thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

A Thursday Survey: What Gives, Girls?

In feminism, gender, girl culture, Girls, music videos on September 20, 2012 at 8:46 am

Chelsea H.

Yesterday as I drove into the parking lot at work, Pat Benatar’s growly, joyfully combative “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” was playing on my Subaru’s radio. I sang along, rejoicing in her toughness, knowing this comes out of a tiny, petite woman whose lungs must take up 45% of her insides, until I got to this line: “Before I put another notch in my lipstick case / You better make sure you put me in my place / Hit me with your best shot…” I stopped singing. Here I was, barely conscious of my feeling that this was a female emancipation kind of song, and then this line. And I know, she’s being facetious – she really thinks his best shot is going to miss, or deflect off of her amazing woman armor – but it still bothered me. “Try your best to make me act like the demure, fragile, modest little woman your interpretation of society demands I be.” What kind of message is that?!

Crimes of Passion Album Cover, courtesy of Wikipedia

I turned off the radio. Somehow, for all the years I’d been listening to that song, I hadn’t thought about the fact that it was about a woman’s relationship with a man. As I’d applied it to my own life, singing along, I had been sing/yelling to job interviews, to tough days looming before me, to challenging classes, to physical labor, but never to a man. It bothered me that this powerful voice was consumed by her relationship: not only “Hit Me,” but “Love is a Battlefield,” “Heartbreaker,” and “We Belong.”

As the day progressed, I found myself continually coming back to this dilemma: I can instantly call up dozens of songs sung by men which are NOT about their romantic relationships: songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Green Day, Michael Jackson, Boston, Chicago, Blitzen Trapper, Steve Miller Band, Audioslave, Nirvana, the Monkees, Journey, Pearl Jam, Johnny Cash, Guns ‘N Roses, Billy Joel, even Neil Diamond, amidst “Sweet Caroline,” “Desiree” and “Cracklin’ Rosie,” has “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.”

But when I tried to do the same for women, I could only come up with a few (apologies for the ads that lead into some of these videos):

Amy Winehouse’s brilliant, stubborn throwback anthem “Rehab,”

Carole King’s “Smackwater Jack,”

maybe Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” which, though it’s not about a romantic relationship, is a story of a woman dependent upon a male figure (no offense meant, of course, I’m certainly not critiquing having a relationship with God, only pointing out how prevalent this theme is).

Four Non Blonde’s “What’s Up,” which was always one of my favorites in high school, seems to fit this short list (also, how awesome and 90s are their outfits?!) .

Of course there are also the smaller number of songs by women about women, like Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and, though it’s not terrifically explicit (and though it admittedly deals with deeper, more complex issues), Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” but these still fall into the theme of women singing about their relationships.

And I’m not saying this trope doesn’t appear in songs by men. There are plenty of male singers whose songs tell the story of relationships with women. It’s just that there are so many that don’t.

So here are my two questions:

  1. Ladies, why do we do this? Don’t we have other, equally important things to sing about? Why are we so focused, as musical artists, on the men in, out, and around our lives? Is it that women are singing songs written by men, or is it that women’s songs about men sell better? Is it that these are “safe” subject matter and therefore more playable? Why aren’t we singing about the other parts of our lives – the parts that are not longing for, begging for, dependent on, or grieving over men?
  2. I’m sure I’m missing some – after all, I’ve only thought about this for a day or two – and I want to be wrong about this. What other songs are out there sung by women (and not just covers of songs originally sung by men) that are not about their relationships with men? Let’s make a list. Let’s make a big list, if we can, and prove me wrong.
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  1. Lady rappers definitely defy this pattern with frequency! Iggy’s “Murda Bizness,” Nikki’s “I’m the Best” & “Roman’s Revenge,” Azealia’s “Jumanji” & “212,” Lil’ Kim’s “No Matter What They Say,” Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First,” and so many more :-) But I am going to have to put on my thinking cap to come up with more pop songs by female artists that aren’t about love…

    • I wonder if it has something to do with music genre? I admit almost complete ignorance with rap music, but I’m glad to hear these ladies are breaking the pattern.

  2. Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” both fall into a self-focus/non-relationship category for me. Country-wise, “Harper Valley PTA” and “9 to 5.” For all of her “You Oughta Know,” Alanis Morissette started offering some different stuff with that “Thank You India” jam and I guess her more recent stuff is also awesome and not just angry-girlfriend. Fiona Apple and Tori Amos, for all their slow-burners about men, both offered some songs that weren’t explicitly about men (Amos more than Apple, probably). There’s some punk/rock out there– Brody Dalle of the Distillers wrote/sang songs that bucked the relationship trend (“City of Angels”). It is *definitely* harder to come up with these exceptions, though, and I think that it requires moving outside of the hit singles and more popular genres/albums.

