He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss): A History Of Abuse Pop

by Amanda Flinner

At the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony, Lady Gaga's Oscar-nominated "Til It Happens To You" became a survivors' anthem as Gaga performed the powerful ballad flanked by a group of rape survivors with the words "Not Your Fault" scrawled over their arms. It was an emotional moment for the singer: She was raped as a teenager by a record producer, a situation that mirrors Kesha's drawn-out battle over rape allegations against her own producer Dr. Luke. Gaga's song, written with Diane Warren for the campus rape-themed documentary The Hunting Ground, challenges listeners to have empathy for victims of sexual assault.

Unlike Gaga, other female singers and songwriters have been taken to task over the years for contributing to the genre of "abuse pop" that glorifies violence against females. We take a look at some of these controversial - and sometimes misinterpreted - songs and the women who helped create them.
"Maybe I Mean Yes" – Holly Dunn

Nothin's worth havin', if it ain't a little hard to get
So let me clarify so you won't have to try to guess
When I say no I mean maybe, or maybe I mean yes

Date rape was the furthest thing from country singer Holly Dunn's mind when she wrote "Maybe I Mean Yes" with her brother Chris Waters. The song, an original tune included on her 1991 greatest hits album, was supposed to capture the flirty banter between a man and a woman on the cusp of a relationship. Waters brought the idea to his sister after hearing the title phrase in an old Cary Grant film.

Unfortunately, the single's release coincided with a groundbreaking issue of TIME magazine that broached the growing occurrence of rape on college campuses. Feminist groups accused "Maybe I Mean Yes" of condoning date rape by undermining a woman's right to say no. Holly pulled the single in response to the controversy. Though she stands firm that the song was misinterpreted, she understands why it was. She explained in a Songfacts interview: "I look back on then and I think: 'How could I?' Because I was a fairly feminist-type thinker at that time and still am. How could I have been so unplugged from the subject matter to miss that?"

"He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" - The Crystals

If he didn't care for me
I could have never made him mad
But he hit me, and I was glad

Husband-and-wife songwriting team Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" in 1962 after their live-in babysitter, the singer Little Eva, returned from a date covered in bruises. When they questioned her, she said the abuse was a symbol of her boyfriend's love. Under the guidance of producer (and future lady-killer) Phil Spector, the teen girl group The Crystals recorded the song without a hint of irony. Not only did the lyrics justify the abuse – pointing to the fact that the girl was unfaithful - but they also claimed the victim should be grateful for it. The message didn't sit well with The Crystals, who struggled to sing sincerely from such a warped perspective.

The public wasn't buying it, either, with listeners complaining and radio stations pulling the song from the air. As for the female half of the songwriting duo, Carole King became the victim of an abusive relationship after her marriage to Goffin ended. In a 2012 NPR interview, King struggled with her opinion of the song. She said she only wrote the music, while Goffin penned the lyrics. But, she wondered, is it glorifying domestic violence if it's based on an actual victim's words? On the other hand, she said, maybe Goffin was being satirical and it didn't come through in Spector's arrangement. But justifying abuse was never King's intention. "However it got written, that's not the message I want to convey," she said. Regardless, the message is still alive and well.

"Ultraviolence" – Lana Del Rey

He hit me and it felt like a kiss
I can hear violins, violins
Give me all of that ultraviolence

Lana Del Rey borrows the Crystals' refrain "He hit me and it felt like a kiss" in the title track of her 2014 album, where she begs her lover to "give me all that ultraviolence." Del Rey told Complex magazine: "I like a hands-on love. [Pauses.] How can I say this without getting into too much trouble? I like a tangible, passionate love. For me, if it isn't physical, I'm not interested." But she admits that the relationship that inspired "Ultraviolence" was a manipulative one that she knew she had to leave, explaining she was involved in an underground cult and was drawn to its charismatic and controlling leader.

