From 'Lemon Incest' to Prince's 'Sister', songs that make you wonder, 'What were they thinking?'

Kuzhali Manickavel

Dec 10, 2019 09:36:12 IST

'Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

Read more from the series here.


In an effort to be refreshing and exciting, we have decided to whine about something completely different in this column — “Western” songs! How problematic can a “Western” song be? Like “Eastern”, “Northern” and “Southern” songs, “Western” songs can sometimes be pretty problematic! And guess what! There are so many problematic songs! One could dedicate an entire series of columns just to songs written about having sex with underage girls. But that’s not all! There are songs about incest! Violence! Murder! Homophobia! Racism! These songs are a veritable cornucopia of problematic awesomeness!

Strangely, these are also songs that many of us tend to forget or just haven’t heard about. Which is weird, right? I mean, you think you’d remember or at least hear about a song where some old dude sings about seducing a 13-year-old. Then again, there are a lot of these kinds of songs. Like, a LOT. In this column, we’re going to touch on just a handful of some of the more what-the-heck
songs that somehow got written, performed, recorded, produced and distributed without anyone saying, 'Hey, maybe this isn’t a good idea'.

Ready? I’m totally not ready for this. Ok.

Songs about incest

There are a lot of songs out there about incest. Why? I don’t know! Granted, there are those songs which just use incest for the shock value — SO COOL! But for me, there are two songs which sort of stand out, just in terms of ‘wow that was really uncomfortable, let’s not do that again’. The first is 'Sister' by The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (TAFKAP). Unlike many songs about incest, which try to be coy and vague about their subject matter, TAFKAP is uncomfortably direct.

 From Lemon Incest to Princes Sister, songs that make you wonder, What were they thinking?

Prince's 'Sister' starts with ‘I was only 16, but I guess that's no excuse/ My sister was 32, lovely and loose’. YouTube screengrab

The song starts with ‘I was only 16, but I guess that's no excuse/ My sister was 32, lovely and loose’. The rest of the song is equally, if not more uncomfortable. While the incest angle is bad enough, there is something really horrible about the age discrepancy, which makes this seem more like abuse than anything else (pro tip: if you can’t see how this could be abuse because it’s a dude, switch the genders so the 16-year-old is a girl and the 32-year-old is a man. TA-DA!)

Some people say the song is autobiographical, others say it isn’t, and TAFKAP never really clarified things either way. To make matters even more awkward, the song is an absolute bop, a great new-wave funk song that showcases TAFKAP at his best. Which makes it great to jam to, until you remember what the song is about. Then you just feel gross.

My second song isn’t as direct — in fact, it has gained most, if not all of its mileage, by sitting on the fence and letting innuendo do the rest. The song is called 'Lemon Incest' and was written by Serge Gainsbourg, one of France’s greatest popular musicians. I freely admit that I don’t really understand his music or appeal. So as a heathen, I guess the best way to talk about this song is to
just describe it.

It is sung by Gainsbourg and his daughter Charlotte, who was 12 at the time. Some of the lyrics go like this — ‘I love you more than anything (Daddy daddy)/The love we’ll never make together/ Is the most beautiful, the rarest, the most disconcerting/The purest, the headiest’. In the video, father and daughter are lying on a bed, daughter wearing a man’s shirt and panties while her father is shirtless, wearing a pair of jeans. Oh, and there’s a chorus that keeps singing ‘lemon incest’ rather cheerfully in the background. And Charlotte’s vocals are incredibly breathy for some reason.

I know what you’re thinking — yeah, but does all that mean it’s problematic? For the record, both Gainsbourg and his daughter have said the song wasn’t about incest. So I guess it’s cool then.

I do believe that is enough incest for one day. In our next column, we will explore other allegedly problematic numbers that deal with topics like racism and behaving inappropriately with underage girls!

Read part 2 of this column.

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

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Updated Date: Dec 11, 2019 10:00:52 IST