One thing I learned from reading reviews of 33 Revolutions Per Minute is that music journalists have a habit of spending half their time reviewing the contents page and complaining about the absence of their personal favourites before actually engaging with what is in the book. That’s the way it goes. There’s not much I can say to someone who thinks I’ve given insufficient attention to Discharge or Midnight Oil except that I deliberately titled this a history of protest songs rather than the history and if anyone else fancies writing an alternative history then good luck to them. There is, however, one major exception which demands a response — a question raised by a few female critics and voiced most bluntly by an audience member at an event I did with Billy Bragg at the Brighton Festival last weekend: “Where are the women?”
Of the 33 chapter-heading artists, only four are women: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and the female members of Huggy Bear and Crass. Within the chapters, there are significant discussions of Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, Martha Reeves, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, MIA and the Dixie Chicks, and fleeting mentions of many more, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Janis Ian, Marlena Shaw, X-Ray Spex, the Slits, Sister Souljah, L7 and Le Tigre. But there’s no doubt that men dominate the narrative.
I asked myself why this was the case. If you were to draw up a list of the most influential 20th century world leaders, a minority of women would be an accurate reflection of the reality, but if you overwhelmingly favoured men in a tally of key 19th century novelists then you’d be doing something wrong. So was I representing the extant material as fairly as I could or unconsciously exercising a bias towards men? I believe (hope?) it was the former. I don’t regret my chapter choices, but I do regret not addressing the imbalance somewhere in the text, because the reasons for that imbalance, at least as I see them, are revealing. Here are some thoughts.
The personal is political. With songs about war, apartheid or civil rights, it is easy to draw a line between the musicians and the movement. Many of those artists were also activists, engaging with the political leaders of the day. But it’s harder to relate the work of 60s and 70s feminist thinkers to specific songwriters. As soon as there was a genuinely exciting and coherent feminist rock movement, ie Riot Grrrl, I devoted a chapter to it, but the great feminist songs (some of which appear below) tend to be scattered across the years and genres, making them hard to corral into one chapter of a chronological narrative. The one song I might realistically have given a whole chapter to is Helen Reddy’s 1971 hit I Am Woman because of it’s historical significance, even though I’m not a fan of the music.
But perhaps the real issue is how one categorises a feminist song, and whether my definition of a protest song inadvertently closes off too much of that territory. When I asked my Twitter followers to suggest songs they considered feminist, many of the nominations were about the politics of personal relationships. Consider the following: Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know, TLC’s No Scrubs, Martha Wainwright’s Bloody Motherfucking Asshole, Kelis’s Caught Out There, Missy Elliott’s She’s a Bitch… And then throw in work by Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Madonna, Lady Gaga… Broadly feminist in outlook? Definitely. Intentional protest songs? Debatable. I had to draw the line somewhere but it certainly meant that sexual politics went underrepresented.
Entitlement. Protest songs tend to lag behind social change. Only after the Black Panthers were up and running did soul musicians feel ready to squarely address race. Disco’s first gay anthem, I Was Born This Way, appeared a good few years after Stonewall ignited the gay rights movement. There is strength in numbers — a songwriter needs to feel empowered to speak out, and to take the blows that may come their way as a result. In the 60s and early 70s even progressive politics was rife with misogyny (take Stokely Carmichael’s notorious joke that the only position for women in the SNCC was “prone”) so to stand and be counted took a particularly resilient personality. (The only out-and-out feminist rock groups of that period were under-the-radar activists like the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band whose pre-Roe v Wade Abortion Song was admirably blunt, if not exactly great art.)
In the book I reference Simon Reynolds’ idea of the “hero” model of the activist-musician: figures such as Bob Marley, Joe Strummer or Chuck D. Even trailblazing artists like Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith didn’t position themselves as feminist heroines in that way, and later generations of inspirational women were also hesitant about labelling themselves. Amy Raphael’s 1995 interview collection, Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock is full of artists shying away from political self-identification, or sideswiping the likes of Riot Grrrl. Someone like Courtney Love may be feminist by dint of her attitude and impact but that doesn’t mean she will explicitly champion the politics. This may partly be down to the fact that women in rock are constantly being asked “What’s it like being a woman in rock?” by interviewers less insightful than Raphael. Being treated as an exotic novelty can understandably make some female musicians want to talk and sing about anything except their sex. Which brings us to…
Backlash. Every risk a male artist takes by speaking out about politics goes double for a woman. During the Vietnam war, it was Joan Baez, not Dylan or Phil Ochs, who was viciously caricatured in a nationally syndicated comic strip (Al Capp’s Joanie Phoanie), and no anti-war celebrity was as vilified as Jane Fonda. All the flak caught by John Lennon during his activist phase hit Yoko Ono, one of the very first musicians to write politically feminist songs, even harder. In the early 90s, Riot Grrrl’s flaws and contradictions were savaged in the music press, while those of Rage Against the Machine were largely let slide. During the Iraq war, Pearl Jam caused barely a whisper of controversy by attacking President Bush while the Dixie Chicks were dubbed the “Dixie Sluts” and burned in effigy for a milder criticism. Most recently, MIA was smacked down not just for her opinions but for her choice of husband, as if wedding an LA record executive rather than a Tamil Tiger invalidated everything she had to say about Sri Lanka. Political women, in music as elsewhere, are more likely than men to be dubbed shrill, humourless, thin-skinned or naïve and, when their opinions are controversial, to be forced to defend their personal lives. No wonder many of them prefer their feminism to be implicit.
