By its nature, pop music is upbeat. This is entertaining and makes for easy listening, especially during summer road trips. If one looks below the surface of amusement, however, there are often important social messages hidden below.
A recent and poignant example of this is the song “In the Night” by The Weeknd. In the song, the narrator tells the story of a woman he knows – his girlfriend or at least lover – who is apparently a stripper with a wild side, two traits that could be condemned by society despite their formal legality. Beneath this, however, is a far more complex and sympathetic personality, as the narrator reveals.
The woman, who is never named, was the victim of sexual abuse when she was young. The lyrics explain that the abuser – who is not given any explained relationship to the victim – was “cold” and “unforgiving” during the abuse, trivializing his acts by singing while committing them. Rather than moving on chronologically from the abuse to the present, the song intersperses the abuse with the woman’s current actions and mental state, in effect creating flashbacks during the song.
After setting out the abuse, the song details the woman’s current life and seeming inability to remove herself from it due to the hold that the acts of abuse have on her. For example, the song states “in the night she hears him calling” and “when you wake up she’s always gone,” suggesting that she suffers from nightmares of her past and an inability to form a romantic relationship in which she is comfortable staying the night with her lover.
The song also explains that the woman is a stripper but that she is trapped in this occupation, noting that “In the night she’s dancing to relieve the pain/ She’ll never walk away (I don’t think you’d understand)/In the night when she comes crawling/ Dollar bills and tears keep falling down her face/ She’ll never walk away (I don’t think you’d understand).” In these ways, she is portrayed as engaging in acts that are overtly sexual and flaunt her sexuality however she does them with a sense of shame rather than empowerment. The shame and the flashbacks during dancing to music – as she did when she was abused – cause her emotion to become visible in the form of tears but these are apparently hidden sufficiently that she still receives tips from her customers.
The commentary about the listener not understanding further highlights the ways in which sex abuse victims often experience feelings of shame and guilt about their abuse. It also highlights the difficulties that those who care for sex abuse victims experience in trying to explain the actions of their loved ones and protect them, even from themselves. This is not an indictment of the sex industry or those who have suffered from sexual abuse – instead it is an attempt to demonstrate the complexity of sexual abuse and the stigmas that surround it.
“In the Night” is a searing explanation of the ways in which sexual abuse victims experience abuse when committed and for the remainder of their lives. It explains the residual feelings of shame and guilt that can exist for years and the ways in which the victims can abuse themselves as a result. It also explains the ways in which those who care for the victims of sexual abuse can be impacted by the effects of the abuse and the difficulties they face in explaining the issue to society.
At the larger level, “In the Night” is also a statement about the ways in which society at large views those in the sex industry and those who engage in behaviors that are seen as wild or unrestrained. There are many aspects to stripping, including those that are related to empowerment and agency. “In the Night” highlights one of these aspects and points out that society should not be quick to judge or convict those who are involved in such occupations. As catchy as it might be, this is far more than an upbeat pop song.