So I was talking on Twitter yesterday about making a playlist of music featuring or about kick-ass women. I’ve figured out what I meant, more or less, and am working on refining the list even as I type this. Here, then, are my thoughts so far.
What the heck do I mean by kick-ass women music playlist? It’s a good question. First of all, do I mean the female artists or the narrative characters in the song? Does the music have to be performed by women? Written by women? Can male artists be involved? These basic questions led me to figure out that I wanted music about the female narrative character in the songs. This meant I needed a female vocalist — that’s how I hear the narrator, in the singer’s voice.
Caroline pointed out that “kick-ass” could mean angry. That wasn’t exactly what I meant, though anger was certainly welcome. I wanted, I realized, songs about female agency. Songs in which, regardless of what the MacGuffin of the song was, women sang about their lives and their selfhood. Songs that featured “I” in the lyrics.
This leads to further questions, though, and those are the questions I am currently pondering. For instance, are songs about addiction songs about female agency? The Sounds’ “Queen of Apology” is one of my favorite songs ever, yet it is a laud to the narrator’s helplessness. Caroline again pointed out that there is a long tradition in blues of reasserting one’s power over negative circumstances through the vehicle of singing about said circumstances. That the standing on stage or in a recording booth and singing “now you’ve got me on my knees / this will be the death of me” is an act of agency. I think I agree.
What about, then, songs treating relationships as addictions? “#1 Crush” by Garbage is a good example of this.
I would die for you
I would kill for you
I will steal for you
I’d do time for you
I would wait for you
I’d make room for you
I’d sail ships for you
To be close to you
To be a part of you
‘Cause I believe in you
I believe in you
I would die for you.
Where’s the agency in that? Well, I rather think it’s there. The freedom to control one’s self and life includes the freedom to make poor choices, to hold to damaging beliefs. If the narrator of that song wants to devote her life and breath to the object of the song, that’s her call. (And that’s leaving aside what part of all of Garbage’s ouvre is ironic or sarcastic. I wouldn’t swear to the sincerity of any of Shirley Manson’s songs, except “The trick is to keep breathing.”) Besides — whoever this narrator is, I expect that the crush will fade as all crushes do, and she’ll move on in time.
Which leads to breakup songs. These are in the list, I think. But I am making a personal aesthetic choice against songs that express sadness and grief in, well, sad terms. I favor songs that express those emotions through anger, sarcasm, and humor.
I’m trying to include songs that have women thinking about or singing about other women. So I’ve got Blondie’s “Maria,” (which I will always assert is West Side Story fanfic,) Jill Sobule’s “Karen by Night,” Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” and Patti Smith’s “Gloria.” (And if anyone can tell me what the Branigan song is about, please do. Explanations via fanfic are always welcome.) I sort of think of these as songs that pass the Bechdel test, songs that treat all the women as actors in their own right.
And then there are all the other songs, including the vast number whose meaning I can’t fathom — mostly because I don’t understand the lyrics and haven’t looked them up. But they are united by a tempo, a speed of the beat. They are united by the women’s voices singing them. And they are united by their expression of the lives of women. “Gigantic” by The Pixies. “Glass Ceiling” by Metric. “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. “Paper Planes” by M.I.A.. “Punka” by Kenickie. It goes on. At this moment the list has 133 songs in it. When I get this down to a manageable number, I’ll post the final result.