As this cultural moment continues and Americans struggle with the complexities of sexual contact and dynamics of power that inform relationships between men and women (and sometimes between men), it calls on us to consider the degree to which this conversation seems “new” is a result of how such concerns were erased from the public discourse for so long. In other words, women (and some men) have long known the degree to which male entitlement shapes ostensibly romantic and frequently sexual encounters, but it is only now—in an environment where women can come forward and give accounts of their experiences and name the men responsible—that the notion of a sexual crisis has emerged. Unfortunately, as we might expect, such a movement is already being weaponized against those very women. Already, the narrative wants to swing back and declare that women are the dangerous ones because of their power to accuse men. From the reaction of some in the media, you’d think that we are moments away from a violent matriarchal overthrow that will outlaw sex and threaten to cut the nuts off every man.
What we are experiencing is a rupture in sexual politics as they have been accepted for far too long, and the anxiety that has developed around these stories and accusations—the concerns that “angry women might go too far”—are a sign of just how normalized these coercive and assaultive behaviors really are. Because the truth is we haven’t gone remotely far enough in addressing this problem. The fact that some men might even claim that it will become “impossible to flirt” suggests that their definition of flirting is one based on manipulation, not based on mutual and empathetic playful desire. The truth is that this anxiousness and backlash would be less of an issue and easier to navigate if men (and even some women) would listen to women and respect their evaluation of their experiences, connecting them to behaviors that have been going on around us and are visible in our popular culture, if we only know how to look and listen.
I was thinking about all of this when I stumbled across a song I had not thought about in a long time, “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” by R&B singer, Cherrelle. The song is from 1984, and was written and produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, famous for their contribution to the Minneapolis Sound Prince developed, being members of the Time, and of course, for producing some of Janet Jackson’s best and most popular work. The song definitely has that electro-funk feel associated with the Prince-inflected music of the place and era, being from before Jam and Lewis had developed their own version of that sound. Thus, sonically it comes off as trying to sound like a Prince-produced song, and I am pretty sure I could easily mix “Sex Shooter” by Apollonia 6 with “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” without missing a beat and keeping that sonic consistency between breathy voices that waver around the key, rather than hitting them with clarity.
As Cherrelle sings it, however, the song clearly expresses the experience of a speaker trying to explain herself to a man who won’t take no for an answer. The lyrics make clear that she has moderated her behavior to avoid the result she inevitably has to address anyway, suggesting that there is no particular moderation of behavior that works to stave off male entitlement. Furthermore, the song takes on an alternately apologetic and frustrated tone that echoes the sentiment of many women I’ve heard discuss their experiences with men. For example, she sings both “I’m sorry, baby” and “I told you twice.” The former adopting the position of having to apologize for the man’s interpretation of her “nice” behavior, while the latter voicing that frustration about what happens when you are “nice” to such a man—especially since not being nice comes with its own dangers. But the song’s speaker is not surprised by her subject, as she says, “I know you / Were expecting a one-night stand / When I refused / I knew you wouldn’t understand,” suggesting that she expected this response and had to prepare to deal with it and the guilt that’d accompany it. As she asserts, “Why should I / Feel guilty ’cause I won’t give in? / I didn’t mean to turn you on.”
The fact that two men wrote the song also suggests that they were hip to its sentiment, or at the very least had heard it enough times to think the song would have an appeal, which it did. Cherrelle’s version of “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” was a modest success, hitting #8 on the soul charts, and #79 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song would become much better known beyond the “urban contemporary” market when Robert Palmer covered the song a year later. Shortly after it would hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1986. I tend to think of Palmer’s success in the 80s as a lark, since his songs and performances rely on this gimmicky cool and bland affect. There is no re-listening value in his material. In this particular case, I remember thinking—even back in ‘86—that his choice to cover this song seemed like a weird one. It was one of those moments where young me didn’t quite have the words to express the sense of robbery that his version evoked. Two black men wrote the song, a black woman popularized it, but some white dude does it and suddenly it is all over the place and everyone loves it. It doesn’t help that what helped to sell the song in the mainstream was the aesthetic of its video, using the visuals of the essentially replaceable, cookie-cutter, identically dressed white female models with pale faces, dark-eye makeup and bright-red lipstick as faux-band, sometimes poorly lip-syncing, and mostly serving as silent “hot women” to project desire on to. The fact that he re-used this image of clone-like women in video after video just reinforces their utility, as opposed to their agency. Furthermore, the mindless gender reversal of a male singer is absurd, since the connotations of the song’s narrative are very different for men than they are for women. Coming out of Palmer’s mouth, the song becomes a joke about a too horny woman he has to keep at arm’s length, while the Cherrelle version, what with her delivery and the sparse electro arrangement, develops a sense of potential menace through her complex reaction. It doesn’t help that for a woman to be rejected by a man is a repudiation of her as a person and a humiliation for her. When a woman rejects a man, however, while the he may feel humiliation, the cultural perspective is that she was a “tease” and is responsible for the man’s feelings.
