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Friday, October 15, 2010

Essay on Abusive Relationships

Essay on Abusive Relationships

Pop music often simplifies gender and communication issues to a Cinderella-type story: Boy sees girl, boy falls in love with girl, they consummate their love, and then live happily ever after. Real life unfortunately, is not this simple. Relationships go through many stages, and not all of the stages are pleasant. Relationships also come to an end. The one-dimensional aspect of relationships is interesting to children who are experiencing the emotions associated with love for the first time in early and simplified stages. However, once one gets older, one wonders why music is not able to communicate the things he or she is feeling in a more adult manner. That is where The Loud Family comes in. The Loud Family is a San Francisco-based guitar pop band that writes adult songs about the situations and emotions relating to relationships. In this paper, I will offer a short history of The Loud Family, then discuss relational issues and situations relating to their 1996 album, Interbabe Concern. The relational issues I will discuss are gender reversal in relationships, initiating and ending relationships, and gender violence in relationships.

The Loud Family is basically Scott Miller as lead songwriter, producer, and instrumentalist. He began writing and recording music in 1979 under the name Alternate Learning while at the University of California at Davis. He was awarded a record contract in 1981, and changed his band name to Game Theory for his first album, Blaze of Glory. Game Theory went from “regional obscurity to national obscurity” (Miller, 1989) when his band released Lolita Nation, which spent six weeks at the top of the College Music Journal charts in 1987. He changed his band name to the Loud Family in 1993 for the release of Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things. 1996’s Interbabe Concern was his twelfth full release, and is, along with Lolita Nation, thought to be his best work. His latest album, Attractive Nuisance, came out in February, 2000. The name Loud Family is a reference to the PBS series, An American Family.

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In many of the songs on Interbabe Concern, gender is discussed in a way that directly contrasts the standard ideas of male and female communication styles. The factors that typically define a male communication style are power issues, relational definitions, and relational control: “Communication-related differences between men and women that have been repeatedly reported by researchers include: male communication involves more interruptions, self-displays, challenges and strong assertions, and direct judgements than female communication” (Wood & Dindia, 1998, p. 20).

Strong assertions and direct judgements are defined as powerful talk and identified with males. However, the narrator in “I’m Not Really a Spring” is unwilling to make these assertions. He states, “I can’t make myself want nothing, but I won’t go knocking down doors to find out how many tickets to me I can sell” (Miller, 1996). This can be taken to mean that he is unwilling to take the macho-male way and attempt relations with women in the typical manner. Others (his friends?) who are aware of his relationships are not aware of his feelings on this matter, though. The narrator says, “They think I’m banging Anabelle, and it’s not going well. Stop this line of questions I can’t really say what I mean” (Miller, 1996). This avoidance of “locker room talk” (speaking candidly of sexual relationships) is once again not typical of the average male in the US culture. Finally the focus switches to direct communication with the object of his affection, and the narrator is still unable to directly communicate his needs. He says, “you think I’m begging Anabelle, and it’s not show and tell, stop this documentary, I’m not really a spring” (Miller, 1996). The idea of “being a spring” itself has multiple meanings in this phrase, first suggesting an inability to survive setbacks, and is also a fashion reference. Springs “bounce back” when put under pressure, and if he is not a spring, then the narrator is suggesting that he is unable to survive all of the pressures put on the relationship. Women’s skin and hair color define what makeup they will look best in, whether it is spring tones, autumn, winter or summer tones. A final phrase is a social observation of the idea that women prefer “bad boys.” Once again, this is a role the narrator is unwilling to play. The narrator says, “Making nice to girls, not knowing they’d prefer a thoughtless bastard, widening the old discrepancy. Something pulls your body, draws your lips like an electromagnet, how could I suppose it might be me” (Miller, 1996). The discrepancy the narrator speaks of is the clichŠ¹ that women tend to date men who treat them badly while saying that they want a man that is “sensitive.” One would be hard pressed to consider the narrator a “bad boy” from the information given in the song, but at least one woman is still interested in him.