    Even with a few of those, I’m thinking “Beautiful” is a great example, that aren’t explicitly about a man or a relationship, there’s still a deeply-ingrained dynamic of social expectations of women. Tori Amos had a song called “Playboy Mommy” that was all mother/daughter dynamics as I remember, but there was a big storm of man-clouds hovering around every edge of the song.

    • These are great, thanks. Also, “big storm of man-clouds hovering around every edge of the song” is the greatest phrase I’ve read or heard today. And it captures well another dimension I was trying to think of how to phrase: even though some songs might not explicitly mention romance, the body image or male-dominated social expectations motif in women’s songs does seem related as well. Men aren’t really singing about how they need to look better or raise their self-confidence (at least not in any examples I can think of).

      • Regarding the songs by men that don’t seem to be fretting about romance/appearance in relation to women, I think that some of the examples that came to mind with the male singers and bands you listed earlier made me wonder about the presence of story/place/concept songs by women in popular culture. It’s just a lot harder to find them.

        I’ve been a little more obsessed than usual with the Bechdel Test and tv/movies– this seems like a musical application of sorts.

        (This is Allison Bray, btw)

  3. Ani DiFranco (“Not a Pretty Girl”) has lots of songs that aren’t about relationships. Tori Amos is a great example. Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Maybe Florence and the Machine, “Dog Days Are Over” (depending on how you want to interpret). Garbage, “I’m Only Happy When It Rains.” Poe, “Can’t Talk to a Psycho (Like a Normal Human Being).” Indigo Girls have lots. Regina Spektor has several including “On the Radio” and “All the Rowboats.”

    Fwiw, tho, I take your point and clearly felt it important to rise to your challenge. :)

    • Ah, blast, I thought of Florence on the way home yesterday, specifically this song, and then forgot. But in reviewing the lyrics again, as you say, I do think there’s a way it could be interpreted as a woman’s return to the comfort of her family after the heartbreak of an ended relationship.
      I don’t know Spektor or Amos as well, but I hadn’t thought of Cyndi Lauper and it makes me think of another of my own: Madonna’s “Vogue”!
      Even that, though, seems to potentially play into the topic PocoPuffs brings up in her comment above – that even when women’s songs aren’t specifically about a romantic entanglement, they often operate around the periphery of what men think and how important they are to women’s lives.
      I’m glad you thought of so many examples that defy this irritating “norm.”

  4. 1. From the moment we’re born we’re positioned and encouraged to position ourselves as relational beings in order to be feminine, whereas men are positioned and encouraged to position themselves as autonomous beings in order to be masculine. To me, it’s that simple.

    2. That said, there are plenty of women who are writers who don’t (only) write about relationships with men. Just a few of the more mainstream ones I came up with:

    M.I.A, Pull up the People (and loads of others too probably)
    Kirsty Maccoll, Walking Down Madison
    Kate Bush, Rubberband Girl, Army Dreamers etc.
    Belly, Feed the Tree
    Throwing Muses, Dizzy
    Bjork, Human Behaviour, Heirloom

  5. Well, I think a lot of it is that people write about the things in their life, and unfortunately, since our society pressures women to care about romance and partners above and beyond anything (themselves included), it shows. But beyond that, even women who are much more independent are working on breaking the mold of a world where women used to be terribly dependent, and they’re fighting to succeed in a world of male-dominated expectations. That means that even the most independent are living in the shadow of that. Which means that men are still an ever-present concern, even if they’re not the center of their lives. Like the woman above me mentions, men grow up learning to be independent. Even the women that grow up learning that as well also have to learn that they will often be expected to not be and that they’ll have to fight that. So men are an important topic no matter what, because they have a place in that independence. They’re a big, influential part of a woman’s world, even if the women aren’t falling over themselves for them.

    I don’t listen to enough female artists to have a comprehensive list, but the ones I can think of:

    -Bad Reputation, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (depending on what you think she’s referring to by her “bad reputation” – debatable)
    -P!nk has a few
    -The Best Day – Taylor Swift (song written for her mom; I think she has one for her little brother too, and although he happens to be male, I don’t think that really counts in the same way)

    Another thought is that there could be plenty more women who are singing about other things, but who aren’t the ones who make it. Unfortunately the recording industry is largely male-dominated, and also often push artists of any gender in specific directions into specific molds. Maybe women do it because they feel like they have to. There’s that song “Not Gonna Write You a Love Song” that is by Sara Bereilles that is basically about refusing to write a love song when that’s not what is going on in her life just because the industry tells her that’s the only way to be successful. Incidentally, she doesn’t seem to have been very successful other than that song.

    Also, I don’t think there’s any guarantee that Fast Car isn’t about a man. I know Tracy Chapman is a lesbian, but in the story of that song, she and her partner do have children. I think a better example from her is Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.

