Lyrics of Songs Shape Culture: Language Matters

Despite being a mild-mannered Midwestern girl, I am a sucker for “Top 40” radio. I’ll even admit that yesterday I accidentally woke up my 3-week-old daughter from her nap because I turned the volume up too loud when Flo Rida’s “Low” came on. The songs do tend to get repetitive after a while though, so my interest was piqued when a brand new song from Eminem, “Walk on Water,” debuted this morning.

The lyrics were surprisingly poignant, featuring Beyonce singing on the chorus, “I walk on water, but I ain’t no Jesus.” Eminem’s verses follow along that theme, addressing the topic of celebrity worship and contrasting it with insecurities over his own music. I was pleasantly surprised by the raw honesty (not that honesty is something Eminem has ever shied away from) when suddenly, he said one particular word that hit me like a lightning bolt.

God’s given me all this
Still I feel no different regardless
Kids look to me like as a god, this is retarded
If only they knew, it’s a facade and it’s exhaustive

For me, the whole message of the song was tarnished here by his usage of “the r-word.” As someone with siblings with disabilities, I had hoped our society was collectively evolving past the point of considering that an acceptable term, only to be disappointed time and time again by music or movies backsliding into its usage. Later in the song, perhaps less noticeable, Eminem uses the word “spazzing”– perhaps not as obviously derogatory to some, it is based off the word “spastic,” originally used in reference to cerebral palsy.

Especially in recent years, there has been a widespread pushback against political correctness; if any language is deemed hurtful or offensive by someone, they are then called a “snowflake” and ridiculed for being weak or sensitive. Whereas five years ago I could ask someone not to use the word r*tarded and they’d oblige, at least in my presence, now that request is met with complaints of censorship or a musing on how overly sensitive millennials are.

I don’t wish to censor anyone, nor am I going to call for an apology from everyone who still insists on using that word. Eminem’s song raises important points about how no matter how successful someone may appear, they can still struggle with feelings of inferiority. The closing chorus of the song says, “I don’t think you should believe in me the way that you do, ‘cause I’m terrified to let you down.” In response to that sentiment, I can offer an easy suggestion of one way to avoid letting many people down: stop using insults that come at the cost of people with disabilities.

It probably seems silly to want to change one facet of a rapper’s language; after all, there are so many issues that could be raised in regards to music on “Top 40” radio. Some people may be offended by expletives, others by sexualized language — however, words like r*tarded or sp*z, among many others, are derogatory against one specific population, and thus it should be the easiest decision in the world to agree they are not only inappropriate, but downright hurtful.

As I write this, I hold my newborn daughter snuggled in one arm with my laptop precipitously balanced on my knee. I look down at her and wonder, as all parents do, what the world will be like for her as she grows older. When my parents or grandparents were children, it was culturally acceptable to use insults based on race or sexual orientation; now those words are recoiled against in common society. I can only hope by the time my daughter reaches adulthood, maybe derogatory language against people with disabilities will be unequivocally condemned as well.

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Thinkstock image by Svetlana Aganina

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