Reading Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women And The Women That Love Them (Repeater, 2017), I was struck by a thought that had me laughing – I was imagining men writing the book’s inverse. Which women’s songs could even be conjured as offensive to men? Victoria Spivey murdering her man in ‘Blood Thirsty Blues’ (1926), Björk’s 10-minute Matthew Barney diss track ‘Black Lake’ from 2015’s Vulnicura, or the recent Torres album, Three Futures (2017) which seems to exist in a universe without men?
While there may be songs by women castigating men with a particular vehemence, or taking aim at the lot of them for one man’s betrayal – you’d struggle to curate a misandrist playlist that spanned longer than a few hours. Yet, as the essays collected in Under My Thumb – edited by Rhian E. Jones and Eli Davies – attest, classic and contemporary music is ripe with misogyny, racist portrayals of women, and iconic creeps. Which is to say this book could have been a 1000-page doorstopper and still it would only be scratching the surface of women’s justifiable beef with popular music.
Though this anthology was years in the making it lands at the perfect time, amid the continued #metoo fearlessness. The 29 essays here bravely ask: Where do I fit in? As fans and experts armed with history, they know the reply is often: You don’t. The thrill of this book is that it claps back with a cackling ‘SO WHAT?!’ and carries on just the same.
The book runs chronologically, and begins with one of the first bona fide teen idols, Dion, who won the hearts and minds of teenage girls with pop hits about how rotten and stupid teenage girls are. The first third of the book finds predictably fertile ground in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, and offers nuanced examinations of the well-trod subjects of Bob Dylan and David Bowie, and lingers on the Stones.
In the essay ‘Betwixt And Between: The Travesties of Mick Jagger,’ Manon Steiner considers Jagger in all his complexities, as an androgynous sex object and ‘objectifier of women,’ a ‘showgirl’ and ‘lustrous devil’, an icon whose subversion of traditional masculinity others him, but yet is the same man who wrote ‘Brown Sugar’ (1971), ‘Under My Thumb’ (1966), and ‘Stupid Girl’ (1966) – songs frequently cited as evidence of racism and misogyny being part of canonical rock’s vernacular. Steiner, like many of the gifted critics in this collection, digs for context, writing of ‘Stupid Girl,’ that it was based off how seclusion and fame were distorting their experiences with women. ‘To [The Rolling Stones], most female fans meant being violently torn off stage or being offered sexual favours.’
None of the essays here exculpate artists, their audiences, or the writers themselves; as much as they examine music’s marginalization of women, these are ultimately all essays about how music matters to them. These chapters are love letters. These writers are asserting that the double-consciousness they’ve naturally developed as a music-lover and a feminist is a fundamental critical tool, that this liminal awareness is worthy of holding up to the light. Under My Thumb exhibits a feminism that is expansive and rich rather than precise and dogmatic. More than a book about music’s sexist history, this is a book about women carving an ornate space for themselves within music out of necessity; their willingness to tangle with these issues is a testimony to their love of music, and the lengths women must go to find some version of themselves reflected in it.
The scholarship here is deep, but the way these writers interrogate their own fandom and unpack what they connect with (and why) is the book’s real coup. In ‘It Was A Different Time: Negotiating With The Misogyny Of Heroes’ writer Em Smith lays out her own justifications for loving the ’70s bad-boy canon of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, The Stones, and Bowie, and their songs of teen-groupie dalliance that signaled shifting sexual mores of the time, only to puncture them completely:
‘Context is crucial, but the context simply hasn’t changed. Women were often treated like dirt and they make up the dirt that these men are allowed to stand on, their lives and experiences deemed inconsequential and paling in comparison to genius.’
Stephanie Phillips’s ‘The Two Sides of Phil Spector’ offers perspective on what it means to be a black feminist who loves Phil Spector’s production, and holds the twin truths of history: he treated Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love like garbage despite giving them career-making hits. ‘The main reason I love Spector’s work, especially his early work, is because it captures the voices of young black women,’ writes Philips. ‘And it is because I connect so deeply with these young black women that it hurts to acknowledge the reality of who Spector was and how he treated his stars. To be both a feminist and a Spector lover is to be constantly at odds with oneself, as his aggressive personality is integral to the quality of music he made.’
The volume’s co-editor Rhian E. Jones turns out a razor-sharp Dylan essay that seeks similar complexity, digging into the ‘why?’ of his songwriting choices, as well as her rebel-girl identification with him and the male characters of his songs. ‘I liked his insouciant obnoxiousness, his chutzpah, his insistence on existing, as I was trying to do, just as he was in a world where he didn’t belong.’ Jones’s essay exemplifies how a hunger for ambitious heroines in songs, when blunted by the reality of women’s flat pop portrayals as objects of sexualization and scorn, forces mental backflips to identify with the boy-heroes – for they are the ones that get to live, lust, and be free.
From there it’s thoughtful and provoking pieces on AC/DC, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, Elvis Costello, Eminem – all artists that top the list of music’s most iconic and celebrated misogynists. The last third of the book brings us up to date: Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker are the locus of intersectional examinations of how their treatment of women of particular class and race in their songs has impacted not just these women’s particular fandom, but how they came to imagine themselves in relationship to these artists. Marissa Chen describes the creeping alienation she felt as a Weezer fan, lamenting racial fetishization on Pinkerton’s ‘Across The Sea,’ (1996) she writes ‘[The song] had been about me. In fact, it was about every girl who Cuomo thought could look the slightest bit like me.’ Critical resurrection and whitewashing of Pinkerton’s problematics a decade after its release further underscore her sense of displacement and disillusionment, her sense that there is no place for her within this world.
Then comes the gut punch, ‘But I couldn’t quit Pinkerton. Its history betrays itself every time I pick up a guitar.’ This is a ultimately a book about how to keep living when the erasure of your personhood is woven into much of what you love and consume.
What’s remarkable is how little hand-wringing goes on in these pages, how eagerly these writers step us through what, from the outside, seems irreconcilable. The book is instructive, leading us through the twists and hoops of their feminism(s) and their experience of music – there’s no scolding or reductive moralizing. At a time when so many critics and artists are shrugging off the shifting cultural tide with the insistence that we all must ‘separate the art from the (problematic) artist,’ Under My Thumb shows us just how lazy and unintellectual that suggestion is. This collection is more than the sum of its parts, it’s a book that arms us with the clarifying arguments we need in this moment, it boldly instructs us not to let anyone off the hook – namely, ourselves.
Main image: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, 1963. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Rowland Scherman