I want to like Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad,” on the grounds that I like Lupe Fiasco himself, and because I, like many female hip-hop listeners, would be happy to find articulate male allies in the genre:
There are a lot of things that are off about the song. Its chorus hook, “Bitch bad, woman good / Lady better, they misunderstood,” sounds like remedial English, which whether it’s directed at women who apply the word to themselves or the men who sling it around, sounds exhaustingly condescending. In The Atlantic, Mychal Denzel Smith has a terrific breakdown of the song’s problematic gender politics, from the simplicity of that core heirarchy, to its unwillingness to assign men responsibility for their judgement of women.
But what irritated me about “Bitch Bad” is its desire to get credit for bringing up a provocative issue without the accompanying responsibility for calling anyone out. “Disclaimer: this rhymer, Lupe, is not usin’ ‘bitch’ as a lesson,” he rhymes, “But as a psychological weapon / To set in your mind and really mess with your conceptions / Discretions, reflections, it’s clever misdirection.” But the only meaningful discussion between “lesson” and intellectual provocation is the responsibility the speaker has for making a point at the end. Given how heavily the rest of “Bitch Bad”‘s lyrics rely on media psychology—in the verse about how girls consume media, he might as well be cribbing from the Parents’ Television Council—he’s on particularly shaky ground in terms of declaiming having any particular message. Watching him dig deeper on that insistence that he can’t be taken too seriously, telling Rolling Stone “I’m not trying to say this is what’s going to happen, or potentially what’s going to happen. Because you don’t know, the characters are fictional, based on true events. I know personally what has affected me, but that’s me personally,” is irritating.
The thing is, as a woman, Lupe Fiasco’s personal experience with the impact of the word “bitch” is nice to have on record, but his willingness to take an actual stand would be a lot more useful. I’m not really in a mood to give him credit for calling out misogyny in hip-hop if he doesn’t actually want to be seen as calling out misogyny in hip-hop. Fiasco told Rolling Stone that the album from which this song comes was inspired by James Baldwin because “he was such a powerful figure. He was a homosexual, he was an atheist, he was black, he was a writer, he was a down brother, he lived in Paris and grew up in the slums of Harlem. And he was a preacher. So he had all these things that made him Public Enemy Number One, but he was also loved and adored by the public at the same time.” But part of what made Baldwin powerful is that he took action, in his life and his art. He moved to Paris in part to escape discrimination, and wrote bluntly and frankly about discrimination against gay people in Giovanni’s Room and about American racism in essays like The Fire Next Time. His work was powerful in part because it was explicitly, courageously political, something Lupe Fiasco is apparently afraid to be.
I’m tired of this. I thought I was tired enough after watching Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, a perfect encapsulation of how Nolan manufactures credit for alluding to big issues while preserving a critical incoherence about politics that let him avoid offending any potential customers. And I’m even more tired after a stint at the Television Critics Association where people said repeatedly that the shows they’d created had no politics. By that, they mean that their shows are not partisan, which is something I can see legitimately avoiding (though having politicians on television have no party affiliation or fake party affiliation is disingenuous). But they end up implying that they’re afraid to claim their own ideas instead. It’s okay for pop culture to have ideas. In fact, it’s necessary. And pop culture can be deeper, and riskier, and more exciting, the action and the relationships it portrays can have higher stakes, when those ideas are about how the world should be run, about what conditions are necessary for equity, and stability, and justice.