The song, co-written by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, describes a time when she was blinded by her emotions and unable to see the abuse for what it was. But some critics worry that impressionable listeners, like many of Del Rey's young fans, can't discern the difference. Then again, Del Rey, who adds a heavy dose of fatalism to all of her work, has never pretended to be a positive role model.

"Kiss With A Fist" – Florence + the Machine

A kiss with a fist is better than none

British songstress Florence Welch's "Kiss with a Fist" is about a couple locked in a volatile relationship as the partners retaliate against each other with increasingly violent acts. She breaks his jaw; he breaks her leg. He smashes a plate over her head; she sets fire to their bed. All of this could be metaphorical for destructive behaviors in relationships but the refrain "a kiss with a fist is better than none" seems to imply that an unhealthy relationship is better than none at all. Welch disagrees, calling it a "silly rhyme" she wrote when she was 18. She told Uncut magazine:
"There are no victims in that song. They're both beating the s--t out one another, there's no victimisation in it. The song is describing a highly destructive relationship, but one which both partners enjoy. But it's all metaphorical."

And it's not a real relationship. Metaphors are harder to dismiss, though, when they represent a real-life couple, like Beyonce and Jay-Z.

"Drunk In Love" - Beyoncé

I'm Ike Turner...
Baby know I don't play, now eat the cake, Anna Mae
Said, "Eat the cake, Anna Mae!"

That's Jay-Z comparing himself to legendary abuser Ike Turner, Tina Turner's ex-husband, in Beyonce's Grammy Award-winning hit "Drunk in Love" (Tina's birth name: Anna Mae Bullock). The lyric references a scene from the Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got To Do With It, that has Ike forcefully smashing cake in Tina's face. Beyoncé says her 2013 self-titled album is about empowering women to own their sexuality, but how does a lyric with her husband aligning himself with an abuser fit into the picture? Therein lies the problem.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z are married, so fans automatically think these songs are about their relationship; Bey must be telling her public that she allows her husband to beat her. They're not just a faceless, reckless couple.

Black Girl Dangerous, a non-profit dedicated to "amplifying the voices of queer and trans people of color," was one of many organizations to chime in: "In the middle of this big ol' so-called feminist triumph, Jay-Z pops in to glorify violence against women and... that's just cool with Bey, New Black Feminist Superhero of the Universe? And everybody else, too?"

In a nutshell, yes. Not only did the single peak at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and top the R&B chart, but it took home Grammy Awards for Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance. When the couple performed the song at the awards ceremony, everybody enjoyed Ike Turner and his cake shenanigans because Beyonce, singing along to the lyric, did too.

But would it make a difference if Beyonce had been abused?

"Love On The Brain" – Rihanna

Must be love on the brain
That's got me feeling this way
It beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good

"Love On The Brain," the doo-wop inspired love ballad from Rihanna's 2016 album Anti, finds the singer addicted to a dark romance that leaves her battered and bruised. Fans can't help but make the connection to Rihanna's former relationship with R&B singer Chris Brown, which made headlines in 2009 after Brown beat Rihanna the night of the Grammy Awards.

Like the Crystals in "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" and Florence Welch's tumultuous lovers in "Kiss With a Fist," Rihanna (or the narrator) seems to be equating violence with passion. Of course, "it beats me black and blue" could be metaphorical – but is a romance that just makes you feel like you've been beat up that much better? Is depicting a destructive relationship without making a judgment on it the same as glorifying it? Some say yes...

"Love The Way You Lie" – Eminem & Rihanna

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
But that's alright because I like the way it hurts

Rewind to 2010, just one year after photos of Rihanna's bruised and bloodied face were leaked to the media. Eminem is looking for a duet partner for "Love the Way You Lie," a song about the vicious and seemingly inescapable cycle of domestic violence. The rapper knows the topic all too well as he was famously locked in a love-hate relationship with his ex-wife, the same toxic union that fueled his revenge fantasies in "Kim" and "'97 Bonnie & Clyde." Only someone else who escaped the cycle could give the song authenticity. Enter Rihanna.

