When Women Kill

Dixie-Chicks

A couple of weeks ago, Chelsea wrote about the proliferation of murder ballads, and their tendency to fetishize, in the narrator’s perspective, the destruction of “something beautiful” – a woman. She was prompted to explore how male musicians like Nick Cave view their female subjects after listening to this response song by Hurray for the Riff Raff:

I want to present a different take on murder ballads, and showcase different types of songs performed by female artists. Two broad categories emerge: in the first, the woman is the killer. In two of the most famous country songs of this type, she kills in response to unrelenting domestic violence with no help in sight from society – but she also kills for revenge. In the second category, the woman sings the story of her own death. Misogyny is pervasive in these stories; they reflect our culture’s lack of value in women and sing stories back to us that very loosely mirror what so many women have faced. If dead women could sing, would Deanna Cook’s song sound like one of these?

Before diving into heavier stuff, there’s a more comedic response to traditional murder ballads that you might remember from its video’s heavy rotation on Country Music Television and other outlets. The Dixie Chicks, now infamous for their criticism of George W. Bush and the subsequent fall from country music grace, survived this controversy before Natalie Merchant’s words in London sparked outrage.

“Goodbye Earl” flips the narrative. Songwriter Dennis Linde weaves a tale of two women that support each other from girlhood to burying Wanda’s abusive husband – who they poisoned black eyed peas. Wanda is portrayed as a victim who seeks a legal solution, but when the law fails to protect her, she and Mary Ann cook up a scheme (literally) to get rid of him and live happily ever after. The women are never caught, unlike the narrator of the quintessential murder ballad, “Delia’s Gone,” who laments his tale to his jailer.

The music video highlights the comedy; a sleazy lawyer and Keystone cops round out the cast of absurd characters, and a dance break at the end features zombified Dennis Franz. Of course, conservative country radio had a problem with it. While the song peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot Country chart, many stationed refused to play it (or at least had it in a very light rotation), and plenty turned to their listeners and asked if they wanted to hear it. Contrast this with “Independence Day,” penned by Gretchen Peters and sung by Martina McBride earlier in the decade: while domestic violence is the catalyst for for both, with neither woman getting help from society, there’s no comedy in Peters’ story.

Some postured that the song sent the wrong message – murder is okay, and taking the law into your own hands is justified. KRTY, a country station in San Jose, California, aired a phone number to a domestic violence hotline each time the song was played.

But “Delia’s Gone,” interpreted by many but most famously performed by Johnny Cash, didn’t face the backlash of Goodbye Earl, and I don’t think it’s because Delia’s killer ended up in prison, while Mary Ann and Wanda walked away scot-free to sell strawberry jam. Cash’s persona was the polar-opposite of the Chicks. He was the Man in Black, a hard-drinking, prison-playing, home-wrecking outsider. The Chicks were pop stars and counted many young girls in their fan base. The refusal to play “Goodbye Earl,” and the questioning of its appropriateness at all, makes one statement: women can’t sing about killing their triflin’ lovers, but men can.

Never mind that “Earl” is entirely fiction and born of black comedy. Never mind that Delia was a real person who was killed at only 14 years old. The thought of female singers altering the story to perpetuate violence themselves is enough to make country station programmers clutch their pearls and worry children will get the wrong idea – that women can fight back.

In other songs, they have. They’ve also perpetrated the violence without any pretense of self-defense. Many fans of “Goodbye Earl” and “Independence Day” may not know of “Murder in the First Degree,” performed by Victoria Spivey in 1927. Like Delia’s killer, she croons from the jailhouse. She tells the judge she killed her cheating man, but she deserves to go free – he is the one who wronged her.

Of course, Victoria Spivey would never be as well-known as her male counterparts, nor would her music be fresh on the minds of country music listeners when another song featuring a killer woman topped the charts twice. Vicki Lawrence first recorded “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” and Reba McEntire covered it twenty years later. Tanya Tucker also sang a version, but its lyrics differ from the original. Like Mary Ann and Wanda, the narrator is never caught – her brother is punished for her crime. This murderess counts two victims under her belt, and proudly claims the law will never find the body of her sister-in-law.

Most of these songs were written by men, indicating that even when the overt motivation of the character has nothing to do oppression, the patriarchy is still dictating the plot. In the second type of murder ballad, a man wrote one of the most well-known figurative versions. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” was written by Sonny Bono for Cher, whose version has been eclipsed in the past decades by Nancy Sinatra’s haunting take.

While the singer isn’t shot or strangled or buried in the woods, the imagery deliberately evokes death. At least Mary Ann and Wanda are active participants – here, Cher or Nancy can only react to her baby’s decisions. Florence + The Machine recently recorded a song of this type, and it is much more literal. Unfortunately, it does not subvert any cliches in the way that “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” or “The Body Electric” does. The video even features the faceless killer stepping on Calla lilies – the funeral flower.

