Try and think of a pop song that isn’t about consent — giving it up, getting it on, the usually delicious, sometimes dangerous confusion of those two things. To say that love is the overriding theme of pop music is misleading. Scratch the surface and you’ll uncover multiple dynamics: power, desire / rejection, abandonment / longing, submission / domination. Some of the songs in this mixtape are about yielding to music, some of them are about yielding to desire, and some of them are about the consent inherent in transaction – both sexual and copyrighted. Our only rule: no blurred lines.
1. Rihanna, “Love The Way You Lie” (ft Eminem) 2010
“S&M” was too easy a choice: obviously whips and chains excite her. This, not just a better song but also a subtler iteration of “consent”, was written by Skyler Gray when she felt as though she was in an abusive relationship with the music industry. The music industry, being abusive, chose to accompany the song with a titillating video depicting Megan Fox being slapped and slammed by some anonymous bro, before the two of them seek to mend their fully fucked-up relationship with the exchange of teddy bears. We ditched Eminem’s part to better enshrine Rihanna’s vocal: “but that’s alright because I like the way it hurts.” Is it alright? Well, that’s her business. Cutting out Eminem? That’s ours.
2. Grace Jones, “Use Me”, 1981
When Grace says “use me” who would dare refuse her? This being Grace, the song and its title are more about subversion than submission. “If he can overcome you, all he’s gonna do is use you” warns her Momma. To which Grace, with give-a-fuck splendor, responds: “if it feels this good gettin’ used/ Well keep on using me ’til you’ve used me up.”
3. Madonna, “Justify My Love”, 1990
In which Madonna drops her most Blakean apothegm: ‘Poor is the man whose pleasure depends on the permission of another.’ In the then-notorious video however, permission – the granting and the denying thereof – actually seems rather hot. Bondage abounds, threesomes are hinted at and plain had, plus a little chic gender-bending.
4. Britney Spears “I’m A Slave 4 U”, 2001
She was born to make us happy, she’s a slave for us, and she’s doomed to remain not a girl, not yet a woman: you could basically pick any Britney song, gag it, drag it to a sacrificial stone and it would seem to embody consent, as refracted and freighted by the lens of pop. Over the last two decades she’s become a kind of nexus for every anxiety we should have about exploitation, child stardom, agency, the uneasy power dynamics and the gender politics of commercial music. Written by the Neptunes, “Slave 4 U” is the slinkiest sounding single she ever released, but lyrically it’s utterly uncomfortable (“All you people look at me like I’m a little girl./ Well did you ever think it be okay for me to step into this world.”) In 2001 she performed the song at the MTV music awards with an albino Burmese python draped around her bare shoulders; this is one of the saddest sentences you’ll read on Wikipedia: “Spears was extremely terrified of the Python but went ahead with the performance.”
5. Jessie Ware, “Sweet Talk”, 2013
Is it really consent when you’re wooed back to a bad relationship by words? (“It’s the sweet words, that pull me in.”) Who cares, the song is so sweet-sounding, so seductive, that we happily relinquish all agency.
6. Blood Orange, “Sutphin Boulevard”, 2011
Like off-off Broadway, the sub-sub culture of drag ballroom is so far removed from the mainstream that it forms a closed circle—its audience is also its performers. So when an outsider wants access, they need consent. While working on this 2011 album, Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, gained access as an observer into New York’s ballroom scene past and present (the former so famously depicted in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning). That entailed gaining photographer Brian Lance’s permission to use his image of a drag performer as the album’s cover art. The song “Sutphin Boulevard” is about blurred gender identity (“Lover / See who I am when I’m a boy”) and its title gives a further dimension to “consent” – it’s named after a stretch of road in east Queens infamous as a prostitution track. As a capstone to the homage, Hynes recorded an evening of drag dancers dueling it out in a “walk” for the song’s video. It is both an intimate and powerful gathering, one that Hynes might not have been allowed to witness had he not first won the trust and confidence of the performers themselves.
7. FKA Twigs, “Water Me”, 2013
Transactional sex, however consensual, has never sounded as poignant as this, and has perhaps never had such sincere treatment. “He won’t make love to me now,” she sings, “Now that I’ve set the fee/ He said it’s too much in pounds/ I guess I’m stuck with me.” The song transcends prostitution. Specifically, it’s a lament over the utopian impossibility of a world in which sex is always about love and never about money: “I promise I can grow tall/ When making love is free.”
8. Kelela, “Go All Night”, 2013
The song sounds like small hours, grey dawn, comedown assent, when bodily exhaustion and weakness becomes its own kind of pleasure: “Take my body, it’s so right/ Tired but we go all night/Baby I’ll roll pass the blunt.”
9. Kanye West, “Say You Will”, 2008
In which the most yes-manned genius in music has to process a “no”: West has said that this opening track off 2008’s game-changing 808s & Heartbreak (as if every album of his weren’t, to some degree, game-changing) is about, “an ex-girlfriend you call on Friday nights just to have sex and she says she’ll come over but you wait all night and she still doesn’t come knocking on your door.”
10. The Crystals, “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”, 1962
Long before Rihanna sang a note, desire and violence were conflated and memorialised through pop in the most disturbing song of the sixties. Performed by the Crystals, who were reportedly bullied into recording it by Phil Spector, the song was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin after the singer Little Eva, then the couple’s babysitter, disclosed that her boyfriend beat her on a regular basis. When they asked her why she stayed she replied that his actions were demonstrations of his love for her. The way the song has echoed down the decades (a bitterly ironic cover by Courtney Love, a Glasvegas homage, a Grizzly Bear B-side) speaks to that uncomfortable eternal truth: that loving someone doesn’t tend to be something you consent to.
11. A Tribe Called Quest “Can I Kick It?”, 1991
And then there’s the far less fraught kind of consent: the yes to having a good time, yes to getting down, the consent of classic call and response and all the plain affirmation of confirmation. The song also contains no fewer than five samples, themselves little nuggets of copyrighted consent.
12. Lou Reed, “Take A Walk on the Wild Side” (Sample), 1972
Now would be a good time to point out that the mixtape’s massive cultural influence in spreading ideas would not exist if it weren’t for the absolute lack of consent by the musicians often included in them. For this New Inquiry mix, many…no, all of these songs were ripped from Youtube, converted to mp3s, and tweaked in Logic Pro. To protect the rights of musicians Apple has a security sensor that forbids any songs legally purchased from iTunes from being manipulated in Logic but not illegally downloaded music. No consent was granted in the making of this mix. Prince’s scrupulous “cease and desist” measures over Youtube infractions, however, means we couldn’t include a Batman soundtrack-era Prince track even though we had legally purchased it on iTunes. No dice.
13. Dory Previn, “The Lady With a Braid”, 1971
The consent here is the implicit yes that follows every anxious question in the late great Previn’s charmingly neurotic address to a night guest. It’s a melodic litany of “Do you mind…”s and “Shall I…”s but one that grows with quiet desperation; you get the feeling she’s not just asking him to consent to stay the night, she’s asking him to consent to falling in love with her too. Things swell to this question: “Would you care, to stay a while and save my life,” – And then, with a little laugh, “I don’t know what made me say that…”
And a few of the many that, for whatever reason (mainly BPMs) we just couldn’t say yes to: Francoise Hardy, “Je suis d’accord,” 1962; Depeche Mode, “Master and Servant,” 1984; The Winstons, “Amen Brother,” 1969, Prince “Trust,” (1989); Justin Timberlake “(And She Said) Take Me Now” (2002); Rick James “Give It To Me” (1981).