Baby, it’s what? Listening to lyrics of eight Grammy-nominated songs

When it comes to pop songs that are deemed offensive, it’s all about context.

In the case of Baby, It’s Cold Outside, the 1944 duet recently pulled from radio stations and music streams because of inappropriate lyrics, it’s an artifact of its time, says Robbie Mackay, a lecturer at Queen’s University’s Dan School of Drama and Music.

“There’s that one line about what’s in this drink,” Mackay said in an interview. “We can get dark about that and think about roofies or chemicals, but my sense of the historical context is maybe that the drink is stronger than she thought it would be.”

Of course, lyrics are subject to interpretation, which often depends on the delivery of the song.

“If we see the people singing it, are they both smiling? What’s the body language? If we’re only reading the lyrics, we might get an entirely different message than we do if we see the full picture,” Mackay says. “If the woman is smiling as she sings the lyrics back, the message to her suitor and to the rest of us is that she is playing along. If we don’t see body language that suggests she’s uncomfortable, we understand this is seduction, not coercion.”

To test how context affects pop music, we looked at the contenders for this year’s Grammy Awards record of the year and came up with a potential chill factor for each one.

Rapper Cardi B.

I Like It: Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin

Among the things that Cardi B likes are dollars and diamonds, but she isn’t looking for a sugar daddy. In one of the biggest songs of the summer, the former stripper from the Bronx glorifies herself and her money-making abilities in an impressive (and, with its trap-salsa beat, catchy!) display of boasting, a time-honoured tradition for male rappers. “In this case, we let a woman say things we’re tired of hearing men say,” Mackay said. “We’ve normalized materialism in a lot of pop music. Sex and money, they’re the easiest things to sing about.”

Chill factor: Low to medium.

Brandi Carlile.

The Joke: Brandi Carlile

The powerful country-rock ballad packs an emotional punch, with plenty of compassion for young people dealing with today’s world, including boys who don’t fit in to masculine stereotypes, girls discouraged by the patriarchy and displaced refugees. It carries a message of hope and survival on a gentle cloud of piano and strings, topped off by a passionate vocal performance. “That’s a much more positive message,” Mackay said.

Chill factor: Low.

Donald Glover performs as Childish Gambino at Bluesfest in Ottawa in July 2014.

This is America: Childish Gambino

Donald Glover’s musical alter-ego comments on American society, and what it’s like being black in America. To get the full impact, watch the racially charged viral video for a surreal portrayal of gun violence, gang culture, politics and drugs, juxtaposed with the endless distraction provided by pop culture.  “It’s a brutally violent video and to take the video or lyrics out of context, you don’t get the protest behind the song,” Mackay noted. “It can look like he’s giving in to thug hip hop, but the whole package looks to me like a lament. He’s clearly hurting on behalf of a portion of American society.

Chill factor: High.

Drake, seen here in a 2017 file photo, spent a million-dollar budget for the video for God’s Plan giving out money to less-fortunate folks in Miami.

God’s Plan: Drake

Drake became the Robin Hood of rap in 2018, when he spent a million-dollar budget for this song’s video giving out money to less-fortunate folks in Miami. While the song itself is understated to the point of boredom, the video went viral as the feel-good gesture of the year. As for the lyrics, there’s a big red flag in the line, “81, they’ll bring the crashers to the party,” for its apparent coded reference to the Hell’s Angels. It didn’t help when Drake wore an 81 sweatshirt in an Instagram post. But it seems Drizzy is such a big celebrity that he can do whatever he wants. “That’s the thing,” Mackay observed. “He is so popular. I don’t know if his listeners would care about the Hells Angels. And maybe it’s a matter of Drake trying to push into a whole bunch of different people’s playlists.”

Chill factor: Low.  

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

Shallow: Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper

The first single from the soundtrack from A Star is Born is a big, acoustic ballad. The romantic duet between Lady Gaga, who sings her heart out, and co-star Bradley Cooper captures the moment when they get serious about each other. As a remake of an iconic movie, it’s aimed directly at the mainstream. “Lady Gaga was not going to be Lady Gaga. She had to be reasonably tame. It’s gotta be as broad as possible,” Mackay said. 

Chill factor: Low.  

Kendrick Lamar.

All The Stars: Kendrick Lamar & SZA

Pulitzer Prize winner Lamar joins forces with singer SZA to deliver a song that hits all the bases for commercial success. It’s a big ballad, a hopeful duet and it came from a soundtrack (Black Panther). It’s also one of Lamar’s less interesting pieces of music, but we shouldn’t hold that against him, Mackay said. “He’s a guy who’s been breaking a lot of rules about hip hop. In this one, it’s harder to say. But to imagine that we have one Kendrick Lamar is a really tough job. It makes me respect his artistry a little more in that he doesn’t have to have one pointed message or style.”

Chill factor: Low.

Post Malone.

Rockstar: Post Malone Featuring 21 Savage

A sludgy tune with misogynistic lyrics that also glorify drugs and violence. Although it has been interpreted as a tribute to former AC/DC singer Bon Scott, that doesn’t get the scruffy rapper off the hook. “It’s so incredibly cliché that I wonder that anybody even bothers with it,” Mackay said, noting “a certain racist element because white guys always get away with more than black guys, especially in the media and especially in pop music.”

Chill factor: High.

Zedd.

The Middle: Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey

An electro-pop collaboration between DJ/producer Zedd, country singer Maren Morris and the duo Grey, The Middle channels the perspective of a woman who wants to smooth things over. The line that they “got so aggressive” hints at domestic violence, but there’s a sense of wanting to meet in the middle. “It sounds as though the singer is trying to make up after a fight, which is lovely,” Mackay said. “It doesn’t suggest who started it. We assume a man, but it could be two women. We don’t know.”

Chill factor: Medium

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

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