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Why Female Empowerment Pop Songs by Men Miss the Point

Analyzing Shawn Mendes & James Arthur's Hit Songs

I love pop music. But every now and then, I find a song that I can totally bump to… until I stop and listen to the lyrics. That’s when I get irrationally angry. And those are not rap songs. Rap has made its money demeaning women and promoting violence ever since I was born. No. I'm looking at you, Shawn Mendes and James Arthur.


Shawn Paul Raul Mendes is a Canada-native heartthrob who first entered our hearts and panties in 2013 with "Stitches," an enjoyable if infantile break-up song in which his ex-girlfriend apparently tries stabbing him to death. Hey, we've all been there.

James Arthur, exactly 10 years Mendes' senior, is a British singer and songwriter well-known as the winner of X-Factor. His debut single "Impossible" broke all our hearts at least twice and surely solicited many unwanted calls to our exes.

From their decade age distance alone you may guess that Mendes and Arthur have vastly different experiences when it comes to women. Mendes plays the role of the puppy in love: he's vulnerable, desperately in love, and helpless before you. He just wants to run away with you. He wants to be young, wild and free with you. He loves how you don't care about other people staring. Also, he seems to be mad at his parents for not letting him watch TV.

Arthur, long out of high school, I assume, also writes about his relationship to women. His oeuvre wavers between bitter, painful break up-songs and carefully hopeful love songs. "Say You Won't Let Go," for example, is about Arthur meeting a girl at a bar and imagining the life they could have together.

But these two men have one very distinct, infuriating similarity: they love to write songs about women who they think can't make choices for themselves. Thus, the men have to swoop in and save them from themselves.

The songs I want to examine specifically are "Treat You Better" and "You Deserve Better" by Shawn Mendes and James Arthur respectively.

The major difference between these songs is perspective. In "Treat You Better," Mendes implores (pressures) a female friend to break up with her boyfriend because Mendes would be the better choice. 
In "You Deserve Better," Arthur plans to break up with his girlfriend for her own good. Both men try to make dating decisions that aren't theirs to make: Mendes wants to end a relationship that he isn't even involved in and Arthur, instead of working at the problems he and his girlfriend seem to be having, breaks up with her so she can find a better situation.

Let's break down the situations the men describe in their songs.

"Treat You Better" begins with Mendes telling the girl—we don't know what kind of relationship they have, but since he's quite frank, she is probably a friend—that her boyfriend is not right for her. Even after she answers that he is the one she wants to be with, Mendes refuses to believe her. He's complaining about her "wrong situation" and that she's "wasting time," but we as listeners actually never learn what's so supposedly wrong with her boyfriend. The only negative thing that is mentioned is that the girl cries sometimes.

The video tries to amend this little leap in logic by showing the couple fighting frequently and the boyfriend making aggressive sexual advances to her. There's also a bit where the boy and girl go drifting in a parking lot (which she enjoys at first), but after it gets dangerous, they fight again and she leaves. After that, the boyfriend is shown sexy-dancing with another girl, obviously to spite her and finally, during a fight with somebody, he elbows her in the face by accident and doesn't seem particularly apologetic. The video ends with an ad for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

So what I'm to infer from the video is that the boyfriend is emotionally and physically abusive to her, which is why she should be with Mendes. Sure, if you spin it that way, I can see why this girl should leave her boyfriend to find somebody who treats her kindly. However, that’s only how the music video spins it. None of that can actually be found in the song. The only signs of unhappiness she shows are that she cries sometimes and that Mendes believes her to be lying when she says she wants to be with her boyfriend.

People cry even in the best relationships. Fighting with somebody you love is upsetting, and while you should look for warning signs if you fight very frequently, fighting itself isn't the sign of a bad relationship. So, according to the song, the mistreatment of his crush is all in his head and only a means to convince himself that he would be doing her a service by taking her away from her boyfriend. Instead of letting her decide whether the problems she has with her boyfriend are worth working at, Mendes takes it upon himself to invalidate her relationship, a relationship she openly says she wants. 

What really grinds my gears is that he isn’t saying that she should leave her boyfriend because he's not treating her right. He's saying that she should exchange her boyfriend for him because he promises to treat her better and "be a gentleman." It feels incredibly self-serving, especially if there is a domestic violence-situation going on, as hinted in the video. Leave her alone, dude. Support her as a friend, if you care about her. It doesn’t have to be a relationship or nothing.

At the very least, Arthur isn't trying to pressure his friend into leaving her partner and becoming his girlfriend.

