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.]

MIXTAPE: Haterade

ghostworld

This mixtape idea came from my roommate Caroline‘s brain. I’m surprised it took me this long, because I’ve been a registered Hater since 2009. There’s a Christmas song that says something about “good will toward all men,” but this is Misandry Town, so that’s not gonna happen.

Haterade by Neophyteblog on Mixcloud

Tracklist:

1) Honey Bee – Hey Girls
2) The Babies – Mean
3) Pangea – I Don’t Want to Know You
4) Lyres – You’ll Never Do It Baby
5) Steve King – Satan is Her Name
6) Sparkles – No Friend of Mine
7) The Chymes – Quite a Reputation
8) The Pen-Etts – That’s No Way to Spend My Time
9) The Magnetic Fields – You Must Be Out of Your Mind
10) Belle and Sebastian – I Don’t Love Anyone

It’s Hard Out Here For Lily Allen

lilyallen

In 2008 Katy Perry described herself as a “thinner version of Lily Allen,” a peculiar jab that turned out to be an amalgamation of what caused Allen’s rage at the music industry. In her earlier years with the release of Alright, Still, Allen’s weight and “unconventionality” were talking points (and in some cases, selling points) to an extent that when she lost weight around the time of her follow-up album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, she sarcastically swiped back on her hit “The Fear” with “Everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner.”

Allen has always been acutely aware of the shelf-life of women in the music industry, a beauty and youth based package that, inevitably, would leave her behind. In “22,” Allen relates this to non-singers, a catchy pop tune bemoaning the plight of an aging woman. (“It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over.”) It almost seemed like Lily Allen had taken this to heart and was going to retire from music for good, until the announcement earlier this year that she was working on her third album.

And lo, it’s “Hard Out Here” for a bitch.

In Lily Allen’s New Video Probably Went Over Your Head, Kathy Iandoli summarizes the difficulties of Allen’s life following her departure from music:

The years that followed for Lily Allen were pretty brutal. She miscarried more than once, met with tweets from “fans” who said things like “I’m glad your baby died” and other pleasantries. When she finally gave birth (twice), she was called fat a number of times and accused of “falling off.” She changed her name to her married name, Lily Rose Cooper, and was called a kept woman. So she brought it back to the née status and was accused of going through another divorce. It truly is hard out here for a bitch.

The “Hard Out Here” video, a satirical pop culture send-up of music industry misogyny, begins with her manager bemoaning her post-baby weight gain, until a newly-liposucked Allen makes a comeback of sorts in a cartoonishly over-the-top music video. Besides the obvious swipes at Robyn Thicke with lines like “who will tear your butt in two” and the glorious balloon display of “LILY ALLEN HAS A BAGGY PUSSY,” the majority of the video satirizes the self-objectification of young singers, notably Miley Cyrus.

I’ve said this about Miley before, but her sexually liberated front is really a carefully calculated appeal to the most basic straight male fantasies, and I couldn’t help but think of that when Allen’s manager tries to teach her how to twerk in the “Hard Out Here” video. The twerking, along with the white woman (Allen) objectifying her women of color dancers in order to assert her dominant sexuality, seems pretty familiar to anyone who has seen or read anything about Miley Cyrus in the past year. This is an interesting point on Allen’s part, but the execution is very flawed.

Allen’s got a bit of her own internalized misogyny that she’s dealing with, notably in the lines “I don’t need to shake my ass for you because I’ve got a brain,” which I’m sure the many brilliant ass-shakers of the world take issue with. The idea that overt sexuality and liberation are mutually exclusive is just flat-out wrong, and I would counter that with Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” video.

Allen’s use of women of color backup dancers as a Miley slam mostly ends up feeling awkwardly racist. The close-up shots of butts twerking and bottles popping aren’t something that Miley invented (duh), and in fact, it’s her appropriation of those signifiers that got people talking about Miley to begin with. There’s a lot to critique about how young women singers are marketed, and at points Allen is spot on (The part where she makes a dancer pose for Polaroids, a la Terry Richardson, is fucking brilliant), but at some point she ends up perpetuating sexist views of what, exactly, makes a woman empowered.

