Monday, January 02, 2006

Blown away by the beauty of "Unpretty"

Y'all already know I have a TiVo, but sometimes I forget to fast-forward through the commercials, and every once in a while I'm glad. The commercial I'm paused on (and replaying!) right now is for a compilation music album called Slow Motion; it features slow, romantic songs, at least mostly by black artists. I have a major beef with one of the songs — "End of the Road," the misogynistic anthem for future wife-beaters by Boyz II Men; more on that later — but another of the selections inspires me with its beauty. The song is "Unpretty" by TLC. Given that I'm a white guy who grew up in über-white-bread suburban Dallas a quarter century ago, would it surprise you that TLC is not exactly the music I usually listen to?

The lyrics of "Unpretty" are exceptionally profound for popular music:

I wish I could tie you up in my shoes
Make you feel unpretty too
I was told I was beautiful
But what does that mean to you
But if you can't look inside you
Find out who am I too
Be in the position to make me feel
So damn unpretty
I'll make you feel unpretty too

Never insecure until I met you
Now I'm bein' stupid
I used to be so cute to me
Just a little bit skinny
Why do I look to all these things
To keep you happy?

Maybe get rid of you
And then I'll get back to me (hey)
The music video, a small fragment of which airs in the Slow Motion commercial, is also direct. A young woman is sitting at the computer with her boyfriend, who has called up a plastic surgery visualization program. He wants her to get a boob job; she punches in 36C, but he insists on 38DD. Sound at all like anyone you've met? If a woman isn't pretty, then 38DD breasts (or any other "female enhancement") are just going to make her "not pretty with big tits." Her sense of being pretty can't be dependent on the superficial judgments of others, it has to come from her own self-confidence.

What caught my eye most in the video, though, was a radiantly beautiful touch that few viewers would even notice: in the music video, fragments of the song are sung in ASL, American Sign Language. In the deaf world, there is such a thing as poetry, but, since deaf people can't hear rhyming sounds, their poetry is more like choreography. Another analogy would be the beautiful decorative illuminations of Arabic text you find in mosques. The signing of the song "Unpretty" is beautifully expressive, which is doubly potent since many deaf people feel disconnected from the hearing romantic world. The subtext is that being deaf is only "unpretty" if you choose to believe that it is.

Some years ago, I was active on the Pacific Center Speakers Bureau in Berkeley, California. I would go into high-school and college classes, most often a human sexuality class, and talk about what it was like to grow up gay, especially in as repressive an environment as Dallas. I was often impressed by the depth of both intellectual and sympathetic understanding the kids had for the experience of being "different," but I also several times encountered young women who saw bisexuality as a tremendous threat to their ability to hold onto their man. After all, if "my man" is a bisexual and he sees some hot guy, "How can I compete with that?"

Okay, so you have to possess your significant other and occupy absolutely 100% of his attention because otherwise he will leave you at the first opportunity. Your relationship is so fragile, and your appeal to your boyfriend is so fleeting, that you could never hold his affection against any challenge, no matter how feeble. He's nothing but a junkyard dog who will run after every bitch whose scent wafts his way.

That's the image projected by that kind of possessiveness.

The message I tried to convey to those young women was, it doesn't matter whether your "competition" is just other women or is women and men both: either your boyfriend loves you and wants to be with you, or he doesn't. If he can be lured away by the slightest temptation, then he's not worth having. If your relationship is worth anything, then it's worth something to each of you.

That brings me back around to the song I excoriated earlier, "End of the Road" by Boyz II Men. I'll let the boyz speak for themselves first:
Girl, you know we belong together
I have no time for you to be playing
With my heart like this
You’ll be mine forever baby, you just see

We belong together
And you know that I’m right
Why do you play with my head,
Why do you play with my mind?


Although we’ve come to the end of the road
Still I can’t let you go
It’s unnatural, you belong to me, I belong to you
Come to the end of the road
Still I can’t let you go
It’s unnatural, you belong to me, I belong to you

Girl, I know you really love me,
You just don’t realize
You’ve never been there before
It’s only your first time

Maybe I’ll forgive you, hmm
Maybe you’ll try
We should be happy together
Forever, you and I
What disgusted me most about this song when I first heard it was the parade of young women who would call the request lines on 95.8 Capital FM and gush their requests for this trash.

Look at the message of the lyrics. It isn't even thinly veiled. The singer, a smooth-talking young man, is telling his ex-girlfriend that she'd better come back to him if she knows what's good for her. At the very least, he's telling her that he knows better than she does what she is feeling. That attitude, an undercurrent through the entire song, is why I label it as the anthem of the Future Wife-Beaters of the World.