- A Giles (law student)
Examining Popular Lyrics Through a Criminal Law Lens
In a time where pop culture has so much influence on the way we think and act, a further examination of some of North America’s most popular lyrics poses concerns for how young minds are being shaped. Even as many of us belt out these lyrics with little thought about their content, a deeper analysis is necessary to determine their possible impact on society. In songs from artists ranging from Justin Bieber to Alt-J, concerning similarities can be seen, particularly on the subjects of assault and consent.
In “U.O.E.N.O” by Rick Ross, the following lyrics are cause for concern: “Put Molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it. I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it”. These lyrics not only represents a non-consensual drugging, but also hint at a likely sexual assault. If this were to actually happen, the result would (or should) be a charge under section 265 of the Criminal Code. While many will brush off such lyrics as simple “make believe”, their popularity reflects a dangerous indifference toward the dangers women face from the use of date rape drugs.
In Justin Bieber’s hit song “What Do You Mean”, he sings “What do you mean? When you nod your head yes but you wanna say no?” If Justin Bieber were to press ahead with sexual acts notwithstanding this knowledge, he would likely be charged with sexual assault. The actus reus would be met given that the victim’s subjective mind is a lack of consent. Moreover, given Justin Bieber’s knowledge of this lack of consent, the mens rea of the offence would also be established.
Another song worth mentioning is “Breezeblocks” by Alt-J, which includes the following lyrics: “She may contain the urge to run away but hold her down with soggy clothes and breeze blocks”. This passage sounds a lot like an assault. In fact, every aspect the offence of assault under the Criminal Code is made out in this passage. The perpetrator’s conduct involves the application of force, that force is applied against the victim, and the absence of consent is obvious from the victim’s urge to run away. If these lyrics reflected a real life scenario, the outcome of any criminal proceeding ought to be a conviction under section 265 of the Criminal Code.
The title of the song ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke, is alone worrisome. This song, on the subject of consent, states “I hate those blurred lines. I know you want it. I hate them lines”. This promotes the idea that determining consent is a difficult task and that the signals received are not always clear. However, Canadian law has held that this “blurred line” is absolutely no defence, and that the mens rea of sexual assault is not only satisfied when it is shown that the accused knew that the complainant was essentially saying ‘no’, but it is also satisfied when it is shown that the accused knew that the complainant was essentially not saying ‘yes’. These lyrics are clearly inconsistent with the current state of the law, making it difficult to understand why they are they are still being promoted.
Finally, there is “Blame it on the Alcohol”, in which Jamie Foxx sings, “But she don't wanna seem like she easy. I hear you saying what ya wont’ do. But you know we probably goin' do”. The general theme of this song wrongfully promotes the idea that, where a person is intoxicated to the point where he or she is unable to say ‘no’, consent has somehow been established. As stated above, the law holds that the requisite mens rea exists even where the victim is essentially not saying ‘yes’. Similarly, a person who is unconscious, possibly as a result of excess alcohol consumption, can in no way consent to sexual activity.
The above analysis is not meant to suggest that the artists in question have committed, or necessarily even condone, the criminal acts described in these songs. At a minimum, however, the prevalence and popularity of these lyrics demonstrate a widespread inability to understand the concept of consent. These lyrics will continue to normalize assault and, more specifically, sexual crimes against women. While there are many other songs that attempt to raise awareness about sexual assault, one wonders whether these positive messages are lost in a sea of lyrics that seem to promote and even celebrate aggressive and illegal behaviours. The hope is that, with women’s issues increasingly coming to the forefront, popular artists will demonstrate greater responsibility and lyrics of the sort described in this paper will become a thing of the past.