Women: according to thousands of beloved songs, we’re shallow or manipulative or cruel or stupid or some unholy combination of the above. Sexism in pop music is so common that pointing out individual instances can begin to feel obvious or redundant. But there’s a certain brand of sexist speech that has fascinated the Internet — and that includes your humble correspondent — over the past few years: the mansplanation. Well, it’s not just for think-pieces and bad cocktail-party chatter. In pop music, the mansplanation manifests itself as a song that finds a male singer directly addressing a woman, bestowing upon her some deeply felt yet condescending pearls of wisdom — generally about the “girl” (as he invariably calls her) herself. Done right, the mansplanation-in-song is as amusing as it is revolting. And nowhere is it more common than in classic rock. Here are ten egregious examples.
Cat Stevens — “Wild World”
You know you’re in trouble when a singer tells a woman he’s ostensibly slept with, “I’ll always remember you just like a child, girl.” The critic Ellen Willis dissected this mansplanation-in-song’s condescending tone in a famous passage that appeared in her 1971 essay “But Now I’m Gonna Move” and has come to be known as “The Willis Test”:
A crude but often revealing method of assessing male bias in lyrics is to take a song written by a man about a woman and reverse the sexes. By this test, a diatribe like “Under My Thumb” is not nearly so sexist in its implications as, for example, Cat Stevens’s gentle, sympathetic “Wild World”; Jagger’s fantasy of sweet revenge could easily be female — in fact, it has a female counterpart, Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots” — but it’s hard to imagine a woman sadly warning her ex-lover that he’s too innocent for the big bad world out there.
Bob Dylan — “Like a Rolling Stone”
Dylan doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being kind to women, in either his personal or creative life. Indeed, his discography contains no shortage of mansplanations. But “Like a Rolling Stone” may well be the most iconic one, a prime example of kicking a woman while she’s down — and, of course, making sure she understands just why she’s in this position, in lyrics like, “You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns / When they all come down and did tricks for you / You never understood that it ain’t no good / You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you.” It also happens to double as a brilliant critique of privilege, and (although the lyrics don’t entirely support this reading) has, for a few generations now, embodied the mix of fear and exhilaration that newfound independence can bring.
The Rolling Stones — “Mother’s Little Helper”
In the summer of 1966, 22-year-old Mick Jagger had a few words of advice for mothers. A patronizing tone pervades this classic Valium anthem, from the sneering opening (“What a drag it is getting old,” amirite, ladies?) to the final admonition: “If you take more of those, you will get an overdose.” If there’s some humor here — and, well, of course there is — it’s in the irony of The Rolling Stones lecturing the middle-class mothers of suburbia on the evils of drug abuse.
Led Zeppelin — “Since I’ve Been Loving You”
How dare you have the nerve to dump Robert Plant, “little girl,” when he works those punishing 16-hour days? Or is it four-hour days, “mama”? It really isn’t clear, but considering he was one of the world’s biggest rock stars by the time this song was released, it seems safe to assume that he wasn’t exactly working overtime at the factory. Sweet guitar solo, though.
The Doors — “You’re Lost Little Girl”
Another entry in the Referring to Adult Women as “Little Girl” canon, there is some dim hope for this Doors song. You see, Jim Morrison needs to explain to this “little girl” that she’s lost. This is an intervention of sorts. But hey, he thinks “that you know what to do.” So at least there is a limit to the mansplaining.
Steve Miller Band — “The Joker”
Witness: the mansplanation as song-length come-on. Not only is “The Joker” quite possibly the single stupidest song ever written, it is an attempt to convince a woman that Steve Miller is the sexiest man alive — an hilariously, comically poor one. Some people call him the space cowboy. Some people call him the gangster of love. And some people just say, “Ugh, that stoner from your dorm is singing ‘Wish You Were Here’ in the quad again.” He’s a joker, he’s a smoker, he’s a midnight toker, and why he’d be just delighted to play you his music in the sun. Oh, and did he mention, he really likes your peaches… wait, where are you going, pretty lady? Please come back!
John Lennon — “Jealous Guy”
The Beatle who’s been all but officially canonized in the decades since he was murdered wanted to apologize. He didn’t mean to hurt the women in his life, you see; he’s just a jealous guy, and it’s time they figured that out about him. Of course, what makes this song more than just an epic mansplanation committed to vinyl is the violent, destructive role jealousy played in Lennon’s real-life relationships.
The Who — “Behind Blue Eyes”
Baby, you could not possibly imagine what it’s like to be Roger Daltrey. He is so fucking deep and tortured it would blow your little mind. Indeed, “no one knows what it’s like / To feel these feelings / Like I do / And I blame you.” Yes, darling, you’re the one who’s made him into such a dark, brooding figure. So the least you could do is, “when my fist clenches, crack it open / Before I use it and lose control… If I swallow anything evil / Put your finger down my throat / If I shiver, please give me a blanket / Keep me warm, let me wear your coat.” I mean, who wouldn’t want to date this guy?
Extreme — “More Than Words”
“Now that I’ve tried to talk to you and make you understand / All you have to do is close your eyes / And just reach out your hands and touch me / Hold me close, don’t ever let me go / More than words is all I ever needed you to show / Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me / ‘Cause I’d already know.” Or, in other words, “If you really cared about me, your mouth would be too full to talk right now.”
Derek and the Dominos — “Layla”
“You know it’s just your foolish pride” that’s keeping you from falling madly in love with Eric Clapton, who graffiti long ago confirmed is nothing short of God Himself. He consoled you “when your old man had let you down”! He is begging you! Woman, do not put Eric Clapton in the friend zone!