A full role-reversal between males and females occurs in “Sodium Laureth Sulfate.” The song begins with the narrator’s friends asking for details about his new relationship. They inquire, “So you’ve got a new girlfriend, better tell us all about her… no we were thinking of more lascivious detail” (Miller, 1996). The narrator replies, “In gentle moments, that’s when she’s a sharing, caring, warlike, warlike, warlike….exponential, existential horror show” (Miller, 1996). Women in our society are not even allowed to participate in war under all circumstances, which makes his description of his “girlfriend” as “warlike” somewhat strange. The narrator’s friends are still somewhat wary of the relationship, “what about the way they say she treats you…and do you see a way to gain some control?” (Miller, 1996). The narrator, still unable to free himself from the relationship, responds to the first question, “jealous friends, wasn’t true,” and the second, “shiver fits, when it’s cold, and the zero times she calls me back refine my soul” (Miller, 1996). The phrases seem to define an abusive relationship, or one that the narrator is unable to leave for whatever the reasons that people who are in difficult relationships remain in them, perhaps a lack of power, the idea that someone is better than no one, or unfounded emotional attachment. In the end the only good thing the narrator is able to say about her is that “my girlfriend has sodium laureth sulfate in her hair” (Miller, 1996). Sodium laureth sulfate is a chemical compound found in toothpaste, shampoo, and dish soap that makes those products bubble. It is also thought to cause cancer. Because he can only complement her hair, perhaps the reason he remains in this cancerous relationship with her, despite her warlike tendencies and the fact she never calls back, is that she is attractive. This variation on the theme of “fashion model worship” suggests that the narrator is more interested in having a trophy wife/girlfriend than someone who actually cares about him.

A second issue discussed on Interbabe Concern is initiating relationships, and then breaking them off. Most of the songs explore these relationships in the more ritualized form, with the male attempting to initiate the relationship, and the female ending it. The song, “Don’t Respond, She Can Tell” is the first relationship exploration song. The narrator is attempting to meet a woman at a bar or party, and is going through the unsure-of-himself, somewhat frightened emotions that people typically go through when making the attempt. He starts out in a very boisterous mood, but the closer he gets, the more unsure he becomes. He thinks, “Maybe I say the dull things I say, maybe they reach her through the air, Maybe I’m thinking of it as a task, maybe it really is a task, and I’m not up to the task, maybe the answer is don’t ask” (Miller, 1996). He does attempt the encounter though, is unsuccessful, and needs to justify his failure. The narrator reflects, “Maybe I see the things I look at, maybe I look right past what’s wrong, maybe she thinks in terms of sets of boys, maybe she knows the set of boys, and I’m not in the set of boys, maybe the signal is the noise” (Miller, 1996). This process of justifying and rationalizing is very typical of the process people tend to go through when failing at a relationship, first thinking of some catchy things to say to find common ground, then considering drinking to gain a bit of “liquid confidence.” When he fails, he blames his parents for his looks, suggests social inadequacy, then finally decides that the female he was interested in does not date out of her social circle.
The second song dealing with attempted relationships is “Rise of the Chokehold Princess,” concerning a person whom the narrator has never actually met, but still feels a special bond with her. The song deals with a somewhat nontraditional relationship, as the object of his affection is a female wrestler from the past whom is suggested to be deceased. The song takes place as the narrator stares at a picture of her, and shares all the emotions he is feeling. The narrator describes the action in the photo:

Royal gown, nylon inner-seam, abrasive to the skin no real princess wears, I was unprepared, I didn’t know the feeling...Now she shines in column inches on the page, it’s a perfect rage, it’s a perfect rage, they can fire warning shots across her bow, they can’t show her now, they can’t touch her now (Miller, 1996).

The fact that she was a female wrestler suggests a toughness and physicality usually associated with men, and when a woman possesses these traits, she is often ridiculed as being “butch” or “lesbian.” The narrator is attracted to her in spite of this. Also she is wearing a wrestling outfit and the narrator finds her to be attractive. The typical woman described as attractive in a song is more likely to be wearing lace and silk than nylon.

The second track dealing with nontraditional relationships is “Where They Go Back to School But Get Depressed.” The narrator has been away from school for a while, and the song suggests that once again, the former object of his affection is no longer around, perhaps divorced, perhaps the relationship ended with high school, or perhaps once again deceased. The narrator sees other women on the campus though and wonders, “And did these girls show interest as I walked across the lawn, or hint that in the broader sense I should be moving on?” (Miller, 1996). As going to a new school often means moving to a new location, and old ties being broken by the distance even if one means for them to survive, the narrator is unsure of what this move will mean to his old relationships. He says, “they live where I won’t know the town, on streets I won’t be strolling down, and if I ask, they will not be you, and now will anyone else ever do? Any more than you” (Miller, 1996). This passage suggests a fear of unfamiliarity, which is the first factor to be dealt with when moving to a new town or entering a new relationship. Relationships are a reduction in unfamiliarity, but the narrator is afraid that even if he enters into new relationships, that they will not be as satisfying as his old ones.

