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.]

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How about 'Crow Jane' by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds?
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Essa Mulher, in which Arnaldo Antunes explains to you that the woman is happy with her own life and does not need nor want to be part of yours.
Arg, the "not related to the singer" rules out the entire class of "mom" songs.

I remember being frustrated by the Bechdel test when I heard about it, and it's almost doubly annoying for music. I thought at first of "Holland, 1945" by Neutral Milk Hotel, about Anne Frank -- but even that song suggests that the singer loves her, in a perfect-memory-less-creepy-than-it-sounds kind of way.

And ditto, actually, for my other example. I was feeling clever for remembering the name of the U2 song about Aung San Suu Kyi (the rightfully elected leader of Burma, currently under a decade of house arrest). But in "Walk On", it *still* sounds vaguely like a relationship song. "If the darkness is to keep us apart," etc.

The only actual example I could come up with is much less highbrow, but does pass the test: "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" by the Ramones, which possibly works because it has so few lyrics to mess it up in. :-)

Arcade Fire do well by this metric (among others)

Kudos should also go to Sigur Rós for their ( ) album — rather than populate the world with more lamebrain poetry jonsi just sings the equivalent of ‘lorem ipsum’

But really, this is why I mostly listen to music without words. So tough to get right, so easy to fuck up utterly.