CTRL: SZA Has A Musical Epiphany
Why CTRL was an awakening for many listeners
In an album of self-discovery, SZA preaches on the themes of body image and insecurity, femininity, and love. This album is heavy on questioning the societal norms that are placed upon women. The necessity to remain perfect at all times, being complacent or submissive in toxic relationships, and remaining sexually monogamous are all questioned in this come-to-earth album by SZA.
The primordial struggle of being a woman is the strife SZA explores in CTRL. Upon advice from her mother and grandmother throughout the album, she is encouraged to seize control of her life — to put matters into her own hands. The necessity of making your story your own is vital, especially as a woman.
Body Image Issues
Body image is an insecurity referenced throughout CTRL. In her eyes, SZA is inferior compared to the other women her love interests seek. She isn’t pretty enough, her body isn’t shapely enough (obviously not true). To counter this, she feels she has to be incessantly complemented and capture a constant stream of attention. This overcompensation is what ultimately strains the relationship.
This is highlighted in the first song of the album, “Supermodel”. This song is about the infidelity of her lover in Las Vegas on Valentine's Day. As a result, she seeks vengeance and cheats back. SZA is too insecure and needs too much attention for this to be acceptable behavior. Despite being unable to see it herself, she believes that her lover looks long enough, she can be his supermodel — the image of perfection. This is the curse of body image issues; no matter how truly beautiful you are, it’s hard to actually believe that based on what society says you should look like.
Leave me lonely for prettier women
You know I need too much attention for shit like that
You know you wrong for shit like that
I could be your supermodel if you believe
If you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me
In “Drew Barrymore”, SZA is spiteful for not being the “ideal” image of women. Often questioning, “Am I warm enough?” This is a reference to both physical beauty and sexual potency. The unapologetic tone of the song leads to the belief that she is not at all regretful of not being able to meet her lover's (or societal) standards. But at the end of the second verse, she acknowledges it’s not entirely her fault. Karma is coming her lover's way, and that they should collect their soul and get right. There is a tonal shift after the song “Prom” — from regretful to more carefree attitude.
In perhaps the most relatable song of the album, “Normal Girl”, SZA pleads to be seen as a normal girl. To just be the type that can be bragged upon by the lover's friends and family, to be in just a normal relationship with no extraterrestrial expectation and circumstances. She believes that being just normal would increase her chances of finding complacency in not only her relationship but in the way she sees herself — her body image. However, towards the end of the song, SZA says :
“This time next year I’ll be livin’ so good
Won’t remember no pain, I swear
Before that you figured out, that I was just a normal girl”
Coming to the realization that after her fame and fortune that there is really no such thing as “normal” and that she is just a version of normal, herself.
Who Runs the World?
Women, of course!
This is much more specific in “Doves in the Wind”, to be exact — pussy. The message is very straightforward in this song. Women (and pussy) run the world. Almost everything men do, is in the pursuit of sexual relations with women, so as a default women truly run the world. Men, are generally replaceable (“How many times she gotta tell you dick is disposable?”) and are prone to the complex emotionality that their “rubber substitutes” aren’t.
In reference to the popular show “Martin”, “Go Gina” is the prime encouragement to women to keep grinding and moving forward, no matter the circumstance. In “Martin”, Gina is a strict professional, focused mostly on work. Martin would use “Damn Gina” in two different ways. The first, in a manner of criticism, when Gina or Martin would make a mistake. This is how the phrase is referenced in the first half of the song, referring to the work-focused and strictly focused woman. In the second half of the song, “Go Gina” is used as a compliment and encouragement, just as Martin would when his lover was looking fine (Genius).
No Love Lost
In “Pretty Little Birds”, SZA describes herself as a phoenix. Phoenix traditionally continues to rise from the ashes after they have passed on. Apply this trait to the artist after the end of a relationship. No matter how harsh the fall from grace in a relationship is, she will continue to rise and begin to fly like the pretty little bird she is. The phoenix is not the only bird she references in this song. Also referenced is the golden goose from the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale. She wants to be a valuable portion in a relationship (with the giant), so much so, that strangers (Jack) will seek to partake as well. You could argue that the golden goose, solely, makes the relationship valuable. This highlights the improving self-esteem in the artist.
Through an album of heartbreak, low self-esteem, and body image issues, the SZA learns she has intrinsic value with helpful advice from her mother and grandmother. The beauty of music is that we can apply these lessons to ourselves without having to share the experience. Or even if we have had the same experience, we can take comfort in the fact that we are not alone.
P.S. Shout out to one of the strongest women I know, Mom. I love you ❤
Originally published on Medium in Modern Music Analysis