What’s Wrong With The Relationships in Pop Music?

As I was driving to work the other day, I poked the buttons on the radio and Taylor Swift’s, “Wildest Dreams,” flooded through my car. Caught in a whirl of catchy chords and wistful vocals, I didn’t pay attention to the lyrics I was humming along with. But when I heard the song a second time, I realized it conveys a pretty rotten message about commitment—or lack thereof—in dating relationships.

In “Wildest Dreams,” as in many of her other songs, Swift finds herself swept off her feet by a good-looking rogue, singing, “He’s so tall, and handsome as hell. He’s so bad, but he does it so well.” Despite her admission, “I can see the end as it begins,” Swift decides to plunge into a relationship with him. She physically goes as far as she can with her new lover, but on the “one condition” that he’ll “remember” her long after their affair is finished.

It’s true, as Swift sings, “nothing lasts forever,” but why would anyone write an entire song romanticizing short-lived, noncommittal relationships and all the emotional turmoil involved in them?

Maybe because that’s exactly what the music industry does best.

Today’s pop songs are full of problematic messages when it comes to romantic love and relational fidelity. They tend to focus on either the “hottest” or “darkest” elements of short-term relationships. On the hot side, the physical and emotional pleasures of sex between individuals, who have no commitment to each other, are frequently glorified. Songs like Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” and Enrique Iglesias’s “I Like It.” Essentially, as Verily contributor Zoey Di Mauro puts it, “The more hookups you have, the luckier you are… has been leading the narrative in pop music songs for a long time.” These songs are typically full of sensuous juxtapositions of words like “body,” “touch,” and “taste,” emphasizing the physicality of sexual conquests and one-night-stands. But these songs ignore the consequences of such actions.

If there’s one bright spot in the message of “Wildest Dreams,” it’s that Swift at least hints at the emotional consequences of her affair. Swift sings, “Someday when you leave me, I bet these memories follow you around.” In other words, even though this man will always remember “burning it down” with Swift, he’ll never be able to completely move on or forget the failed relationship, no matter if he decides to commit himself to someone in the future or not. Ultimately, he and she will both have to deal with the emotional fallout of their brief relationship for the rest of their lives.

In addition to the haunting memories that will complicate future relationships, feelings of anger, bitterness, and jealousy often contribute to the darker side of relationships portrayed in pop music. For example, the lyrics of break-up anthems like Swift’s “Bad Blood” and P!nk’s “So What” often address the unsatisfactory partner with an accusatory “you.” This places all the blame for the failed relationship on the other party, allowing the singer to avoid any responsibility.

In his article “Sexual Lyrics Predict Pop Music Popularity,” Scott Barry Kaufman summarizes a 2009 study on the sexual content of well-known R&B, country, and pop songs. According to the study, 92% of the 174 songs analyzed feature at least one sexual or relational reference, with an average of just under nine references per song. Among these references, short-term sexual relationships and promiscuity are the top two reoccurring themes in pop music. What’s more, this anti-commitment content in pop music is probably here to stay, as the study also showed that the number of sexual references in a song is directly related to its performance on the music charts.

Putting it bluntly, sex sells.

But are these popular messages about sexual escapades and transitory relationships really the ones we want to be listening to? As believers in God’s plan for a “one flesh” forever-union between spouses, wouldn’t we rather sing along to songs that glorify sticking with a partner for the long-haul instead of just the short-term?

If so, there are pop songs out there with healthy messages about commitment—we just have to listen a little bit harder. For example, Andy Grammer’s “Honey, I’m Good” centers on the singer’s successful efforts to “stay true” to his much-loved girlfriend, despite the sexual invitations of other women. Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” is essentially a vow to love her partner through good times and bad. And Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” portrays the singer’s desire to grow old with his “darling” in a life-long relationship.

However, just because we might prefer to hear messages like these, that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t listen to songs featuring flawed thoughts on relational commitment. The fact is, we can learn a great deal from these bad messages if we just take the time to think about them.

Humanities professor Dr. Neal A. Lester, in his article “‘Boys Know What Girls Want’: Messages in Popular Music,” suggests taking the time to personally analyze the lyrics of problematic pop songs in order to better understand what they are really saying about relationships. Identifying the messages we agree or disagree with—and explaining why we do so—can help us clarify our own values, our own beliefs about love, sex, and commitment.

So, even if a particular pop song doesn’t exactly promote healthy relationships, it can still be helpful. It can still be enjoyable. At the end of the day, just because Taylor Swift’s music is full of bad boys and bitter break-ups doesn’t mean I can’t turn up the volume and sing along with “Wildest Dreams” as I drive home from work. I just need to think about it as I sing it.