Why Female Empowerment Pop Songs by Men Miss the Point

girls shopping

I love pop music. I don’t care if it’s bubbly, dancey or any of the other proverbial pop music dwarfs – there’s no shame in my game.
But every now and then, I find a song that I totally bump to… until I stop and listen to the lyrics. That’s when I get irrationally angry. And those are not rap songs. Rap has made its money demeaning women and promoting violence ever since I was born and even long before that. And while I do not like that, most people would probably agree that a lot of rap music is misogynistic. No, no, no. I’m looking at you, Shawn Mendes and James Arthur.

Music for #niceguys

Shawn Paul Raul Mendes is a Canada-native heartthrob who first entered our hearts and panties in 2013 with “Stitches,” an enjoyable if infantile break-up song in which his ex-girlfriend apparently tries stabbing him to death. Hey, we’ve all been there.

James Arthur, exactly 10 years Mendes’ senior, is a British singer and songwriter well-known as the winner of X-Factor. His single “Impossible” broke all our hearts at least twice and surely solicited many unwanted calls to our exes.

From their decade-long age difference alone you may guess that Mendes and Arthur have vastly different experiences when it comes to women. Mendes plays the role of the love-struck puppy: he’s vulnerable, desperately in love, and helpless before you. He just wants to run away with you. He wants to be young, wild and free with you. He loves how you don’t care about other people staring. Also, he seems to be mad at his parents for not letting him watch TV when he was a kid.

Arthur, long out of high school (I assume) also writes about his relationship to women. His oeuvre wavers between bitter, painful break up-songs and carefully hopeful love songs. “Say You Won’t Let Go,” for example, is about Arthur meeting a girl at a bar and imagining the life they could have together. He’s kind of like Taylor Swift, but nobody hates him for the sin of dating.

With all their differences, these two men have one very distinct, infuriating similarity: they love to write songs about women that – according to them – can’t make choices for themselves to save their lives.

Will Shawn treat me better or do I deserve James?

The songs I want to examine specifically are “Treat You Better” and “You Deserve Better” by Shawn Mendes and James Arthur respectively.

The major difference between these songs is perspective.

In “Treat You Better,” Mendes implores (pressures) a female friend to break up with her boyfriend because Mendes believes he would be the better choice.
In “You Deserve Better,” Arthur plans to break up with his girlfriend for her own good.
Both men try to make dating decisions that aren’t theirs to make: Mendes wants to end a relationship that he isn’t even involved in and Arthur, instead of working at the problems he and his girlfriend seem to be having, breaks up with her so she can find a better partner.

Let’s break down the situations the men describe in their songs.

“Treat You Better” begins with Mendes telling the girl—we don’t know what kind of relationship they have, but since he’s quite frank, she is probably a friend—that her boyfriend is not right for her. Even after she answers that he is the one she wants to be with, Mendes refuses to believe her. He’s complaining about her “wrong situation” and that she’s “wasting time,” but we as listeners actually never learn what’s so supposedly wrong with her boyfriend.

The video tries to amend this little leap in logic by showing the couple fighting frequently and the boyfriend making aggressive sexual advances towards her. The boyfriend is shown sexy-dancing with another girl, obviously to spite her, and finally, during a fight with another guy, he elbows her in the face by accident and doesn’t seem particularly apologetic. The video ends with an ad for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Holy crap. Talk about laying it on thick.

So what I’m to infer from the video is that the boyfriend is emotionally and physically abusive to her, which is why she should be with Mendes. Sure, if you spin it that way, I can see why this girl should leave her boyfriend to find somebody who treats her kindly. However, that’s only how the music video portrays it. None of that can actually be found in the song. The only signs of unhappiness she shows are that she cries sometimes and that Mendes believes her to be lying when she says she wants to be with her boyfriend.

Fun fact: People cry even in the best relationships. Fighting with somebody you love is upsetting, and while you should look for warning signs if you fight very frequently, fighting itself isn’t a sign of a bad relationship.
So, what I can gather according to the song, the mistreatment of his crush is all in Mendes’ head and only a means to convince himself that he would be doing her a service by taking her away from her boyfriend. Instead of letting her decide whether the problems she has with her partner are worth working at, Mendes takes it upon himself to invalidate her relationship; a relationship she openly says she wants.

What really grinds my gears is that he isn’t saying that she should leave her boyfriend because he’s not treating her right. He’s saying that she should exchange her boyfriend for him because he promises to treat her better and “be a gentleman.” It feels incredibly self-serving, especially if there is a domestic violence-situation going on, as hinted in the video. Leave her alone, dude. Support her as a friend, if you care about her. It doesn’t have to either be a relationship or nothing.

