‘There are No Male Groupies: Writing I’m A Man,’ Guardian, June 2000
The sound men most want to hear, says the Marquis de Sade, is a woman’s cry when you’re inside her. It tells the world you have this shattering power to make her feel. When Duke Ellington was twelve, he and his mates took girls to the reservoir-banks, in hearing distance of each other, to see “who did the greater job as a man”. The marker was girl noise. “If the girl’s reaction was loud, he was a great fucker because the chick was hollering ‘Baby I’m coming’, all that shit.” Competition was hot: “some cats pinched the chicks to make them holler. One slipped his chick quarters.”
For centuries, men turned that cry into music by writing love-songs women sang. Across the board – pop, rock, opera, blues, folk, from “ma man don’t love me and he treats me oh so mean” to Mozart’s Countess in Figaro lamenting her husband’s faithlessness – men have written, produced, and directed songs that defined the female voice as vulnerable. Hurt by a man, longing for him. Abandoned. “The problem with operas”, the Glyndebourne director Graham Vick told me, “is they’re written by men full of notions that women can’t live without them.” Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Piaff did write songs, but till the Seventies (give or take trailblazers like Janis Joplin), women mostly sang men’s songs, and sounded how men wanted. The difference between women’s lovesong and men’s was that women’s was by the people it was about. Carly Simon took off that tradition in “You’re So Vain” (1972).
But the trouble about singing “Bet you think this song is about you, don’t you?”, is – he’s right. That was what I wanted to write a book about – what effect it might have on women making music now. Most women, singers or listeners, have thousands of songs in their heads written by men, which seem to express women’s feelings. Are there any voicing men’s feelings, written by women? And did that imbalance matter? I interviewed singer, composers, directors. I came up against the singer’s answer – that your job feeling a song’s feelings untiol they are your own. “Bessie Smith takes a lyric and makes it like she wrote it,” said Marianne Faithfull. I asked the opera singer Josephine Barstow if, when singing a woman created by a male composer like Violetta in Verdi’s Traviata, you’re aware of serving a man’s idea of a woman’s feeling? “I couldn’t look at it that way,” she said. “It’s not my job. If I think, ‘I’m expressing Verdi’s desire, not Violetta’s,’ it’s not going to work. I have to express Violetta’s feeling, try and work out where I think she’s at.” Singers can’t affored to distance themselves from the song. “It never bothered me,” said Marianne, “that songs were written from a man’s point of view. I don’t believe gender’s important in a song.”
But if women singers and listeners were so used to identifying with men’s ideas of how they felt, how could they know how their own feelings “really” sound? Wouldn’t their songs follow suit and highlight the vulnerable, hurt voice men had attributed to women for centuries? Well – yes, until the Seventies, most women in pop did work, more or less, with manmade ideas of how women sound.
What changed everything was punk. Overnight, lyric content was transformed. You got songs about cigarettes, murderers, traffic-lights, wanking, impotence. In The Slits’ song “Ping Pong Affair”, the singer ditched evenings with her boyfriend for nights of smoking and masturbating. The one thing you could not write was a love song. When punk blew every stereotype to bits, ideas of voice changed too. “Oh bondage up yours,” screeched Poly Styrene, whose name challenged the artificiality of how women look and sound. “I am a cliché”. She and Siouxsie Sioux had a lasting effect. “Siouxsie made me feel things were possible,” Shirley Manson of Garbage told me. Chrissie Hynde was another role model for her; and for Kristin Hersch, whose album Hips and Makers (1994) had lines like “No you don’t put me in that box”.
The punk ethos also brought technical changes. Up to the Eighties, most women guitarists used a folk stroke, down-up. Rock style is everything on a down stroke, which makes the music more precise, urgent, aggressive. After punk, women began to switch. Early Elastica played folk-stroke, loose and floppy. When they used a rock right hand, the music sounded different. More punk: sharper edge, sharper beat. But even so, women were up against something much bigger than guitar technique: and I had to implications of all that.
Above all, there was that rhythm thing. Beat is the heart of rock and roll and is also – at first I thought this was just coincidental, at first – the core of male sexuality. “Male ecstasy in performance starts here”, said Patti Smith in 1978, jerking at an imaginary cock. “Building and building till the big spurt at the end.” Rock ‘n’ roll, and British Sixties rock, was first made by men – and (I began belatedly to realize it was created to express, basically, being a man. The Stones took their name from Muddy Waters: “I’m a man, I’m a rolling stone”. Janis Joplin was all too aware of being in a totally male game. The astonishing big new thing about rock ‘n’ roll in the Fifties, and the rock’s birth in the Sixties, was the blatant staging of male sexuality.
To understand what post-punk women were up against. I had to take apart the roots of that, see how that worked. The male self-myths that seem to be coded into the chords and style: the dreams of being a hero, violence, omnipotent, and dark. And so a book about women in rock became a book about the main chalenge they face: the malemess of their medium. Even today, though women’s rock currently outsells men’s, rock is still (I was told by a man who should know, high in a recording company) a “pretty boysy place”. “There’s this huge fuss about women in rock” Shirley Manson told me, “but I don’t feel anything has changed. The whole industry is run by men. How can you change an attitude and an atmosphere? It’s nonsense.” Rock’s classic sexual politics mean “powerful sexy men and girls on their knees sucking off the stage-hand for a glimpse of God”, as a Courtney Love fan put it.
There are no male groupies. “I’ve never been approached and l’ve never met a female star who has,” said Chrissie Hynde. This imbalance gives women’s work the edge. Rock has always got its energy from challenge. One reason some of the best rock around today is by women is they make their response to rock maleness – including how rock traditionally sees women – their starting-point. Women like Kristin Hersch, P.J. Harvey, Shirley, handle voice, or guitar, or lyrics differently from pre-punk musicians. Everything stronger: challenge, not victim voice. Shirley likes Chrissie Hynde’s voice because “it’s vulnerable and strong.”
One San Francisco women’s band, Tribe 8, takes all this to extremes. The singer Lynn Breedlove gets men in the audience to suck her clip-on rubber penis. “I whip my dick out and masturbate, the group are wanking the necks of their guitars: we’re spoofing men, the narcissistic aspect of rock, how the focus is on the penis all the time.” And then she slashes it off. Songs like those on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville make a similar same point lyrically: women exist, and make music, in “Guyville” – a manmade universe.
You can illustrate the problems of women’s lyrical relation to male rock tradition by how you hold a guitar. Jazz guitarists hold theirs at chest or waist level, where fingers fall naturally on the strings. Rock guitarists hold it cock level. What should women do? You play best higher, but it looks wrong. If you hold it crotch-level, you’re imitating men. That’s not what you want: you want your own way of doing things. As for breasts – do you go for one squashed, the other hanging over? Some women modified guitars to fit. But since punk, and especially since the early Nineties, women have just flung away the worry and got on with it – brilliantly. Voice and stroke, stance and lyrics. Women rockers are a great example of women taking male tradition somewhere new. And maybe it’s the first time ever that women are making a sound to express, not how men have said they feel and sound, but more like what they really feel.