Monday, March 15, 2010

The Feminine Musique: Top 15 Feminist Songs and Performances

Recently I caught a sorry excuse for a feminist song list, entitled, "A (Sort of) Feminist Playlist" that the Gawker faux-feminist site Jezebel posted. They were inspired by The Onion AV Club's even weaker list: "A soundproofed room of one's own: 17 well-intended yet misguided feminist anthems." While both sites raised some good questions about why there is such an evident dearth in powerful feminist anthems in popular music today, neither one really pointed to any of the good stuff of decades past, or any of the songs that have come up more recently in the indie world. I think it's a disservice to even raise the topic if these writers aren't willing to commit a modicum of time and research to highlight some of raw power and glory that is out there. So. Ahem:

1. Lesley Gore, "You Don't Own Me":

This song came out just after Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was released in '63 and, like Friedan's groundbreaking treatise, was waaaay before its time. Perhaps the first pop song in America to feature a woman declaring her own independence and equality.

2. Tupac Shakur, "Keep Ya Head Up":

If all rap songs were like this, rap music would still be popular and selling. Tupac's plea for feminism is so basic and logical, yet so brilliant:

And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it's time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don't we'll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
And since a man can't make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one

So will the real men get up
I know you're fed up ladies, but keep your head up

3. Le Tigre, "Hot Topic":

A laundry list of powerful female activists and artists; all set to a groovy sixties jam. I hope young girls listen to this with a pen and google the hell out of these names.

4. Tori Amos, "Cornflake Girl":

Fun fact: Tori Amos was literally a cornflake girl in the '80s. Years upon ages before this song ever came out, Amos did an ad for Kellogg's Just Right cornflakes--but that's not what this song is about. It was inspired by Alice Walker's novel Possessing the Secret of Joy, about a young African woman forced to undergo female genital mutilation by her mother. Amos, exploring themes of female betrayal, grouped women into two categories: the "raisin girls" who were open-minded and multicultural, and "cornflake girls" who were narrowminded and prejudiced.

5. Ani DiFranco, "32 Flavors":

No list could be complete without Ani DiFranco, founder of Righteous Babe records. She was a cult figure among the Intro to Feminism set in most if not all colleges across the country and, unfortunately, faded into the background after ostensibly giving up on lesbianism and marrying a man. But from whatever perspective she was coming from at this stage in her career, I think she captures misogyny and competition among women really well in this passage:

and god help you if you are an ugly girl
course too pretty is also your doom
cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
for the prettiest girl in the room
and god help you if you are a phoenix
and you dare to rise up from the ash
a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
while you are just flying back

6. Martha Wainwright, "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole":

Martha Wainwright breaks my heart with every word of this song. I love her weathered, vulnerable crooner voice so very much. And while I'm not entirely sure what she means with some of these lyrics, I do think I pick up on the rebellious nature of this song, refusing to "put on a smile" and "say I'm alright for you" while pining to be a male musician that can "stamp his feet to a different beat."

7. The Vaselines/Divine, "You Think You're A Man":

I first heard this song through the Scottish male/female grunge duo called The Vaselines, who covered it in the late '80s. But John Waters ingénue Divine originally performed the song, turning it into a club hit that sounds more akin to a disco classic like "I Will Survive." This is just a fun, playful song belittling a man who can't satisfy sexually.

10. Beyonce, "If I Were A Boy/You Oughta Know":

The Onion's list thinks Beyonce's gender-reversal theorizing in "If I Were A Boy" is undermined by the singer's vulnerable intonation throughout. But I think they miss the point entirely. This song seems to be written from the perspective of a woman wronged, contemplating the heteronormative dynamic whereby women generally do the majority of emotional work: from cooking and comforting a man in the home, to waiting by the phone while he parties with buddies and flirts, to accepting the fact that he fools around--this is the standard emotional work of a heterosexual woman. And her transition to a cover of Alanis Morrisette's "You Oughta Know" is brilliant and powerful here. It's obvious that both songs compliment one another because they allow the singer to cross an emotional spectrum from the perspective of a woman wronged. And there's nothing at all vulnerable or demur about Beyonce's powerful shoulder moves, crotch-grabbing, and warrior-like ensemble in this performance.

11. Neko Case, "Pretty Girls":

It's hard to interpret the exact meaning to some of the lyrics in this country ballad by the divine Ms. Case. Some believe it's about girls getting knocked up and feeling their only worth is giving birth. But I think it may have more to do with rape. Serious note: I once knew a girl, briefly, who was brutally raped and left for dead in a ravine just as I was approaching 21. She was a year or two younger, as I recall, a virgin, and her body wasn't found until weeks later. What was worse was that a close friend of mine was forced to go to court as her "character witness." That is, to prove to a judge and jury that this young woman was not promiscuous and perhaps flirted with her abductor prior to the violent act. This girl's killer had been miraculously let out of jail after several convictions of stalking, intrusion, and abduction in the past. That's all that I think of when I listen to this passage:

our hearts are so tried and so innocent
When your flimsy blue gowns tied around you
Around curves so comely and sinister
They blame it on you pretty girls

12. Salt n' Pepa, "None of Your Business":

Classic song about women owning their sexuality and doing whatever it is they choose to do with it. 'Nuff said.

13. Sleater-Kinney, "Modern Girl":

There's no real reading between the lines with this one. The saccharine, harmonica-laden track is just a simple little story of illusory romance. But juxtaposed with the ferocity and raw, hard rock sound of the women of Sleater-Kinney, becomes a punctuated pomo classic.

14. Patti Smith, "Rock n'Roll Nigger":

I understand and completely endorse the appropriation of the "N" word in this song, and marvel at Smith's bombast in using it to describe Jesus and grandma and anyone "outside of society" --and with how she describes the "N" word, who wouldn't want to be one (an "N" word)? Not exactly a feminist anthem, but deals with oppression, social stigmas, et al, with unparalleled ferocity using a distinctly feminine voice. 

15. Sarah Jones, "Your Revolution":

"This is Sarah Jones, not Foxy Brown." And this is one badass mockery of misogynist hip hop culture while honoring Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

I probably left out a hundreds of other songs that will haunt me in days upon years to come, but it is what it is.

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