This Might Be Problematic

When I was a pre-teen my mom bought me a Def Leppard jacket. This might be surprising to people who aren’t familiar with my background, but when you grow up in rural Oklahoma and Texas, you don’t really have the same access to record shops and independent music that those in larger cities do. Instead, the omnipresent pull of classic rock, culturally validated by VH1 specials and the Supernatural soundtrack, would dominate my early years.

A writer for Grantland recently published a piece excusing his love of music that’s made by abusive men (notably the singer of Surfer Blood, R. Kelly, and Chris Brown), but that Def Leppard jacket (which I believe I still own, somewhere) that I proudly sported for a few years in the early 2000s reveals that I have consistently dealt with reconciling the fact that I love music that often doesn’t love me back.

YOU HIT ME LIKE A BOMB, BABY COME AND GET IT ON

YOU HIT ME LIKE A BOMB, BABY COME AND GET IT ON

Def Leppard was featured on one of those VH1 specials that I mentioned, and I remember the really callous way the group (who were, during the interview, middle aged) would speak about their female fans. They reveled in stories about groupie culture, blowing through women, and behaving like a bunch of spoiled jerks. It’s a tough pill to swallow, realizing that the people who created something you identify with are the same people you don’t identify with at all.

That Grantland writer can wax poetic about problematic music as a thought experiment, but if you don’t live your life on default (straight white male aka “easy mode”), chances are these are things that regularly occur to you. It occurred to me when I was drunkenly dancing to Surfer Blood at a festival in Dallas two months after the singer was arrested on domestic battery charges. It occurred to me as a college freshman, when my then-boyfriend burned me a copy of The Moon and Antarctica and I found myself wondering What if Issac Brock really is a rapist? It occurred to me when I reblogged a gifset of Miguel singing “How Many Drinks?” on my Tumblr.

Feminist relationships with problematic media have been widely explored, because let’s face it, we aren’t all bumping Ani DiFranco and dog-earring the reissue of Cunt. Even celebrated feminist groups like Le Tigre have their own sort of problems, from the blinding whiteness of post-riot grrrl to the scene’s exclusion of trans women. We recognize that there are no true safe spaces, and adjust our reactions accordingly. Those that don’t spend a lot of time on feminist blogs (Oh hey! You’re reading one now! Welcome, comrade.) might not understand that they are a source of near-constant media critiques and evaluations. This is what Not a Neophyte was created for. This is what I, and many others writers, do.

Ethical listening, just like the wider ideal of ethical consumerism, is a flawed solution for problems much more deeply culturally embedded. Refusing to buy from Wal-Mart doesn’t change the archaic capitalism practices that make Wal-Mart the only option for a lot of people. Purchasing conflict-free diamonds only illuminates the fact that the problem is so widespread that it’s even a selling point that nobody died for your jewelry. Similarly, bands can refuse to tour with Surfer Blood, but domestic violence remains largely ignored by lawmakers. It’s our responsibility to hold ourselves accountable, sure, but it’s also our responsibility to hold those with more power accountable.

We don’t need to, as the Grantland piece suggests, disassociate art from the people who create it in order to enjoy it. This largely misses the point. Def Leppard isn’t a band that just happens to be full of misogynists. They are a band that continues to be widely celebrated for it, in a music industry that is still predominately male. Chris Brown’s continued success isn’t a sick outlier, but sadly a reflection of just how many men there are who remain unscathed from any sort of punishment for their actions. Placing the onus of responsibility on the listener makes it easier for those with actual decision-making power to excuse themselves, citing “this is what the people want,” and creates an unfair dynamic for those most affected (women, people of color, queer people) to shoulder the brunt of the work in raising public consciousness about problems in media.

As far as ethical listening goes, the key is awareness. The more that music is talked about and dissected, the more likely we are to get to a place where record labels, music promoters, and the artists themselves are held accountable for their content.

MIXTAPE: Life or Death

Hey, it’s been a while since my last mixtape! I’m afraid my last few posts, while cathartic, have sort of taken a bit of a toll on me, so it’s nice to take a bit of a mental break and post some music that I love. Thanks for the theme idea, Rachelle! I expanded it a bit to add “death” because I kept finding songs that are the antithesis of being alive. Go figure.

