Let them eat the cake

With much power comes much responsibility. Mo’ money, mo’ problems. And so on.

There’s no shortage of aphorisms decrying the heavy burdens of those we deem fortunate. The apparent overcoverage afforded the wealthy, talented, and powerful has not deterred me from adding one more footnote to the frenzy.

Though I’m a little late to the party, I can’t help but put in my two cents regarding the “uproar” over some pop music lyrics. Pardon, not any pop lyrics, but some Beyonce lyrics, borrowed from a scene in the Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got to Do With It, in which Tina is force-fed cake by her abusive husband.

Whenever you have earth-shattering success, the product of your success will be subject to additional scrutiny. (See opening.) Whereas scores of lyricists prior (and even in the short period since) have imagined far more troubling scenarios than the “Eat the cake, Anna Mae” interlude in “Drunk in Love,” this particular line has drawn intense heat from advocates for the prevention of domestic abuse. And I say, enough.

Domestic abuse is an awful problem. I won’t pander to that side of the argument, because to me it is self-evident that the isolation associated with being mistreated by someone in your own household is horrific. The fact that the episodes play out in private, with no outside corroboration available, makes it doubly painful and difficult to bring to justice. It also serves as a popular form of venting frustration on others without suffering legal consequences. Its cyclical and pervasive nature is something that has played no small part in shaping many if not most world societies for the worse.

I get it. And further, those who are passionate about the cause (as well they should be) want to make sure they do everything possible to prevent further abuse or any normalization of the abuse. In doing so, however, there can sometimes be an overreach. “Eat the cake, Anna Mae” is an overreach.

To me, context is everything. What you say is not nearly important as how you say it, which in turn is not nearly as important as the context in which it is said. “Hit me!” in a domestic abuse situation is infinitely more troubling than “Hit me!” exclaimed while playing cards.

In the context of hip-hop, “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” is primarily a pop culture reference.

Hip-hop, like jazz before it, is in the business of overt recycling. From sampling to looping to rhyming, hip-hop connects dots in an overt (post-modern?) way, saying to us, “Look at what I remade from these bits and pieces.” Lyrically, this is accomplished by taking pre-existing references and re-contextualizing them. It’s like sampling, only with words.

I shouldn’t have to explain any of this to people who claim to be fans of the music—they should grasp it intuitively. However, some of the loudest voices in this “uproar” have been from the hip-hop community.

And although I’d like to ooh and aah at how innovative hip-hop is in this regard, it’s not really. This is everyday life. This is linguistics. This is how language evolves. I read something yesterday about how the word “porcelain” literally refers to a pig’s nether regions. Would we punish a public figure for using the word “porcelain” because of its etymology?

Closer to home, most of us joke with our friends using pop culture and historical references all the time. Among many of my friends, the film The Color Purple is rife with quotable quotes, many of which are direct or indirect references to domestic abuse. As a society, we call overbearing people “Nazis,” and we feign haughtiness by uttering the semi-historical quote, “Let them eat cake.”

However, using our recalibrated-for-Bey-and-Jay sensitivity meters, if they uttered any of the above, they would be trivializing not only domestic abuse, but genocide and poverty.

Quotes and references are not endorsements. They are celebrations of our common lexicon. For better or for worse, what sticks with us are dramatic moments that arise from tragic situations, so these are more likely to be drawn on.

But fine, if you want to believe that Jay Z and Beyonce, partners in what appears to be one of the happiest celebrity marriages of our generation, are out to indoctrinate us in or desensitize us to the horrors of domestic abuse, go ahead and have it your way.

But remember this: the next time you want to parody someone’s overly scrupulous housekeeping, even your own, and you cry out “No wire hangers!” from Mommie Dearest

…you are promoting child abuse and are evil. Just so you know.


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