  6. Such a great discussion! I was thinking about the post and wondered … Sarah T. wrote about confessional blogging a while back (http://girlslikegiants.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/true-confessions-dangerous-minds/ but then also here http://girlslikegiants.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/an-interview-with-dodie-bellamy/) and talked about how those feminist writers were political in that they were making the personal public and political. I just wondered if that could be applied here too?

    But then also, I just wondered if Tracy Chapman or Melissa Ethridge or someone like Ani DiFranco belong in this same group (as like Katie Perry, Pat Benetar, etc) because it seems to me that for each of them, singing about the love for another women and their relationships is actually really political and community building and potentially poses a threat to the brand of patriarchy that is perpetuated by the songs you talk about … Anyway, hope that makes some sense. That’s all!

  7. Phoebe, I agree with you about the tweak to “relationship” songs that are about women. One thing I like about Ani is that, since she’s bi-sexual, she often sings songs without any gendered pronouns or markers for the “you” so it’s ambiguous/open whether it’s about a man or a woman.

  8. Thanks, GLG. This is just what I needed to read today. I spent the past hour having a semi-weepy conversation with my mom on the phone, trying to figure out where the social pressure for women to focus on relationships stems from. All I know is that it is still a huge presence in our lives, and could get all theory-crazy about the ways that we participate in Foucaultian networks of self-disciplining in terms of relationships, but I will try to rein it in. I think there is, as many commenters pointed out, a still-existing, insidious social pressure for women to tie their happiness and social success to romantic relationships to an extent that men don’t face. I think they face their own relational challenges, in that they face social pressure to disengage and assert their independence, denying any desire towards intimacy. But I think present-day women are in the particularly strange bind of feeling torn between, on the one hand, adapting this “masculine” mode of relationships (I am alone and independent and hence okay!) and, on the other hand, feeling inadequate if they are not romantically involved. This trend has cropped up in the GLG comments before: women on both sides feeling as though they have somehow failed, because they are contradictory demands women are asked to meet and it is confusing. (Does that make sense? Women are supposed to at once be in successful romantic/sexual relationships AND at the same time to be totally independent. Of course this is a confusing set of mixed mandates).

    I think that overarching omnipresence of relationship-pressure gets reflected in women artists’ focus on relationships, so even songs like “Dog Days” or “Shake it Off” by Florence and the Machine (two of my favorites!) strike me as songs that are celebrating a unique break from romantic pressure. I see a similar paradox in some hip-hop songs, as the Crunk Feminist Collective documented so beautifully in their series of articles on the “down ass chick” – women that are supposed to be independent but not TOO independent, so you get songs like Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” or Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” or “Run the World [Girls]” that are defiantly anti-relationship (I’m not in one! I’m not! I’m not!) I actually find such songs so interesting because they’re navigating what it means to deal with this weird middle land. [http://crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/the-evolution-of-a-down-ass-chick/]

    But anyway, in response to your request for songs that are not in these muddy waters of relationship weird, I second some of STodd’s list – “Murda Bizness,” “I’m the Best,” and “212″ ruled my playlists this summer for that very reason. Some other songs I really rocked this year, by category: Hip hop power anthem – Nicki Minaj’s “Did It On ‘Em,” Iggy Azalia’s “My World,” Trina’s “That’s My Attitude” (which is about sexual prowess but not relationships). Trashy party rock (which is not relationship-oriented but party-oriented!) such as Ke$ha’s “Blow” and “Tik Tok” or Britney’s “Til the World Ends.” Folky, narrative anthems – Neko Case has narrative songs such as “Margaret vs. Pauline,” “John Saw That Number,” “Dirty Knife” and “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.” The Be Good Tanyas play some old school folky stuff.

    Still. Your point is well taken – and as Stoeckl mentioned, the need I felt to wrack my brain for examples just proves how true the norm can be. Thanks for a thought provoking question!

  9. Ladies all,
    Thanks for such interesting responses! I must admit, my question 1.) makes me sound perhaps a bit naive; maybe I was really asking why are we *still* doing this, but even that is too idealistic a question. Still, though, I think it’s worth asking once in a while, and I really like the points mellesque makes about the strange in between space women are asked to occupy
    Also, I thought of another one: M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”
    This collection of songs we’ve come up with would make such an interesting album, wouldn’t it?

    • M.I.A. came to mind for me as well. After a solid hour of cleaning to my playlist of her songs, only “Jimmy (Ajaa)” came to mind as specifically relationship-based, and it’s more than a little tongue in cheek / referential to Bollywood romantic tropes. “XXXO” might fit the bill, I suppose–even though it really seems like an indictment of the music industry, it’s about being troubled by the same old expectations that women are weak sexual objects with nothing else to offer. I might be totally missing other songs, but I don’t think of moony love/breakup songs when I think of M.I.A.

  10. [...] an important escape for women, who are still socially pressured to be nice above all (and where, as Chelsea has written, most female artists still situate their identity in relationship to [...]

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