Saturday, July 2, 2011
Female Rock and the Nasty
That a large portion of rock songs are just about sex is a common, and accurate, cultural perception. Academic feminists will take it further than that— rock songs encourage the objectification of the female body, at the expense of seeing women as completely human. Jimi Hendrix and other guitar heroes do make displays of treating their guitars like phallic extensions, and the machismo behind preening male rock stars is sexual machismo. But one component part of rock mythology is the number of angles from which sex can be treated in rock songs. Liz Phair is a woman rocker who turned the tables on a misogynistic system— her songs objectify the male body with a gaze no less intense than a performer like Hendrix rivets on the female. There is a surprising range of songs in the rock canon that do approach sex from intriguing, sometimes deviant angles. There are also instances of “overturns,” in which woman make cultural clichés moot and play the man’s wonted role. A case in point would be the David Crosby Byrds’ song “Triad.” This piece wanders into a realm of the forbidden, in which the protagonist tries to extend a ménage a trois. The tone Crosby takes is chilling; he expresses mastery of his two female lovers, and the sense that his perversity is getting the better of him. Because the music is not aggressive but ambient, with a nice melody and interesting chord changes, the overall affect is seductive (and creepy). When Jefferson Airplane decided to cover the song, they gave it to Grace Slick to sing. With a woman behind the song, expressing dominance and seductive intentions towards two men, the song enters another space, in which a trail is blazed. Deviance in rock does not have to be male expressed.
When the Red Hot Chili Peppers write about sex, they tend to turn it into comic pornography, a postscript to Fritz the Cat. P.J. Harvey, from the same time period, ups Liz Phair’s ante by adding a note of deviance and (especially) fetish-awareness. Of Alternative Vamps, Courtney Love is unique in having explored female psychology without delving into lust. Her media presence had (and has) more to do with lust than her songs do. Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is an interesting variation; her onstage presence encourages guy fans to objectify her, but her lyrics largely consist of abstract imagery, and when they do cohere settle more on relationship angst than out and out lust. Beth Orton will slip double entendres into her songs, but they aren’t sexually aggressive. Then (including Orton) there’s the Lilith Fair crew— these were 90s female musicians, who had, for the most part, more invested in pop than in rock and in love rather than sex. If their writing wasn’t as nuanced as Joni Mitchell’s, they were aiming for a similar demographic contingent; young woman from comfortable backgrounds looking for performers to identify with, and sensitive guys with no need to impose culturally on anyone else. For all these performers, from Liz Phair to the Lilith Fair (although, ironically, Phair did at least one summer play Lilith Fair), the role of the male as audience-member was unclear. Phair’s guitar-rock was rockist and indie enough to be widely appealing; but Sarah McLachlan tended to appeal only to girls, making her the reverse image of a male-oriented band like the Who.
As things stand in 2011, there are no hard and fast rules about who can make it as a rock star and who can’t. The simple acknowledgement is that no one can make it as a rock star anymore. But it’s reasonable to think that, after the onslaught of female performers in the 90s and Aughts, women can feel at least somewhat more at home in rock, both in terms of what they can write about and how they can write. Objectification is two-way street, and (perhaps) two wrongs here do make a right. It’s a question that should be posed to academic feminists— is female objectification of the male physique any less wrongheaded than its image reversed? To have Prince do a duet with P.J. Harvey— can two kinds of lust coexist in some semblance of peace, or is the war on forever? “Lusty females meeting lusty males” is a good recipe for war; and, as long as no one needs to conceal their lust, there’s no reason for feminists or anyone else to get upset. Unless you yourself have just been picked up and expunged.