I’m appreciative of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s response to murder ballads in “The Body Electric.” This song directly confronts the fetishization Chelsea discussed, without painting her victim as incapable, or a scorned or battered woman seeking revenge. Songwriter Alynda Segarra manages to humanize both the victim and the killer she’s working to do exactly what she sings: settling the score.

I think Segarra’s song also reflects potentially positive shifts in our society. While rates of violence against women are still disturbingly high, and state and federal legislators unrelentingly go after women’s rights, some laws are making it easier for victims to escape, get help, and start their lives over. A California law went into effect this year to allow domestic violence victims to break leases quickly and more easily, and the state recently became the seventh to provide protection for abuse victims from employment discrimination. Seven out of fifty isn’t such a great number, each gain is helpful. Of course, I would be more satisfied if all states had these laws, or if they were implemented nationally more quickly, but I’ll continue to cheer each progressive step.

[You can find Katherine P. Hudson on Twitter.]

Your Webcam Loves You

My weak spot for webcam music videos can be directly traced to the “frequently sings in the mirror” category (No hairbrush needed! I would have a headset). There’s something really intimate and voyeuristic about it, because you’re watching something available to you, but at the same time it’s not for you. The webcam functions like a two-way mirror in videos like this, because the performance is controlled but also able to be viewed by others.

TEETH’s “Care Bear” is a really great example of this. The low budget video really works because it chronicles different stages of webcam performance. The first shots of the video are of people getting ready to film themselves- they’re putting on lipstick and fixing their hair, which is a familiar routine to anyone who has every taken so much as a self-portrait of themselves. From there, the video moves into exhibitionism. The different people in the video, who have already been revealed as carefully stylized, dance and lip sync to the song. The stylization and the process of that is also pretty important when you look at the gender-bending in the video. Gender as performance is easily noted here, as (people who appear to be) men adorn themselves with lipstick and wigs before they begin to lip sync.

[I also really hope that one dude has on a mud mask and is not doing some sort of gross blackface.]

Q.U.E.E.N. and the Ruling Class

Further cementing my opinion that Janelle Monae is an important lady, the video for “Q.U.E.E.N.” was released this week.

Monáe and her crew (including Erykah Badu as “Badoula Oblongata”) have been frozen and preserved as dangerous rebels who disguised freedom movements “in songs, motion pictures, and works of art,” but come to life when two girls start to play “Q.U.E.E.N.” on a record player. We find out later that the rebellion is class-oriented (“They be like “ooh let them eat cake”/ but we eat wings and throw them bones on the ground”), and the crime in the rebellion is artistic expression. Monáe starts by wearing an authoritative fringe suit (rebel gear), but periodically switches to a striped dress that (nearly) matches her backup dancers. Every time she wears the same dress as her backup dancers, their hair (which was previously different on each woman) turns to the same short trim cut. It’s a commentary on individuality (which should be hammered in by the line “am I a freak?”), because while they are all conforming for brief, sporadic periods, Monáe’s dress is still slightly different, with longer sleeves and different stripe placement. I didn’t catch that until I viewed the video for the second or third time, so it’s a subtle but important reminder that even when we appear to conform, it’s kind of an impossibility.

Monáe’s dialogue at the end (“They keep us underground working hard for the greedy, But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy”) is part of her well-documented acknowledgment of class struggles, and the video is a celebration of art-as-social-rebellion (think of the man on the typewriter: “We will create and destroy art movements in ten years”). Monae also asks “will you be electric sheep/ electric ladies, will you sleep?”, which is a reference to Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Monáe has previously fashioned herself as the android Cindi Mayweather as a statement on alienation, so the electric sheep who dreams of the android is the person who strives for individuality.

The struggle for individuality and the lower class are pretty closely intertwined, as the symbols of the lower class (Monáe’s uniform tuxedo, for example) are largely based on the stripping of singularity and the focus on servitude. Monáe wears her suit (at the end of the video) to pay tribute to the serving class that she came from, but subverts the meaning of the suit by being a rebellious individual. For her, the suit is a fraction of the past that she keeps with her, and a symbol of solidarity to those who remain in the same position. The “Q.U.E.E.N.” video is largely a tribute to those class struggles, and an affirmation that it’s something that’s important to her.

Female Braggadocio and the Hip-Hop Highlander

[Note: This is my first guest post! Please welcome my good friend Michelle Ofiwe, who has an amazing blog called The Doorknocker, which you should add to your RSS feed right away!]

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One of the biggest songs of 2010 was Nicki Minaj’s “Did It On Em,” a three minute pop-rap taunt fest that coined phrases like “all these bitches is my sons,” and made generous references to “nappy headed hoes” and other “rap bitches.”