At the very least, Arthur isn’t trying to pressure his friend into leaving her possibly-but-not-probably abusive partner.

Instead, he decides to break up with his girlfriend because he feels she deserves better than him. Well.

At the surface level, Arthur’s plight seems very sympathetic. He points to her brilliance and readiness to commit and work at their relationship multiple times and casts himself as the undeserving party. But that only lasts a split second. It very quickly morphs into martyrdom. 
The chorus says:

You deserve better, better, better than me
Might be what you want, but I’m not what you need (…)
(…) Might be what you want, but I want you to see
You’re better off without me in your life

Ok, friend-o. I think I may not be on your side anymore.

He goes on and firmly repeats his stance, giving off a little frustration because his girlfriend just doesn’t seem to understand that she’ll be better off without him. He further explains that actually, he’s the one that’s suffering in this situation, because she keeps dating such a bum despite her brilliance. He urges her to find a new partner, even though they both love each other.

Is it selflessness, sacrificing his own feelings for the sake of his lover? Is it Arthur’s insecurities getting the best of him? Does he self-sabotage himself, believing he is not worthy of this amazing woman?

No, no and nope.
It’s one thing and one thing alone: He’s “It’s not you, it’s me”-ing her.

In this song, Arthur portrays a man who doesn’t seem to be ready or fit for a long-term commitment. Maybe past heartbreak has left him jaded, maybe he’s not mature enough, or maybe his current girlfriend is just not the right person for him. That happens, and although it’s a hard conversation, it’s absolutely fair to tell your partner that you’re not feeling it. Love is complicated and even if you do have feelings for one another, there might be a good chance you don’t fit together as you should. That’s nobody’s fault and stretching it out unnecessarily will hurt everybody, so it’s best to amicably end the relationship.

That, however, is not what Arthur is doing.

Instead of being straightforward with his partner, he’s trying to push the “fault” for the break up on her—as nicely as possible. Instead of saying “I can’t be with you,” he says “You shouldn’t be with me.” Instead of taking on any responsibility or working hard to fix the relationship, he decides that she shouldn’t be with him and that’s that. Worse, he also takes away the woman’s choice of deciding whether she even feels that way. Seeing as she’s working at it and loves him, she obviously won’t breathe a sigh of relief once he announces that he’s “letting her go to be happy.”

Let’s just stop for a minute take the woman’s point of view. Your partner tells you that he’s forcing you into a break up because you refuse to realize that he’s not right for you. It’s a break up for your benefit. That’s not going to go over well.
Women have an amazing bullshit-o-meter and she will smell the lie from a mile away. The only thing she will take away from that conversation is that there is some other reason he broke up with her and that will play on her insecurities.

That’s how “It’s not you, it’s me” breakups work. It sounds nice in theory, but more often than not, it’s used to get out of this awkward situation as the “good guy.” That phrase does nothing for the person that’s broken up with, it just makes them wonder what the real reason is and they usually end in blaming themselves.

Trust women.

What I’m trying to say is: don’t make important choices for your partner. I don’t care whether you think it will make them happy.
Being in a partnership means working together, not taking over the reins of someone else’s life. No matter how well you know another person, you’ll never be 100% clued-in to what they’re thinking or feeling.

Trust your partner they know themselves best. Trust that they can decide for themselves whether they’re happy or not. It’s not your choice to make.

And damnit, Shawn Mendes and James Arthur. I’ll keep bouncing to your music.
But you better shape up. ‘Cause your ladies need a man. And their heart is set on you.

Well. Not on Shawn, though.

2 thoughts on “Why Female Empowerment Pop Songs by Men Miss the Point

  1. I like your analysis of Mendes song. Particularly the bit about his expectation for her to ‘exchange’ her boyfriend. I really like(d) Beyonce’s ‘Irreplaceable’, but when I found out Ne-Yo wrote it, it definitely had a different impression on me. Perhaps many guys think that girls require someone there at all times or perhaps it makes them feel more secure if this was the case.


    1. Hi Amato!
      Thank you so much for your comment! I never knew that “Irreplaceable” was written by Ne-Yo! It makes total sense – I always felt that the song was strangely unsympathetic and aggressive – a great song to bump to in your anger-phase after a breakup. But the idea that Beyonce is powerful and awesome not because she’s powerful and awesome herself, but because she is always in control of her (romantic) emotions and is able to attract a new romantic partner any time, felt strangely mean-spirited and less thoughtful than I always imagined her to be. Compare it to “Single Ladies”, where she asserts her own worth and power over a former partner and celebrates herself instead of how attractive she is to men around her. That feels more like her and more like a positive message for women.

      Liked by 1 person

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