the unplugged version of “Talk Dirty to Me”. Bret sings a lyric as, “I hope that little bitch ain’t home.” I was told to take it off immediately, so I did, and I got that. Family store, OK?

        Anyway, there’s one big thought I had, which related back to a discussion on my blog last week — Queens of the Stone Age. There was a question of a domestic violence incident with one of the members. That is something I have a personal zero-tolerance policy for. If you hit a woman, I don’t want to know you, you know what I mean? So the question was, if this person in QOTSA had indeed committed the assault he’s accused of, and if I still want to buy his music and give him my money, what does that make me? A hypocrite? I wrestle more with that kind of thought than the comparatively moderate crime of sexist lyrics in a song I like. Besides, a David Lee Roth lyric is like a dirty joke. You can’t say you like it in some company, but you laugh out loud when you’re with your drinking buddies!


      6. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

        It’s a really good question (I read the thread). I think you can either separate the person from the message, or see them in tandem. If Oliveri espoused the benefits of wife beating and misogyny in his lyrics then that would compound his personal failings (if true). Anything after that comes down to your ability to forgive someone for their behaviour, if you know the facts.
        Most rock and pop stars are not angels. Chuck Berry has a very murky past involving the toilet habits of young women. You can’t approve of that sort of thing, but he’s done jail time for it – (I believe) and “You Never Can Tell” is still a great tune. His lyrics are suggestive but seldom over the top (“My Ding-a-Ling” excepted). It might be less easy to forgive if his lyrics were boorish and outright offensive.
        The issue I have with sexist lyrics (especially from new bands – I have some tolerance for the view that some lyrics reflected the times they were in) is that they are a reflection if the person writing them, and if that is how they behave or think, then I respect them less.


  3. purplemary54 Avatar

    You know, Robert Plant was singing about squeezing lemons long before David Coverdale came around. And there was a lot of other dirty talk in Rock/Blues/Jazz before that. It’s just a lot more overt and obnoxious out of many of the Heavy Rock/Metal bands.


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      This is a very good point about The Lemon Song. And about the fact that heavy rock were more obnoxious.
      I’ll be discussing Coverdale and Plant in a later topic discussing whether heavy rock is derivative and unoriginal. Prepare your defence (or prosecution!)
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  4. genxatmidlife Avatar

    Ditto on Plant doing the sexist lyrics thing before Coverdale, though I feel that Coverdale took it far less seriously, more tongue-in-cheek. Maybe it’s just my impression of Zepplin in general after reading Hammer of the Gods.

    Heavy Rock sexist? Guilty! But it is no more so than a variety of other genres, and at least when it came to heavy rock, men positioned themselves as helpless against the temptation of “the fairer sex”. You could turn it around and say that, in some cases (such as “Still of The Night”), that it is sexist toward men, given how those lyrics position their weakness of the flesh.


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      That’s an interesting point. The men certainly come out badly in those songs.
      I think Coverdale’s lyrics were more sexist than Plant’s – but he used humour to cover his lascivious lyrics.
      Perhaps the difference is that Coverdale was more direct? Plant never sang anything as instructional as “spit it out”: the lemon song was a) a metaphor and b) an old blues song. Anyway, outside of the Lemon Song, Plant sang more about Hobbits didn’t he?


    2. Phillip Helbig Avatar

      Are you sure that’s tongue in cheek?


      1. Phillip Helbig Avatar

        And, either way, which cheek? And I don’t mean left or right, but rather front/back or lower/upper. 🙂


  5. Phillip Helbig Avatar

    As exhibits for the defence, what about pie charts for Rush and Iron Maiden?


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      The Rush one would be interesting. 2112 would look like this:
      Sci-fi epics about totalitarian regimes who don’t like music: 100%.
      You can do the others….


      1. Phillip Helbig Avatar

        Rush and Iron Maiden have about one song each about girls. In the case of Rush, this might be down to the fact that they are still together with the girlfriends they had when they were 15 (Alex Lifeson’s son was born in 1967 or something) or whatever (except Peart’s, whose girlfriend died). Maybe difficult to sing about trying to get laid when your child is already in school when your debut album comes out.


      2. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

        Exactly right. As I said – they leave all the mushy stuff to the likes of Foreigner, Journey…and Kiss.


  6. Phillip Helbig Avatar

    Spot the pun worthy of Chaucer or Shakespeare in the following text.

    The bigger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin’
    That’s what I said
    The looser the waistband, the deeper the quicksand
    Or so I have read

    My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo
    I’d like to sink her with my pink torpedo

    Big bottom, big bottom
    Talk about bum cakes, my girl’s got ’em
    Big bottom drive me out of my mind
    How could I leave this behind?

    I met her on Monday, ’twas my lucky bun day
    You know what I mean
    I love her each weekday, each velvety cheek day
    You know what I mean

    My love gun’s loaded and she’s in my sights
    Big game is waiting there inside her tights, yeah

    Big bottom, big bottom
    Talk about mud flaps, my girl’s got ’em
    Big bottom drive me out of my mind
    How could I leave this behind?

    My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo
    I’d like to sink her with my pink torpedo

    Big bottom, big bottom
    Talk about bum cakes, my girl’s got ’em
    Big bottom drive me out of my mind
    How could I leave this behind?


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      Ah, good old Spinal Tap eh?
      None more funny.


  7. John S Avatar

    It’s schoolboy stuff. Most metal/rock bands basically never grow up. And we still love them. Because in the end it’s all about the riffs. And maybe we don’t really grow up either. Not when we’re listening to rock’n’roll, anyway.


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      I think you have a good point. It is easy to forget that we are not, in fact, Heading Out To The Highway (unless you can do this in a Volvo) or even In the company of a “Strutter” when those riffs start up….
      I still prefer the Motörhead approach of having a (slightly) more diverse set of lyrical themes.


  8. […] I was on their radar because of a previous flight of fancy – another joke article about sexism in hair metal bands, which they r… […]


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