Instead, he decides to break up with his girlfriend because he feels she deserves better than him. Well.

At the very surface level, Arthur's plight seems very sympathetic. He points to her brilliance and readiness to commit and work at their relationship multiple times and casts himself as the undeserving party. But that only lasts a split second. It very quickly morphs into martyrdom. 
The chorus says:

You deserve better, better, better than me
Might be what you want, but I'm not what you need (...)
You deserve better, better, better than me
Might be what you want, but I want you to see
You're better off without me in your life

Ok, friend-o. I think I may not be on your side anymore.

He goes on and firmly repeats his stance, giving off a little frustration because his girlfriend just doesn’t seem able to see that she’ll be better off without him. He further explains that actually, he’s the one that’s suffering in this situation. He urges her to find a new partner, even though both she and he himself love each other and hopes she can find "something real" once she’s with somebody else.

Why can’t there be something real in the relationship you’re having right now? With a woman you love, who loves you back despite you calling yourself a "hopeless case"? Is it selflessness, sacrificing your own feelings for the sake of your lover? Is it Arthur’s insecurities getting the best of him? He believes he is not worthy of this amazing woman and will only tear her down with his inadequateness? 
No, no and nope. It’s one thing and one thing alone: He’s "It’s not you, it’s me"-ing her.

In this song, Arthur portrays a man who doesn’t seem to be ready or fit for a long-term commitment. Maybe past heartbreak has left him jaded, maybe he’s not ready, or maybe his current girlfriend is just not the right person for him. That happens, and although it’s a hard conversation, it’s absolutely fair to tell your partner that you’re not feeling it. Love is complicated and even if you do have feelings for one another, there might be a good chance you don’t fit together as you should. That’s nobody’s fault and stretching it out unnecessarily will hurt everybody, so it’s best to amicably end the relationship.

That, however, is not what Arthur is doing. Instead of being straightforward with his partner, he’s trying to push the "fault" for the break up on her—as nicely as possible. Instead of saying "I can’t be with you," he says "You shouldn’t be with me." Instead of taking on any responsibility or working hard to fix the relationship, he decides that she shouldn’t be with him and that’s that. Worse, he also takes away the woman’s choice of deciding whether she even feels that way. Seeing as she’s working at it and loves him, she obviously won’t breathe a sigh of relief once he announces that he’s "letting her go to be happy."

Let’s just stop for a minute take the woman’s point of view. Your partner tells you that he’s forcing you into a break up because you refuse to realize that he’s not right for you. It’s a break up for your benefit. Let’s be real here: women have an amazing bullshit-o-meter and she will smell the lie from a mile away. The only thing she will take away from that conversation is that there is some other reason he broke up with her and will play on her insecurities. That’s how "It’s not you, it’s me" breakups work. It sounds nice in theory, but more often than not, it’s used to get out of this awkward situation as the "good guy." That phrase does nothing for the person that’s broken up with, it just makes them wonder what the real reason is and usually ends in blaming themselves.

Ok, let’s give Arthur the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he does mean well. Maybe he’s not a particularly observant person.

I have actually lived through the experience of a partner trying to break up with me "for my own good." He’s an incredibly inexperienced, kind-to-the-core man who watched me sink into a depression while we were dating. Even though he knew I was battling depression since childhood, he felt that he was at fault for it. So, before even talking to me about the issue or asking my opinion, he tried to break up with me, teary-eyed. I laughed at first because I had no idea where this was coming from and we hadn’t fought or anything. Only when I realized he was serious, did I freak out. When we both calmed down and actually had the chance to talk, he discovered that not only did he not cause my depression, he, in fact, alleviated it. He was a huge support during my more severe depressive episodes, so the thought of him "letting me go" to find somebody better was ridiculous on multiple levels.

After I explained it to him, he was embarrassed but also glad because he didn’t have to martyr himself for my happiness. Surprise though: I’ve been insecure ever since, wondering whether there wasn’t another reason he wanted to break up out of the blue. That’s how this situation would actually go, Arthur. Take note.

Trust women.

What I’m trying to say is: don’t make important choices for your partner.
I don’t care whether you think it will make them happy. Being in a partnership means working together, not taking over the reigns of someone else’s life. No matter how well you know another person, you’ll never be 100% clued-in to what they’re thinking or feeling. Trust your partner that they know themselves best. Trust that they can decide for themselves whether they’re happy or not. It’s not your choice to make.

For more of my writing, visit my blog, Vinegar & Wine, where I talk about female solo travel and traveling with and despite mental and chronic health issues. See you there!

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