I guess we could queer Palmer’s version and consider what it means if he is singing to another man, but I think all that’d reinforce is that men can also be the target of male sexual aggression, and the erasure of the gender of the subject of the song’s plea just reinforces how those issues are deemed too weird or complex by media culture to make the subject of pop music.
The video for Cherrelle’s version (which is how I remember first hearing it—on NBC’s Friday Night Videos) also has some interesting visual choices, riffing on the 1933 film, King Kong. In it, Cherrelle is a combination of Carl Dunham (the explorer who seeks out Kong) Ann Darrow (the ape’s obsession) to a King Kong who won’t take no for an answer. The choice is apt from the perspective of Kong’s sexualized obsession with a human woman, but from the perspective of the monster movie’s racial subtext it is harder to make sense of. It does not take much to read King Kong as an exploration of black sexuality as a monstrous threat to white womanhood. King Kong’s lack of penis is just evidence of how threatening that sexuality is considered by white patriarchy. The film attests its dangers through the figure of Kong, but its power is so overwhelming that it cannot be represented. In a take I found on the Second Reel blog, the Fay Wray character—Ann—is read as having a parallel experience to the giant ape in being othered. As “Woman, Gorillas and De-Evolution,” points out, Ann is the only woman on the expedition that seeks out Kong, and “Ann and Kong are also alike in their roles as objects of spectacle.” In fact, when brought back to New York, Ann and the ape are reunited on stage to entertain the throngs of people drawn by the exploitative show. James A. Snead in Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video agrees to a point, suggesting that “Ann Darrow has more in common with King Kong than it seems at first” (39), though Snead’s more specific reading about how her white femininity is used to justify the treatment of Kong and the Skull Island Black natives points out the problem I had with the reading on Second Reel: it does what too many feminist readings do, erases black womanhood by allowing Kong’s victim to stand in for all women. The reaction to her abduction and the ape’s desire would not be the same if she were not white. The 1976 version of King Kong builds on the danger of this mythic animalistic sexual prowess by having Dwan (different name, similar role as “Ann”) develop confused feelings for the ape. She even evinces near orgasmic pleasure when being bathed and then blown dry by Kong. The fear here is not just that the ape wants her, but that she might want him back.
Thus, the video for Cherrelle’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” exists in a weird tension. I guess it would be possible to read the video as elevating Cherrelle to the position of white woman by having her be the focus of Kong’s desire, but I am not sure I buy that, or even want to, as it’d reinforce that disgusting racial hierarchy. Instead, I imagine that the director, Bill Parker, didn’t put much thought in the scenario save for the comedy of putting the ape into the context of having been led on by reading the signals wrong. Still, by having Cherrelle play the part of the pith-helmet-wearing explorer who finds Kong, the video not only grants her an agency that Ann or Dwan never have, the video’s story depicts the singer as compassionate and kind, bandaging the ape’s injured finger and being friendly, even motherly, to it. In this version of the King Kong story, however, the ape leaves the island of his own accord, hunting down the woman. While the video tries to play things light by including animated settings and having Kong pop, lock and break on the roof of her building during the musical interlude, it still ends on dark image. Cherrelle seems to give in, overwhelmed and swoons into a faint. This really reinforces the danger she is in, and I think the video-maker saw it, too, because the final scene of the video has Cherrelle awaking in bed, a copy of what looks like a King Kong magazine or comic in hand, suggesting she fell asleep reading it. A switch from black and white to color indicates that we are now in the real world. However, her facial expression suggests that this troubling dream reflects her real-life circumstances, even if they don’t actually involve giant apes.
Sexual impropriety exists on a wide spectrum—from cat-calling and lowkey workplace harassment to stalking, assault and rape—but regardless of how this toxicity manifests itself, it is monstrous. It is not the giant ape in the King Kong narrative that’s horrific, however, it’s the ape suit used to naturalize the desires and the disrespect of boundaries common to the human beings beneath. In other words, we can’t let individual monsters distract from the banality of harassment. Songs like “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” as performed by Cherrelle, serve as a reminder that what seems “new” to men due to its sudden hypervisibility, is not new at all. By listening to women when they tell us about their experiences now and by looking back at the ample, if sometimes coded, messages in art and culture it is possible to have a deeper understanding of how prevalent such attitudes and events really are. Even if all men are not rapists or abusers, they can still work to be cognizant of the fact that women don’t owe them sex and are not responsible for soothing the egos of men who think otherwise. As I wrote above, women have to carefully moderate their behavior around men with no guarantee that such moderation will actually change the response from men. Sure, we all have to moderate our behavior in a society, but women are required to do it disproportionately when compared to men who respond to conversations about specific ways they might moderate their own actions as if they are the ones under attack.
There are countless pop songs that romanticize, and thus encourage, a range of unhealthy and problematic behaviors, from possessiveness to stalking to harassment to violence and rape, by encoding them into normalized and understandable feelings. I am curious, however, to find more genuinely popular—charting—songs that implicitly challenge those norms, and that arise from a woman’s point of view at being the target for this relentless behavior disguised as wooing.
Can you think of any examples?