Our Animal Side Shows in Songs About Sex

Though humans' sexual lives differ greatly from animals', the line is blurred in music.
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In 1993, Snoop Dogg titled his album “Doggystyle.” A year later, Nine Inch Nails famously roared, “I wanna fuck you like an animal” in their song “Closer.” In 1999, Bloodhound Gang declared: “You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals.”

More recently, Robin Thicke offended some people last summer with his undeniably catchy song “Blurred Lines,” in which he sings, “You’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature. Just let me liberate you.” Though many took issue with the song’s sexism, the problem is not just that the women are objectified; it’s that they’re animalized. Thicke does not just degrade them as women; he devolves them as humans.

In the music video, when Thicke first sings, “You’re an animal,” the model turns her near-naked backside to him and purrs, “Meow.” The women are nearly naked whereas the men are dressed in expensive suits and leather jackets. The girls make animal sounds and play with animals; the men sing and play instruments. The women assume primal sexual positions; the men do complicated dance moves.

In a Today Show interview, Robin Thicke said his song is “saying that women and men are equals as animals and in power.” That’s not the message that was communicated, though. The “blurred line,” in his song and many others, is the one between human and animal.

On the one hand, humans are driven by primitive instincts that have been encoded in our genes over millions of years of evolution, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In his book The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, points out that human beings share 98 percent of their genes with chimpanzees. So only 2 percent of our DNA is what makes us “human.” It’s perplexing.

Darwin theorized that a major incentive for all species is to procreate. He posited that successful mate selection is achieved in two ways: competing with others for the mate you want, or having specific mechanisms for attracting that mate. Robin Thicke and T.I. use both tactics in “Blurred Lines.” They put down the fictitious competition multiple times: Thicke insults the man who wrongly tried to “domesticate” the girl in the song; and both men shamelessly advertise the size of their genitalia.

Our primal, animalistic side comes out in music. For example, there is an obvious science behind the constant male praise of the female butts in music. A certain amount of fat signals that the woman is past puberty, fertile, and able to become pregnant, carry to term, and breastfeed.

It’s even more formulaic than that: It’s not just about the size of the woman’s behind, it’s about its size in proportion to the woman’s waist. Sir Mix-a-Lot confessed that he loved “an itty bitty waist and a round thing [his] face.” And he just couldn’t lie. In Nelly’s song “Ride Wit Me,” he raps, “How could I tell her no? Her measurements were 36-25-34.” It’s unlikely that Nelly actually did the calculations, but the woman he’s describing has a waist-hip ratio (WHR) of .73, precisely in the range that scientists say males find the most attractive, because WHR is “a reliable signal of reproductive age and reproductive capability.”

Daniel Bergner, journalist and author of What Do Women Want?, said that WHR “over and over again” proves to be a factor in sexual attraction, not because men are “mathematically locked in,” but rather because they have cultural preferences. However, the forces of science and culture work simultaneously. Cultural forces, he said, are determined “not by cultural construction, but genetic manifestation.”

Dr. Lionel Tiger,
 professor emeritus of anthropology
 at Rutgers University, feels strongly that “animalistic” is not a helpful word. “The nature of an animal is in its culture.” At the same time, he said, there is nothing wrong with it. “If you’re not animalistic, you’re dead or sedated… We are animals; it’s like accusing someone of being a hominoid.”

And yet, humans can react badly when we’re confronted with our animalism. To be associated with animals has negative connotations.

But there is a fundamental disconnect here. When it comes to sex, in many ways, we are not animalistic at all.

For one thing, unlike almost all other species, we have sex for fun. “In no species besides the human has the purpose of copulation become so unrelated to conception,” Diamond wrote. We have sex month-round, not just when the female is capable of becoming pregnant. Diamond writes that this fact “must be considered freakish by the standards of other mammal species.”

We have concealed ovulation. “The unfortunate human male [unlike a male monkey] has not the faintest idea which ladies around him are ovulating and capable of being fertilized,” Diamond writes. This is part of the reason that human males rely heavily on visual cues for fertility. Tiger said that studies have shown that women actually show more skin during ovulation.

Our copulation sessions last for longer periods of time. Diamond writes that a chimp’s average session is seven seconds. For them, sex is risky: They’re burning up valuable calories, missing out on time to gather food, and are vulnerable to predators (which is perhaps why humans started doing it in private.)

So, Robin Thicke might tell that girl she’s an animal, and, technically speaking, he is correct. But he probably doesn’t need to “liberate” her. We’re past that. We live largely within the powerful 2 percent of genetic coding that makes us “human.” That 2 percent— where we break off from chimps—makes a huge difference when it comes to sex alone.

Uniquely human though we may be, when we use developed, civilized tools, such as language and music, to express our basest instincts, it feels like an uncomfortable irony. That violation, that regression, crossing back over the blurred line, can be frustrating. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, when King Lear learns his beloved daughter Cordelia is dead, he cries, “Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!” Language fails him and he’s reduced to his ultimate primal nature. It’s a particularly riveting, shocking, memorable, and disturbing moment in the play.

We, unlike chimps, have the critical thinking skills that allow us to contemplate this, to interpret songs’ lyrics, debate or be offended by them, and then read an article about it. We have the capability to make the songs in the first place. 

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Laura Dimon is a writer based in New York.

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