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Top Ten Healthiest and Unhealthiest Songs

December 15, 2009


Boston Public Health Commission's Songs with Unhealthy Relationship Ingredients


As part of a program to address teen dating violence, The Boston Public Health Commission released a list of songs from the Billboard Top 100 that are “healthy” and “unhealthy” in the way they describe relationships, according to factors such as equality, respect and trust (versus possession, disrespect and manipulation).  

The unhealthy songs speak for themselves — most of them are just flat-out misogynist, from Jamie Foxx’s “Blame it [on the alcohol]” to 50 Cent’s “Baby By Me” (featuring the tagline “Have a baby by me, baby, be a millionaire”) to Pitbull’s “Hotel Room Service.” You don’t need to go far beyond the title to ascertain that these songs describe women as baby-makers and sexual objects to be dehumanized and used in a haze of drunkenness and disrespect. The list doesn’t point out anything about misogyny and mainstream hip-hop that we haven’t heard before.

But the fact of the matter is, the healthy songs don’t actually seem all that healthy either. Their most unifying factor is that they are primarily written by white artists, while the top ten unhealthiest songs are all sung by young men of color (with the notable exception of Lady Gaga, who made it into the top ten twice with “Bad Romance” and “Paparazzi”). While mainstream hip-hop gets a lot of attention for its more flamboyant woman-hating, the so-called healthy songs also inspire unrealistic and limited images of love.

Take Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” Colbie Caillat’s “Fallin’ For You,” and Justin Bieber’s “One Time,” for example (all in the top ten healthiest). The songs all describe undying love and dedication in a way that seems oversimplified and just plain unrealistic, particularly when you add in the fact that Justin Bieber, whose song holds the number one healthiest slot, is only fifteen years old. Is identifying your “one heart?” at that age particularly “healthy”?

Boston Public Health Commission's List of Songs with Healthy Relationship Ingredients


We don’t get enough from Colbie Caillat or Jason Mraz’s bubbly pop to indicate whether or not the relationships they’re talking about are healthy, and it’s possible that the cuddly-cuteness of lines such as “I won’t hesitate no more, no more/It cannot wait, I’m sure” and “Scooch on over closer dear, and I will nibble your ear,” might conceal dynamics of manipulation, disrespect, and possession. As anyone who has studied abusive relationships knows, you often have to look below the surface to reveal unhealthy dynamics. 

The overarching lesson might be that pop music isn’t the place to turn for lessons about what makes relationships healthy, although it certainly provides plenty of fodder for a discussion of unhealthy attitudes and trends. 

The overall premise of the Commission’s project seems promising. Having teens look at pop music through a critical lens is an important form of combating dating violence and gender inequality. Given the lack of open dialogue about sex and relationships, particularly among young people, pop music can sub in for more nuanced analysis and play a major role in shaping the way we think about relationships. Let’s just not let Jason Mraz off the hook too quickly.

  1. casey permalink
    December 18, 2009 8:01 am

    Hi Amy,

    Thank you for your piece on the the “Sound Relationship” scoring tool and the top 10 list our teens created. The genesis of the project was a an American Academy of Pediatrics report and policy paper on the impact of song lyrics on teens physical and mental health. This was our attempt to start the conversation about something that is having very real health implications on the young people in our lives.

    The one point I would like to correct to is that the healthy songs were primarily written/sung by white artists. Ne-yo, Iyaz, Michael Franti, Keri Hilson, Kanye West and the Black Eyed Peas are all people of color. There is a very interesting conversation to have around how artists are positioned and sold to consumers.

    I hope you get a chance to look at the tool our teens created. I think they did a fantastic job.

  2. December 21, 2009 12:04 am

    I think this list is very flawed. The “unhealthy” songs by Lady Gaga, for instance, were apparently judged in a very primitive manner. They seem to have been dubbed unhealthy for the fact that they mention unhealthy things rather than for their intention. I tend to think those songs actively make fun of and/or insult unhealthy relationships rather than advocate them, but in doing so, they have to mention some things that aren’t healthy.

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