“Just Gone,” a song dealing with the ending of relationships, is done from the viewpoint of a female wanting her boyfriend to go, but he does not get the message. She thinks, “There’d be a touch that would take him through sedately but it feels like reaching lately, it isn’t coming free” (Miller, 1996). In this relationship, the male has the power, and the women is not able to gain enough power to end the relationship, so she finds herself thinking of ways of dealing with it. “And all advice is ways of saying ‘let it go,’ some form of ‘smile, the world has found a way around the issue,’” she thinks (Miller, 1996). The male taunts her, for he realizes she wishes to leave, but she cannot for whatever reason. He says, “go how you want to, say it in a goodbye letter, doesn’t seem like waiting’s better, it doesn’t take us in” (Miller, 1996). He scornfully suggests ways for her to leave him, knowing that she cannot.

When the female is able to end the relationship though, the male often feels unhappy and bitter. In “Such Little Nonbelievers,” the narrator asks his female ex-companion, “Will you be eating ice cream three meals a day? Will tango music play? Will he be better than me? Courtney, such little nonbelievers, aren’t we? Courtney, are you sure all your problems were me? Courtney, I think we missed our chance to be free” (Miller, 1996). The narrator reverts to personal attacks, snidely asking about her weight and also suggesting she is childish, then attacking her future relationships. He also finds their conflicts to be fun and exciting: “Uncriticizable you, unadorned, therefore not poorly adorned…they say we’re cute when we’re mad, and we are! So cute there’s not an animation product from Japan we don’t outsparkle by far” (Miller, 1996). There is little chance that this relationship will continue, so the narrator chooses to extend the breakup argument possibly to make her feel as bad as he does, or so that he can come out as the “winner” in the argument. Communication research suggests that “young women and adolescents will end a game if conflicts emerge in order to retain the relationships within the group…(while) adolescent males play games (eg., cowboys and Indians, baseball) where conflict has an important role,” meaning this is an accurate portrayal of relational conflict (Wood & Dindia, 1998, p.23).

The final distinctive communicational issue discussed is aggressive male behavior. Because males are conditioned from a very young age to fight for power, negative results sometimes occur. The narrator in “Screwed Over by Stylish Introverts” warns a female peer of such a situation:
A certain someone who would never steal unless you ended up with something that he wanted, who would never slap a girl around unless she made him angry, who would never screw you over, if there weren’t some slight advantage or snap your last thread of self-respect, all other things remaining equal (Miller, 1996).

The narrator is suggesting that some people put up “fronts,” or attempt to disguise their true emotions and actions, until they have to satisfy a need—a kind of “nice when I want something” type attitude. The narrator in “North San Bruno Dishonor Trip” proudly points out that he does not suffer from any negative effects of being raised as a male:

Then who’ll have the male psychosis? Not us! Then who’ll hate the world around them? Not us! This is how our cherished legends take shape but from our favorite stories. Can some truth escape? No thank you, older brother, we don’t rape! No thank you, goddess nature, we don’t rape! No thank you, ancient wisdom, we don’t rape! Thank you! (Miller, 1996).

The passage has multiple meanings for the word “rape.” The narrator suggests that he is a friend to the earth by thanking Mother Nature. He also suggests that he is a friend to other cultures, by thanking “older brother,” perhaps a metaphor for his forefathers. Finally, he suggests that he is open to many ideas, perhaps about religion and history, by thanking the ancient wisdom. The idea of rape, as in the violent submittal to sexual intercourse is also suggested with the idea of a male psychosis, which results in a distortion of what is socially acceptable.

In conclusion, the lyrics of The Loud Family’s 1996 album, Interbabe Concern cover many aspects of gender and relationships, from the initiation and ending of relationships, to the effects of power differences in relationships, to the complete gender role reversal between traditional men’s and women’s roles. The songs discuss communication differences in terms of the male style for gaining power, which includes the variables of strong self-displays, challenges, strong assertions, and direct judgements. Many of the lyrics discussed also offer many possible interpretations of their issues, resulting in a multi-faceted listening experience.

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