Life or Death by Neophyteblog on Mixcloud

Tracklist:
1) Started From the Bottom (D33J Remix) – Drake
2) Alpha – Zerolex
3) Bugg’n – TNGHT
4) Reach for the Dead – Boards of Canada
5) Birthday – Junior Boys
6) Bury Us Alive – Starfucker
7) Last Dance – Rhye
8) On Death & Endearments – Parenthetical Girls
9) Past Lives – DIIV
10) Objectum Sexuality – Big Boi

Continue reading

Blurred Lines of Consent

Robin-Thicke-Blurred-Lines-Ft-TI-Pharrell

I’ve been reading what I can about Robin Thicke’s hit “Blurred Lines”, and part of why I feel the need to put my two cents in is because I actually really like the song. It’s fun and catchy and I always turn up the volume to yell “YOU DA HOTTEST BITCH IN THIS PLACE.” But my enjoyment of it doesn’t really negate the fact that it’s sketchy, to put it nicely.

The video isn’t really worth my time discussing because it seems like it’s mostly calculated view-bait. Videos that are banned from YouTube are typically part of the marketing strategy, a sort of salacious invitation that most (including myself) can’t resist. But when you actually watch it, it’s mostly topless models cavorting. Not too interesting, except at some parts their hair isn’t covering their breasts. (“Like a stupid fashion magazine, right?” -Bob’s Burgers)

The fact that the song is called “Blurred Lines” itself is just so ooomph. “I know you want it” itself isn’t too bad, because the song kind of implies that he’s talking to a girl who’s too shy or too much of a “good girl” to express her sexual desires. But if the lines are blurred, how do you know she wants it?

(videos is NSFW)

I remember a few think pieces about consent in R&B and I think that that’s an important thing to talk about, as long as it doesn’t blame R&B for the rape culture that makes the problems in this song go relatively unnoticed. Problems in the genre are actually problems in music and the culture at large, which is why when Two Door Cinema Club uses one of the most misogynistic album covers that I’ve seen in a long time, it’s not an indictment on all babyfaced Irish dweebs. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think we shouldn’t be talking about “Blurred Lines”, Miguel’s hugely creepy “How Many Drinks?”, or the Weeknd’s lyrics that verge on date rape. But that’s a small part of a bigger picture, and R&B is actually packed with women right now who are singing not only about consensual sex, but female enjoyment and revelation in it.

Right now you can’t turn on a hip-hop station without hearing Kelly Rowland’s “Kisses Down Low” or Ciara’s “Body Party”. “Kisses Down Low” is one of the few songs in recent memory that is instructive about cunnilingus (meaning the lady is describing how she wants it MUCH LIKE A MAN WOULD DO), and “Body Party” is so enthusiastically consensual (“You can’t keep your hands off me” followed by “I can’t keep my hands of you”) that Ciara cast her current partner, Future, in the video.

A few years back Latoya Peterson was interviewed by Spin about the supposed maturation of hip-hop with the moral decline of R&B, and she had some pretty interesting things to say about how music isn’t catered to women.

“Generally speaking, pop culture is not interested in the desires of women. Every industry has this problem. There’s no Bechdel Test for records, but generally what women are doing isn’t considered noteworthy unless it’s tailored for male consumption. Trey Songz may get to be eye candy and Kanye gets to have a few reflective moments, but that doesn’t mean society suddenly has started caring more about what women want.”

He might “know you want it” but Robin Thicke’s type of leering, gauche fantasy of a woman who is too shy to voice her desire (or even worse, doesn’t desire it at all), is very far from this world where women write and control their own narratives.

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.]

Where Do You Go At Night?

Austra’s song “Home” is infinitely relatable to anyone who has ever had a partner stray.

The lines “My body can’t rest unless you’re sleeping by my side/ You know that it hurts me when you stay away all night/ What is it that keeps you there?” are a pretty bare-boned plea for the lover to come home, because she can’t sleep or have peace of mind without them. The subtext of the song is that she’s worried about what her lover is doing, although it’s unclear what the particular worry is. Instinctively I would say that the concern is about infidelity, but the line “You know it hurts me when you can’t see straight at night” could indicate that the lover is out on a drug or alcohol binge. Either way, it’s a sad reminder that it’s often women who are left home to worry while their partner exerts the freedom not to be concerned about that particular heartache.