In the song, Eminem admits he's a liar after he promises to stop beating his girlfriend:

If she ever tries to fucking leave again
Im'a tie her to the bed and set this house on fire

Rihanna responds:

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
But that's alright because I like the way it hurts

The accompanying music video brings the violent scenario to life with actors Dominic Monaghan and Megan Fox tearing into each other. Director Joseph Kahn explained: "I just want people just to be able to identify with the characters and recognize that they've seen relationships like this where two people are together that are completely wrong for each other and things spiral out of control."

But is that what Eminem and Rihanna are doing, warning similar couples to get out while they can?

According to Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, the answer is no – especially where Rihanna is concerned. "She's narrating the story, and she's not judging it," says O'Neill. "And so she may not intend to be glorifying it, but she is."

Marjorie Gilberg, executive director of Break the Cycle, an organization that focuses on teen violence, agrees that the song perpetuates the myth of the victim enjoying the abuse. But Gilberg thinks the song can still be a teaching tool.

"The danger is that pop culture defines our social norms," says Gilberg. "We don't want the message of this song to be that this kind of relationship is acceptable. So this song has to be viewed in the context of real information from adults, like parents and teachers."

But does pop culture really influence our actions? Let's ask "Delilah."

"Delilah" – Tom Jones
1968 - co-written by Sylvan Mason

She stood there laughing
I felt the knife in my hand
And she laughed no more
My, my, my, Delilah
Why, why, why, Delilah

The rollicking murder ballad "Delilah" is a popular fixture at Welsh rugby matches where the crowd gleefully sings along with an unhinged narrator stabbing his unfaithful girlfriend to death. In 2016, British politician Chris Bryant lambasted "Delilah" for inciting the spike of domestic violence that occurs during rugby matches, and called for its ban from Six Nations games. "It is a song about murder and it does tend to trivialize the idea of murdering a woman," he said.

Sylvan Mason, along with her then-husband Barry Mason and songwriter Les Reed, wrote the hit song for Tom Jones in 1968. According to Sylvan, they were initially inspired by the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah, which has the temptress chaining the strongman to pillars and cutting off his hair, which is the source of his strength. They were also influenced by the 1954 musical Carmen Jones, where the title character shares the same fate as the song's Delilah.

"In many ways 'Delilah' is a cautionary tale," Sylvan – who's also a survivor of domestic violence - told us, "and it shows that losing control when an angry man is jealous, has been drinking, and acts out his anger can have devastating consequences. It also cautions someone who has been caught cheating on their lover to handle him carefully and with compassion."

But what of Bryant's claims that "Delilah" is an instigator responsible for game-day violence? "Don't blame 'Delilah," Sylvan scoffs. "Blame beer." Besides, maybe these guys should try writing songs to channel their aggression in a healthier way: "You could equally argue that singing about murdering the wife (thoughts that most people have at one time or another) might be healthier out than kept in and smoldering. In that way you could say that these songs act as a preventative rather than an incentive to domestic violence."

Ultimately, songs – no matter what their intentions – should be discussed and challenged like any other art form, but shouldn't be used as a scapegoat for the actions of violent people "They are, after all, just stories," says Mason. "If they had been found to cause violence then songs like 'Mack the Knife,' 'Frankie and Johnny,' 'Banks of Ohio,' 'Bonnie & Clyde' and many other murder songs would surely have been banned a long time ago."

April 15, 2016
More Song Writing

Comments: 4

  • Othehill64 from Montreal, Qc, Canada"Getting Better" by the Beatles. I was shocked to hear them sing about "beating my women and kept her apart from the things that she loved".
  • Dan from Florence, ScA Little Bit Of Abuse: The Kinks:
  • Eddie B from South FloridaHit me with your best shot! Another notch in my lipstick case!
  • Shawna from Poway, CaWell done, Amanda! As always (and with everybody), the names to several songs pop into my head that fit this category: "Evangeline" by Little Big Town, and "Gunpowder and Lead" by Miranda Lambert are the first two.
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