Lena Dunham bashed Justin Bieber’s new single “What Do You Mean?” in a tweet she posted on Monday, making it clear she thinks the lyrics send mixed messages about consent. But has she misunderstood the song?
“What Do You Mean?” is the brand new jam from the returning Prince of pop. He performed it live for the first time at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards on August 30, to a standing ovation in Los Angeles when he broke down in tears onstage.
Although Bieber isn’t mentioned directly in Dunham’s tweet (posted on August 31), the Girls creator/lead posted her tweet the day after Bieber’s VMAs spot. She also quoted one of the lyrics from his new song. So, it’s evident that she was subtweeting the pop star.
Dunham tweeted, “Let’s do away with pop songs where a girl nods yes when she means no and vice versa, k?”
Let's do away with pop songs where a girl nods yes when she means no and vice versa, k?
— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) August 31, 2015
The actress-comedian is referring to the repeated line in Bieber’s new track which asks, “What do you mean? / When you nod your head yes but you wanna say no / What do you mean?”
Heavy stuff. But is it right to throw that associative weight at Bieber’s new single, which, if looked at as a whole, is about a guy trying to understand what his indecisive girlfriend really wants and feels?
In regard to the specific line that Dunham cited (“What Do You Mean? / When you nod your head yes but you wanna say no / What do you mean?”), it’s hard to see what her problem is. The line illustrates Bieber asking a girl he is in a relationship with, to clarify whether her verbalized “yes” is authentic, as he senses the opposite is the case.
In this scenario, Bieber’s song character isn’t charging in feet first to something even though a “yes” has been given. He is asking for clarification that he is reading his partner correctly. The same applies to the lyric, “When you don’t want me to move but you tell me to go / What do you mean?”
In fact, the entire lyric of “What Do You Mean?” reads as Bieber’s attempt to communicate clearly with his girl. And it should be abundantly clear to most people that Bieber is not condoning sexual assault of any kind.
Whether Bieber’s lyric refers to two people in a sexual situation, or (just as an example) was about him checking to see if his girlfriend really does want the Chinese food they just ordered in and not the Italian they usually get — his single addresses the topic of relationship miscommunication rather than the issue of consent.
For those who do think Bieber’s song is about consent, MTV’s Franchesca Ramsey, host of the network’s Decoded webseries, thinks that “What Do You Mean?” is a “consent anthem” and offers a sensible take on Bieber’s song.
“It’s all about Justin talking to this indecisive girl: are we doing this, are we not doing this? Are you into me, are you not into me?” she says.
Ramsey continues, “And at first I was like, uh, is this ‘Blurred Lines 2.0’? But after listening to the lyrics, it’s actually the complete opposite.”
Explaining, added, “Bieber is actually checking in with his partner, making sure everyone’s on the same page and cool with everything that’s going on. Relationships are complicated.”
“It’s OK to ask if you can move forward, it’s OK to say no, it’s OK to have apprehensions! Just starting the question, the conversation is really awesome!”
In a July interview with Ryan Seacrest, Justin was asked what his new single was about. “Girls are often flip-floppy,” the singer replied. “They say something, and then they mean something else. ‘What do you mean?’… I don’t really know, that’s why I’m asking.'”
At the time, entertainment media, Bieber’s fans, and fans of his ex-girlfriend, Selena Gomez, wondered whether the Biebs was talking about his famously on-again-off-again relationship with Gomez. The two began dating in 2010. But after their first split in 2012, they continued to split and reunite over the next two years before seemingly breaking up for good last September.
Last December, US Weekly magazine reported a source said Gomez got emotional over Bieber while at pal Taylor Swift’s birthday party in New York. The Disney alum reportedly shouted, “No one understands me! My boyfriend doesn’t even understand me,” in front of bystanders including singer Sam Smith, who “just stared [at her].”
It’s no stretch to speculate that the “Jelena” relationship was stressful. Gomez recently said this was also down to the pressures of media and paparazzi scrutiny. Because of the implied nuances in Gomez’s “The Heart Wants What It Wants,” it has been assumed by many that her and Bieber’s break-ups were always about alleged cheating. But what if miscommunication, not getting on, and external pressures were the main reasons?
And that’s the point that Lena Dunham misses about Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” Even though the singer hasn’t publicly said his new song is about Gomez, this much is clear: It is an autobiographical song about a consensual relationship with a girl (or girls) that he found confusing.
There’s nothing wrong with Bieber singing about his personal experience. And if Dunham is saying that he cannot write about his own life, such censoring sits at odds with the generations of artists who have done so. Indeed Dunham’s own show Girls, which is known for gratuitous nudity, wouldn’t exist without freedom of expression.
[Images via WENN]