When women hook up with a male partner (The gender is ambiguous in the Austra song/video, so I’m going to project here) there’s a pressure to not be “that girl” that is perpetually nagging or making life a living hell for some dude with the dream to live out his life in excess. I think that’s sort of why these situations kind of strike a nerve, because the desire not to be the shrill, sitcom harpy is at conflict with the natural human desire to be treated with respect.

It brings to mind Melanie Fiona’s “4 a.m.”

Here, Fiona doesn’t mince words: “It’s 4 a.m. and my lover won’t answer/ He’s probably somewhere with a dancer/ Sippin’ champagne while I’m in his bed.” In this case the infidelity is clear, as she knows she’s being disrespected while her lover attends to another woman. Fiona’s anger and embarrassment (“It’s 4 a.m. and I think I might lose it/ This motherfucker thinkin’ I’m stupid”) are followed by her lamentations that the relationship ultimately will not work out because of his disregard for her (“I don’t deserve this life/ I’d make the perfect wife”).

Like Mad Men’s Betty Draper cooling telling Don “I waited for you” after he returns early in the morning, or countless other women (Probably a good chunk of the reason why so many women scream in excitement when Bernie burns her unfaithful husband’s clothes in Waiting to Exhale) who’ve had the same experience, there’s not a whole lot of dignity being left behind, or begging for respect from a partner. It’s both interesting and sad that that’s so easy to identify with.

MIXTAPE: Calm Down

While I really liked the mixtape that I made last week, it was sort of a penis party, right? This week has a lot more ladies, because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did otherwise (Real talk though: all of the songs are ones that I frequently repeat). I initially started this playlist a few days before I presented my capstone to calm my nerves, so hopefully it will be useful to someone else who is struggling with anxiety at the moment.

I’m about to graduate and I just relinquished my job as a college radio Music Director, so the nostalgia levels are turned to eleven right now, thus I feel obligated to tell you that I played The Black Ryder’s “Let it Go” on my very first radio show back in 2010. While I’m on this sentimental kick, please read the shout-out that I gave to my capstone group last week. We presented last night and I’ve been on the verge of tears since. Everyone was so great (capstone-wise) and supportive (friendship-wise).

Whatever it is that you’re dealing with, hopefully it will be over soon! Calm down a bit, yeah?

Calm Down by Neophyteblog on Mixcloud

Tracklist:
1) The Trip – Still Corners
2) Breathe – Delilah
3) Perennials – Widowspeak
4) Heavenly Bodies – Tamaryn
5) Billie Holiday – Warpaint
6) The Color of Industry – Radiation City
7) Call Me in the Day – La Luz
8) Bells Ring – Mazzy Star
9) Let it Go – The Black Ryder
10) Jolene – White Blush

Banned Love

I’m calling this post “banned love” because this video was insta-banned from YouTube (to be fair, unsurprisingly), but itis thoroughly NSFW NSFW NSFW NSFW so if you are in a public space I suggest you bookmark the video and watch it when you’re away from eyeballs that don’t belong to you.

“Mindfuck” is the first single released from Brooklyn R&B artist Ian Isiah’s upcoming LP, and the video is certainly a mindfuck if gender normativity is something that’s really important to you (Not a Neophyte is firmly in the “roll your own” category when it comes to gender, for what it’s worth). The video is overtly sexual, watching two lovers engage in extremely intimate moments – so much so that it almost feels invasive on the part of the viewer.

Ian Isiah is bejeweled and wearing false eyelashes on a bed with a sheer canopy, getting close with boychild, a gender non-conforming performance artist. boychild’s gender identity is purposely and famously ambiguous, but Isiah appropriates feminine signifiers (like the jewelery and makeup) to muddy his own as well. The result is what could be your typical love scene in a romance movie, with the exception that the roles of man and woman (or man and man/ woman and woman) are indefinable.