So these are some initial thoughts — possibilities rather than conclusions. One reason I structured the book the way I did was to avoid generalisations and present the history (or rather a history) of protest songs as an intricate story made up of hundreds of individuals, songs and moments in time, each one opening a different window on the subject. In that spirit, here are my favourite feminist songs, varying widely in style and message. Further suggestions and comments are welcome.
FIFTEEN GREAT FEMINIST SONGS
Aretha Franklin, Respect, 1967
Musical jujitsu, in which Otis Redding’s masculine lyric is turned on its head. The sheer act of seizing the song and reversing the power dynamic is political, and witty with it. See also It’s My Thing, Betty Moorer’s brilliant hijacking of the Isley Brothers’ It’s Your Thing.
Bikini Kill, Rebel Girl, 1991
A Riot Grrrl anthem, fuelled by girl-gang camaraderie and indomitable swagger. “In her kiss, I taste the revolution.”
Queen Latifah and Monie Love, Ladies First, 1989
Perhaps it comes from having so much blatant misogyny to kick against, but hip hop has produced some classic feminist statements, some of which feature on the ace Fly Girls! Compilation. Here’s the definitive example. “A woman can bear you, break you, take you/Now it’s time to rhyme.”
The Slits, Typical Girls, 1979
The Slits joined the Au Pairs, X-Ray Spex and the Raincoats in punk’s feminist vanguard. This song tartly spoofs a string of sexist stereotypes: “Don’t create/Don’t rebel/Have intuition/Don’t drive well.” RIP Ari Up.
Cold Blood, I’m a Good Woman, 1969
Magnificent highlight of Harmless’s I’m a Good Woman compilation. Barbara Lynn’s song, a barbed farewell to an abusive partner becomes increasingly political, as it quotes Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. Lynn’s version is great but the Bay Area R&B band’s is fiercer still.
Le Tigre, Hot Topic, 1999
Another appearance for Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. A joyous, jump-rope rollcall of feminist icons from Gertrude Stein to Joan Jett.
DJ Vadim feat. Sarah Jones, Your Revolution, 1999
A wry homage to Gil Scott-Heron which satirises hip hop sexism with a slew of puns and quotations.
Bessie Smith, Young Woman’s Blues, 1926
Pioneering take-no-shit jazz singer Smith wakes up to find a goodbye note on her pillow. “I’m sorry Jane, you get my goat/No time to marry, no time to settle down,” her man complains. Her retort is a proud defence of promiscuity: “I’m a good woman and I can get plenty of men.”
Betty Davis, Anti Love Song, 1973
The spirit of Bessie Smith revisited half a century on. Davis warns a potential lover that she’ll sexually annihilate him. He says he’s “right-on” but she knows “you like to be in charge” and he isn’t going to get that chance. “Just as hard as I’d be loving you/You know you’d be loving me harder/That’s why I don’t want to love you.” (Also available on the I’m a Good Woman album.)
Crass, Bata Motel, 1981
With Joy de Vivre and Eve Libertine coming to the fore, Crass’s album Penis Envy was a fierce feminist tract. This highlight rips into the beauty industry: “I’ve studied my flaws in your reflection/And put them to rights with savage correction.”
Nellie McKay, It’s a Pose, 2004
Blossom Dearie crossed with Kate Millett. A whip-smart j’accuse directed at a self-deluding “sensitive Joe”. Very funny.
X-Ray Spex, Oh Bondage! Up Yours!, 1977
“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think… Oh bondage! Up yours! 1-2-3-4!” Female punk’s answer to “I am an anarchist”: a career-opening line that rings out like a rifle shot. RIP Poly Styrene.
Loretta Lynn, The Pill, 1975
Controversial Nashville salute to the pill that changed the world. Recorded by mother-of-six Lynn in 1972, it was held back till 1975 and was controversial even then. “I’m making up for all those years, since I’ve got the pill.” Lynn later claimed that rural doctors told her it helped spread the word about birth control to their patients.
Nina Simone, Four Women, 1966
As much a feminist as a civil rights activist, Simone offended even some black radio stations with this frank, moving sketch of four black women: beaten slave Aunt Sarah, mixed-race child of rape Saffronia, prostitute Sweet Thing and furious avenger Peaches. A movie waiting to happen.
Christina Aguilera feat. Lil’ Kim, Can’t Hold Us Down, 2003
Aguilera isn’t an obvious feminist spokeswoman, especially not during her clothes-averse Xtina phase, but that’s exactly the point of this attack on sexual double standards, complicated yet further by the appearance of Lil’ Kim, whose aggressive sexuality either confirms gangsta rap’s slut stereotype or weaponises it, depending on your point of view. I know which way Bessie Smith and Betty Davis would lean.
NOTE: In this blog, I’ve focussed on gender-specific songs written by women rather than more general protest songs such as Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi or Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam.
NOTE 2: The picture at the top of the page is of Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre.