Saturday, March 26, 2005

Musique feminine

I had this idea for a compilation CD of "feminist" music, or at least what some have called feminist anyway. This was one of my track lists, with annotation. When music labelled feminist, it's because it either dignifies female subjectivity (and problems typically classed female), or it presents women who defy cultural stereotypes of femininity (it presents women as aggressive, sexual, funny, etc.). A smaller subset of this music is labelled feminist because it defies what one normally expects of pop music formally and structurally. This is female music that can be made by men (the way Judith Butler argues that gender lebles have little to do with biological sex). Or this music could be likened to the écriture feminine idea of French feminism, where the form the work takes is analgous to some presumptive unique female perspective on experience, to modes of subjectivity specific to women alone (or accessible perhaps to only very special, very feminized poet-men like Mallarmé and Rimbaud who are okayed by Irigaray). This would be disc one:

Roots of la musique féminine

1. Bessie Smith, “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon” (1925)

Bessie Smith is allegedly the first recorded female blues singer, notable also because she wrote a great deal of material for herself. She unapolegtically sings from the female point of view with undeniable emotional authority in a time when much music sung by women made women seem significant only in their availability as love objects or in their childlike dependence on male financial and emotional support. Women singers sang to tempt and tittilate men and incite their pleasure. Bessie Smith, in her songs about sex, sings viscerally about procuring her own pleasure. In this, Bessie Smith is hardly unique among blues singers; and any of her successors (Lucille Bogan, Odetta, Big Mama Thornton, Nina Simone, etc.) could be included. She is the first, though.

2. Billie Holiday, “Trav’lin’ All Alone” (1937)

Another of Bessie Smith’s successors, Holiday is female blues singer whose work is most likely to pop up in a teenager’s collection. She achieved iconic status probably because her life as was notorious and self-destructive as her talent was transcendent. Critics primarily champion her earlier work, Tin Pan Alley songs she invested with unlikely emotional depth through sheer vocal technique. Her popular success came later, on songs “God Bless the Child,” and “Strange Fruit,” where her voice is cracked and mannered, ravaged, but thereby more easily able to communicate unambiguous sentiment. The lyrical content of most of the songs she recorded were standard appeals for or celebrations of heterosexual love, but a knowing irony lurking in her renditions always seemed to undermine it.

3. Peggy Lee, “Why Don’t You Do Right (Get me some money too)” (1948)

Peggy Lee has a reputation for being a risqué popular singer, a sort of anti Doris Day. She recorded songs that were overtly sexual and clearly articulated undeniable and unembarrassed female desire, as on her most famous hit, “Fever”. But her career started with her absorbing Billie Holiday’s influence while singing with Benny Goodman’s band. Later she abandoned the big bands, and became, like Frank Sinatra, one of the first vocalists to “go solo.” She wrote many of her hits in the '40s and was involved in the construction of her own image in the media, which makes her a proto-Madonna. This song was her breakthrough hit with Goodman’s band. It showcases a feistiness that often earns the “proto-feminist” label, probably because anything critical coming out of a woman’s mouth tends to be labelled that way. I think one has to read this song as ironic in order to call it feminist; one must see her mocking this gold-digger stereotype. Anyway it embodies an un-self-conscious right to be demanding in a way that didn’t also connote weakness.

4. Leslie Gore, “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

This feminist anthem speaks for itself. Gore also had a big hit with “It’s My Party” (and I’ll cry if I want to, etc.). She had a “bratty” image because she comes across in her music as resistant and assertive. Some of this song’s potency has been lost through its trivialization by Hollywood, which loves to use it in “women’s movies” like The First Wives Club. It certainly retains more of its power than Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” which is awfully corny in its eagerness to exploit the '70s women’s lib movement. That song neutralizes and trivializes the power of that movement by containing it in that trite music, sending the message that the establishment was now "with it," too, and that all was okay, because the fight for women's rights had clearly already been won if this could be on the radio.

5. Joan Baez, “Pretty Boy Floyd” (1963)

I don’t care much for Baez’s academic folk music, or her preternatural, pitch-perfect voice, but she merits inclusion because she is one of the first examples of a female pop musician taken seriously for her intellect. Much was made of her crazy voice, but much was made also of her impeccable taste in blues and folk and of her innovative renderings of this material, which amount to scholarly presentations and academic arguments for new ways to understand it. Her influence on Bob Dylan is widely noted, and her mark is all over serious female singer-songwriter types – most notably Joni Mitchell.

6. Janis Joplin, “Kozmic Blues” (1969)

According to her bio on, Joplin “did much to redefine the role of women in rock with her assertive, sexually forthright persona and raunchy, electrifying onstage presence.” She certainly didn’t make it on her looks: Leonard Cohen summed the situation when he sang of himself and Joplin, “we are ugly, but we have the music.” Joplin belts out her songs without restraint, which is what qualifies her in the eyes of some as a groundbreaking woman artist – it certainly makes a marked contrast with Joan Baez. This same lack of restraint may also explain her death by drug overdose in 1970.