It got incredible airplay and club promotion, so we could all sing along and lament about “[crusty] bitches,” whoever they may be in our lives. The lyrics read somewhat like a declaration: Minaj raps in a choppy-style about haters and other female rappers who seem less like peers and more like staunch competition. Still, the beat is nice and we know (or assume) that Minaj is not posing her golden shower fantasies and rage at us, but other anonymous “hoes” who have been unfortunate to cross her path. In that regard, the song seems pretty standard.

To say that “Did It On Em” floats in a league of its own would be highly improper. Plus, I am fearful of creating scapegoats. Minaj was not the first to participate in what I have called the “Hip-Hop Highlander,” or the never-ending, blood-thirsty competition between female rappers that aches for a unitary ruler. In “On Femcees and the Hip-Hop Highlander,” I coined the phrase to explain the ideas and methods we as fans use to engage with female rappers. Now I feel that the term has to be broadened. It’s not just us, or just them. It’s all of us. We all participate in the Hip-Hop Highlander, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that participation in that system is likely to garner success for the individual femcees themselves. “Did It On Em” sold millions not just in the spirit of competitive vanity, but also in the fervor of watching women fight.

On first glance, the Highlander seems to be a mixture of female braggadocio and confidence. For example, when Sasha Go Hard claims that “ratchet hoes [mean] mug because they can’t handle her,” in “Bad Bitch on Deck,” her dismissal of haters shines through her heightened sense of self.

Braggadocio is not a lost concept in hip-hop or rap — male rappers constantly use this to effect in their own music by comparing themselves and their style to other rappers. Yet, female braggadocio as part of a real expression of self-love and confidence is lost to the Highlander. A quick aside about a “weak bitch” or a “rap hoe” and the expressions change to include other women negatively, but still not at the (female) artists’ expense. Such tenements of hip-hop and rap change in similar was when applied to the realm of female rappers: looking for the “realest” (claims of authenticity) or “baddest” or “strongest” or overall “best” female rapper diverges from mainstream male rappers because all of these things have different meanings when applied to women.

So how do femcees let us know that they are these things, that they live up to their own hype? They come for other women. No “other bitch is fucking with” the “Realest Bitch in the Game,” who isn’t checking for “swagless hoes.” In a whirlpool of adamant individuality, the Highlander comes out loud and apparent in femcee rapdom, where every look is polished and every second of media is an opportunity to separate oneself from every other woman. One personal note I’ve taken is that this form of female braggadocio is aggressive. It can be slipped into every verse, every line, and every word. There is an underlying need to prove ones self as not only the best and most skilled rapper, but the best and most skilled woman.

In “On Femcees,” I question comparing “the Highlander” to typical (male-fronted) beef found in hip-hop culture, and that comparison is still pretty sketchy today. The Highlander is built on a lot of social ideals, namely the ones that encourage constant competitiveness between women in professional, social, and personal situations. The Highlander is as structured as female peers competing for the top spot at the local law firm, but as flighty as the “Who Wore It Best?” columns. In a society that (c)overtly compares women perpetually, it is not surprising that we find that same sense of “sisterhood” with femcees?

Competition between women can be a very personal thing, but when you engage in such in a very popular, very public avenue, your intentions may no longer be your own. I have seen plenty a song get lost in the mix to overzealous fans looking for a bloodshed, and it seems that even if a femcee tries to avoid the Highlander, she may still be sucked right into it. Sometimes, if she requests that the beef itself be dropped by her fans, it may not be fulfilled. In contrast, male rappers are able to disengage quite easily from beefs. For example, Meek Mill’s beef with fellow Phildelphian rapper Cassidy is deadened with a quick refusal from Mill. Standom — or the loyal & attached fanbases of (usually) female artists/rappers — may not sometimes grant an easy exit for female rappers. The culture itself is everywhere — in her fanbase, in her music, in her peer group, maybe even her label, and is just a small part of the eternal catfight that the media and society are perpetually seeking. Catfight tropes are not limited to just rap/hip-hop, though. They masquerade themselves as movie plots, titillating scenes in TV shows, and even pornography.

In that sense, female braggadocio– or the overt and unapologetic expression of self — can’t ever be just braggadocio. It becomes some unfortunate extension of societal expectations of women. Can female confidence sell without the rejection of another woman? Are we always asking femcees to perform in the arena? Are we letting them express confidence, (even misguided) anger, pain or other emotions and escape the Highlander?

Lipstick for Everyone

Remember Lemuria’s “Lipstick”?

