Archive for April, 2009

the bechdel test for pop songs

 
A day or two ago I was driving in a car and listening to Aesop Rock‘s “No Regrets”, which has always been one of my favorite tracks by him. And I got to thinking…

So there’s this thing called the “Bechdel Test”, named after Alison Bechdel, the writer and artist behind the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. The Bechdel Test is a test for how movies deal with female characters. To pass, the movie must contain:

  1. Two female characters…
  2. who have a conversation between them…
  3. that is not about a man.
It’s astonishing how many films — including some of my favorite films ever — flub it badly. (“Citizen Kane”? Fail. “Blade Runner”? Oh so fail. “2001”? Acres of fail.)

Back to Aesop Rock. “No Regrets” is a carefully conceived, tightly written character study, about an artist named Lucy. In three verses, we see her as a precocious 7-year-old, an introverted but talented adult, and finally in a nursing home, explaining to a nurse that… well, at this point, you should just listen:


(Lyrics here if you have any trouble making it out.)

Listening to it, I found myself thinking: if there were a Bechdel Test for pop music, this song would totally pass. But what would the Bechdel Test for pop music be? It’s rarer for pop songs to have multiple characters than movies, so it seems like that would be a little unfair to impose as a requirement. Instead, let’s say for the sake of argument that a passing song should be:
  1. About a woman…
  2. who the singer is not attempting to have sex with, court or marry (or already be dating/married to, or currently breaking up with)…
  3. and who the singer is not dressing down because she’s such a tramp/floozy/bitch…
  4. and who is not related to the singer.
Okay, quiz time: how many pop songs can you think of that pass? Bonus points for any that are written or performed by men.

[Edit: I think I need to work a little harder on the phrasing of Rule 3, because as phrased it still allows songs that are the lyrical equivalent of the girlfriend in the fridge to slip through, and even in less extreme examples I feel like songs about women with drug habits, abusive boyfriends or general self-loathing problems are against the spirit of the thing. Suggestions for better-worded rules also happily accepted, as are convincing arguments that I’m being way too picky at this point, as I suspect I might be.]