In "You're All I Need To Get By," one of the top rhythm and blues singles of the 1960s, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell pledged that they would love each other forever and ever and ever.
Maybe that sentiment is too sappy for today's youth. But I prefer Marvin and Tammi's syrup to the vulgar lyrics of an updated version by Method Man and M.J. Bilge.
Their song, "I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need To Get By" was the top rap single in the nation last week, and No. 3 on the R&B; charts, according to Billboard magazine.
While a group sings Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's classic in the background, Method Man chants his idea of modern romance, including, "My ladies, we can make war or make babies."
This is the radio version. Most of the lyrics from the uncensored album, the one available in stores, are too obscene to be reprinted or even paraphrased.
In another of last week's top songs, Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me," the female lead sings, "It's all about the dog in me. I don't care what they say, I want to freak in the morning, freak in the evening. I need a rough-neck [man] that can satisfy me." This song was No. 3 last week, after 15 weeks on the R&B; charts.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. The explicit lyrics, sexual vulgarity and out-and-out hostility to women that permeates today's top R&B; songs raise a lot of questions for me. But first and foremost, I'd like to know how and why young black women tolerate it. I would think that even relatively immature teen-age girls would be offended by the way they are portrayed in the music.
"A lot of us are offended," says Kiu Eubanks. "But whether we are offended or not, if that's the music that is projected as the thing to listen to, many women prefer to keep their feelings to themselves and go along. The vulgarity and the hostility to women is so pervasive in the music that many women feel they don't have any choice."
Ms. Eubanks is 17 years old and a senior at Park School in Baltimore County. Intelligent and self-assured, she'll be going to college in the fall to work toward a doctorate in psychology. Many of her friends are equally ambitious. One plans a career in sports medicine. Another hopes to be a doctor.
Nevertheless, Ms. Eubanks and her friends are assailed by the overt misogyny in R&B; and hip hop music. She says many young black women feel powerless to combat it.
I spoke with Kiu Eubanks about urban contemporary music in an attempt to get answers to a larger question: Who controls the image of black America?
I believe that image is as negative and as stereotypical as ever, despite three decades of breathtaking progress in civil rights. (I'll examine this question from different perspectives in future columns.)
Meanwhile, Ms. Eubanks' disdain seemed to confirm my theory. The top R&B; and hip hop songs on Billboard's hit charts last week were more likely to be about sex than about romance. And they were more likely to be from a man's perspective. "I don't listen to it. I don't support it. I don't play it. I don't allow it to be played around me," she says of the most overtly vulgar songs. But, "For a lot of young women, it's a question of self-respect," she says. "Women are not told they have a right to stand up and protest."
Ms. Eubanks says that many teens do not have contact with successful black women. And the successful women they do see are sending a message -- perhaps unwittingly -- that their achievements have a cost.
"You hear a lot of black women in their 40s complaining that they cannot find a black man with similar accomplishments. So, a lot of young women may feel they cannot afford to speak out against the music. They don't want to end up alone."
But young black women pay a heavy price when they submit to insulting characterizations in the media. One price is a lack of respect from young black men.
Some people argue that urban contemporary music has been criticized unfairly for its hostile view of women. I fear that perhaps we have been too kind. Because we tolerate the work of people like M.J. Bilge and Method Man, or make excuses for it, many young black women feel isolated and undefended.