Sheena sings “When you wear lipstick I always want to kiss you/ but you use your lipstick as an excuse not to kiss me.” It’s not entirely clear if she’s singing to another woman or not, but regardless there is a subversion of the traditional heterosexual love narrative. What’s incredibly interesting is the lyrical simplicity — there’s something to be said about having an uncomplicated song that has complicated undertones about homosexuality. Sheena’s lover’s main trait, besides cosmetics, is the inability to engage in physical affection, and the gender of her lover is left purposefully ambiguous to focus on the troubled relationship. The cosmetics are a feminine indicator, so either her lover is a woman or a person who is engaged in feminine activities. Either way, the role of the lipstick in the song is downplayed as a signifier of the lack of desire on the part of the lover, instead of being a focal point of gender significance.

Pretty cool, right? I’m hard-pressed to find a lot of other songs at the moment that are both heavily gendered and, at the same time, ambiguous like “Lipstick,” but there are a good amount of gender-neutral love songs that could be interpreted beyond heterosexual bounds.

Boys Will Be Boys

I just recently downloaded Cassie’s new mixtape, so in quasi-celebration of that (I’m a fan), I thought I would crank out a few long-sitting opinions about the video she and Nicki Minaj made for “The Boys.” The song is a typical narrative but from a different perspective — some nameless dude uses his money and power to bag a bunch of women as his prizes, but because it’s told from the perspective of women onlookers, the male braggadocio is something to be scorned, instead of praised. (“Your lipstick stain smells like a cheap hotel/
Diamond watches and a gold chain can’t make my frown turn around.”)

The video is also cartoonishly feminine, which is a common trope for Minaj, who frequently refers to herself as “Barbie.” Nicki commands a group of men dressed in bright pink, then enters a salon, which we see from the beginning will turn into a crime scene. There are surface-level comparisons to the video for Beyonce and Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” which also prominently features a crime scene perpetrated by the singers, but “The Boys” is less an avenue for random chaos and more a story of control. Cassie is dressed in bright, feminine colors, but still postures herself in a masculine way, sitting with her legs spread and tossing money in mocking imitation of the men she sings about (“You get high/ fuck a bunch of girls / and then cry / on top of your world”). The murder of the men is a gendered revenge, a more gruesome role reversal, as it’s often women who suffer violence at the hands of men.

Walking the Tightrope

I was originally going to write a post about androgyny in music videos, but when I was trying to use Janelle Monáe’s video for “Tightrope” as an example, I felt that it would be unfair for me to only spend a marginal amount of time on it.

There’s a distinct intersection between race, mental illness, femininity, and discomfort that all come to play in the span of a three minute video. It starts by declaring that it’s set in “The Palace of the Dogs” an asylum where “dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.”

The dancers inside the asylum are all wearing tuxedos– a head-nod to the lack of identity in such institutions, as well as a subversion of the subordinant dynamic. Instead of a drab uniform, the tuxedos are an indicator of rebellion – a hold of dignity that the mentally ill are often stripped of. The fact that everyone in the video is wearing a tuxedo is the tribute to sameness; there’s still lack of individuality (which could also be read as “we are all in this together” ), but the identifier takes on a higher class level of dress (though the suit is still a signifier of servitude, instead of wealth).

In Sounding Like a No-no: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, Francesca T. Royster looks at the racial implications of the asylum scene:

“In “Tightrope,” Monáe reminds us of the many ways the prison industrial complex infiltrates our lives by means of surveillance and the heightened fear of black bodies in motion.”

The fact that the dancers in the video are all black is not a coincidence – as Royster says, it’s a reaction to the fear of black bodies, specifically those that don’t “behave” (in this sense, behavior is tied in with the correct behavior or an asylum patient: the rebellion is the dance and celebration in an otherwise solemn venue). The joy that the dancers exhibit is contradictory to the purpose of the institution, as it has “[a] tendency to lead to magical practices,” which could also be read as racialized fear of the unknown, as the white majority exhibits a general distrust and unease about practices it’s not familiar with.

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Monáe’s choice to wear a suit is, in her own words, an examination of (and tribute to) class:

“When I started my musical career I was a maid, I used to clean houses. My parents—my mother was a proud janitor, my step-father who raised me like his very own worked at the post office and my father was a trash man. They all wore uniforms. And that’s why I stand here today in my black and white and I wear my uniform to honor them.”

As a successful musician she has moved beyond the suit (or uniform), but continues to wear it as an acknowledgment of where she came from. There’s a parallel between the invisibility of the mentally ill and the invisibility of the working class — the uniform worn by the working class is both meant to make them distinct (to those who require their services), but also very easy to ignore (by those who don’t). The same could be said of patients who are actually in asylums (or as they’re presently called, Behavioral Health Centers), as they’re typically noted for stripping patients of identity, individuality, and agency.

Monáe’s video simultaneously acknowledges this lack of agency and playfully subverts it. The dancing-as-rebellion can’t be done without agency, so even though she and the other dancers are similarly clad in work clothing, they’re participating in behaviors that aren’t allowed. It’s the type of rebellion that goes on in secret — when the faceless guards walk by, Monáe and her crew act as though they aren’t breaking any rules.