7. Nico, “Frozen Warnings” (1969)

Nico’s music is usually described as “uncompromising,” a quality that anticipates most directly the music I'll call la musique féminine, music analgous to the écriture féminine in that its very form constitutes (allegedly) some sort of essential femaleness. Nico wasn’t operating within that theoretical context as her successors would be, but her music presents many of the later music’s hallmarks: Her monotone singing voice would be widely adopted, often to the point where native English speakers would mimic her European accent; the atonal screeching of the instrumentation would also figure largely, as would the intensity developed through echoey, repetitious, swirling melodic figures. The lack of any steady driving rhythm or traditional popular-song structure completes the recipe that would later produce the Raincoats and LiLiput. Nico first became famous for her cameo in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and had a career as a fashion model in the early '60s. Perhaps because she was so striking and lacked any apparent talent for singing, Warhol recruited her to sing for the Velvet Underground, who basically invented the concept avant-garde/art rock music. After releasing solo albums of inpenetrable remoteness, she solidfied her image as some kind of ice goddess, whose recorded output stands as an ineffable monument to "female mystery".

8. Joni Mitchell, “California” (1971)

Joni Mitchell wrote some peace anthems and sing alongs for the Woodstockers before she became the introspective singer/songwriter who produced the album from which this song is taken, Blue. Here she analyzes the vagaries of heterosexual relationships from the female point of view, and takes herself to task repeatedly for not being able to live up her standard of individual freedom. The need for love, familiarity, and stability always seem to drag her back. This appears in her songs as the quintessential problem for modern women, and by voicing the tension so clearly, Mitchell seems to become a spokesperson for them. After having made a series of albums that were so closely identified with female point of view, she would abandon this sort of introspective music and gender as a defining characteristic to pursue an interest in gender neutral avant-garde jazz fusion. Here's what has to say about her: “Fiercely independent, her work steadfastly resisted the whims of both mainstream audiences and the male-dominated recording industry.” A trend begins to develop: feminist music is almost by definition anti-commercial, “uncompromising,” and unpopular with mainstream audiences.

9. The Shaggs, “Sweet thing,” “My Pal Foot Foot” (1969)

Music doesn’t get any more uncompromising or uncommercial than this. The Shaggs are legendary. Encouraged (forced) by their father to form a group, the teenage Wiggins sisters were driven into a recording studio with instruments they could barely play to make an album of all original songs. The result, Philosophy of the World, has been lauded by some as a work of pure, uncompromised genius and has been deemed by others a tragic souvenir of a peculiar form of childhood torment. The Shaggs are important to the idea of musique féminine because of their myth: Music made by women would presumably sound like this if it were completely free from outside influence (the myth is that the Wiggins sisters were these perfect naïve artists). Without any indoctrination into Western (phallologocentric) musical standards, the Shaggs create their own rules, rejecting fundamental ideas about music such as consistent tempo and key. They defy the idea of counterpoising melodies by having the vocal melody match that of the guitar, note for atonal note. They do away with traditional harmony altogether, creating raga-ish dischord. None of this has anything to do with the logic and mathematics that underpin traditional Western music, so it can be hailed as beautiful on its own radical terms, the terms French feminists celebrate, the irrational, the messy, and the abject, the circular and self-referential, the spatially (rather than linearally) repetitive. (I am particularly fond of the drumming, which is completely chaotic but compelling in the way it adheres to its own arhthymic patterns.) One can’t help but notice the similarity between this music and music made by later iconclasts who viewed their lack of musical training as a positive advantage. I don’t think you can listen to the Raincoats without hearing echoes of this music. But the Shaggs remain much more radical. The lack of steady tempo, the off-key singing, the rambling unbounded song structures; all of this will turn up in the consciously radical female music of the late '70s and '80s.

10. Patti Smith, “Gloria” (1975)

Patti Smith’s idea of concept art, and it remains radical, was to invert the typically masculine codes of rock music and make them express an androgynous, bisexual sensiblity. To say she defied stereotypes understates her accomplishment. She took rock standards like "Gloria" and opened them up to the inclusion of her poetry, which seems to have something to do with gender, but I can’t really tell. She was the first woman to play punk rock, possibly the first person of any gender to play punk rock. Her debut album, Horses, is one of the best rock albums of any genre. Her work, like Nico’s, establishes the precedent of including inscrutable poetry as a marker of female music. Her butch image also becomes a kind of standard for the defiant female musicians who follow in her wake – she makes rejection of codes of feminine appearance an important aspect of the serious woman rocker.

11. The Pretenders, “Precious” (1980)

Chrissie Hynde certainly owes a lot to Patti Smith: She adopts a lot of her look and attitude from Smith’s early work. Around this time critics were beginning to recognizing women such as Hynde as feminist in their intent. The lyrics she wrote for the first Pretenders album are usually championed for their uncompromising female point of view and for embracing rightous female anger – the usual things really that critics never tire of pointing out, things that just never seem to fail to surprise mainstream Americans – women can be angry? women can desire sex? women can curse? women can reject heterosexual love as the end all and be all of existence? Shocking! Critics also like to point to a vulnerability underneath Hynde’s tough veneer, which seems particularly patronizing. Vulnerability and toughness are not necessarily opposites. In fact, their coexistence may define one of the most piquant qualities of la musique féminine. What does it mean for music to be vulnerable? A willingness to risk being labelled incompetent, uncommercial, non-conformist, unfeminine in a society where those things are not negligible sacrifices?

12. The Roches, “Pretty and High” (1979)

The queens of dork folk, the Roches are not unlike the Shaggs in that they are three sisters who harmonize in unconventional ways and sing quirky songs about unexpected topics. I find it all pretty annoying, which I figure means that it is working the way it is supposed to, alienating my male consciousness. This is how I feel about Ani DiFranco, so I suspect the Roches are one of her influences. There is a tendency toward histrionics in this music that many associate with music by and for women. I hope they are not right in that association.

Disc two later ...

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