Silk Sonic and the slippery case of retro-misogyny

Silk Sonic have enamoured the world with their throwback soul and funk, but how much are they in on the joke of their own antiquated sexism? For this week's Subtweets, Jenessa Williams digs into the potential perils of adopting such a complete pastiche.

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Ever experienced love at first listen? When I first heard Silk Sonic’s ‘Leave The Door Open’ in March, I was convinced that I had heard the song of the year. From the little ad-libs (“scoot scoot”) to the hyper-dramatic harmonies (“tell me when you’re coming thruuuuuuuu”), it all seemed knowingly extra, designed for listening in velvet robes as you kiss the hands of imaginary women fawning at the front of your show in 1970s New York. Calling to mind ‘Coming to America’s SoulGlo, James Brown being fanned back to life by his backing dancers and SoulTrain out on Broadway, it was extravagant, indulgent and ridiculous, and exactly what we needed to kickstart 2021. Now nominated for a Grammy, it was a light amidst serious gloom.

I love the silliness of Silk Sonic, but also the sincerity. A long-term in-joke of Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak. since touring together in 2017, it really feels like a loving ode to the funk and soul of the sixties and seventies, an era of enigmatic megastars belting out heartbroken and lovestruck hits. Bringing in the expertise of bonafide Parliament-Funkadelic legend Bootsy Collins and adopting era-specific instrumentation for the recording, their passion for the project as a celebration of Black culture is clear, bolstered by a very genuine friendship. In Bruno Mars’ case especially, Silk Sonic offers an opportunity to sing in a way he maybe hasn’t before. Across all their various ward show performances and music, both looks and vibes have been immaculate, a celebration of rare showmanship.  

Of course, some things from that era do deserve to be left in the past. The sixties and seventies were rife with open misogyny and abuse, driving a significant wedge between powerful artists and the lyrical women they spoke so dismissively of. Though I instantly took to ‘Leave The Door Open’ and ‘Skate’, Silk Sonic’s third single, ‘Smoking Out The Window’ presented more of a conundrum. A damning lament of a trifling woman not dissimilar to the narrative of Drake’s ‘Child’s Play’, the instrumentation is spot on, but the lyrics present an eye-rolling tale, begging the question of exactly how thoroughly they needed to pay homage to yesteryear.

“Must’ve spent thirty-five

Forty-five thousand up in Tiffany’s (oh, no)

Got her badass kids runnin’ ’round my whole crib

Like it’s Chuck E. Cheese (whoa, whoa)…

This bitch got me payin’ her rent, payin’ for trips

Diamonds on her neck, diamonds on her wrist

And here I am all alone (all alone), uh…

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You got me out here

Smokin’ out the window (smokin’ out the window)

Singin’, “How could she do this to me?”

(How could she do this to me?)

Oh, I thought that girl belonged to only me (mmh)

But I was wrong

‘Cause she belong to everybody”

Of course, no male artist is obligated to only say nice things about women in their songs. I am quite certain that both Mars and Paak have experienced or at least witnessed their fair share of romantic trials and tribulations, and have made a light-hearted song where they’ve been able to laugh about it. And yet there is something in the use of the word ‘bitch’ that feels particularly stark from a duo who previously seemed to be specifically, lovingly curating their brand for an audience of women. ‘Smoking…’ does come across a little better in the context of the album, and the video does suggest a degree of self-deprecation (see Paak.’s dramatic keel over as he professes how he “wants to die”, the moment that has launched a thousand TikToks), but nonetheless, it still really breaks their fourth-wall, tying in neither with their inspirational era nor that of progressive 2021. 

Given that so much of Silk Sonic’s presentation is clearly presented with a wink, I have been left curious whether ‘Smoking Out The Window’ is meant to be a joke. Perhaps by creating such a self-lamenting song, they are actually making a deeper point about lyrical misogyny, mocking the ‘golddigger’ trope that has existed for so many decades. It’s distinctly possible – both are smart guys, and Anderson Paak. in particular has been known for his sociopolitical observation, not afraid to wade into difficult topics. And yet without wider corroboration (the group haven’t done many interviews and any they have done haven’t addressed misogyny) it’s difficult to know if that reading might be giving them too much credit.  In our current climate, it’s become especially tricky to really speculate on an artist’s true intention, to assume goodness in areas they might not have even thought about.

If and when Silk Sonic come to the UK, there’s a big part of me that would love to turn my critical faculties off for the night. I’d love to book tickets to their show for my Hen Do, to wear a fancy outfit and scream along and throw roses (or indeed knickers) at the stage, paying my own homage to the ‘good old days’ of fandom. And yet there’s also a big part of me that feels disappointed, like a project of fun and frivolity has been tainted by yet another reminder that casual misogyny really is still entrenched in popular music. 

Anderson Paak. and Bruno Mars are very far from being the worst offenders, but with Silk Sonic, they have real potential to hold the hands of the women in the front row in solidarity rather than objectification, to make a point about the legitimisation of fangirls and to right some of the power imbalances of older generations of funk and soul. There’s still time for them to do it — with the right staging, some more interviews, I feel like they can. Until then, I’ll be waiting. Not with expectation, but certainly with some old-fashioned RnB hope.