Friday, November 10, 2006

"Honky Tonk Women" with non-sexist lyrics

Of course I'd find out on the Nation's blog, of all places, that Ellen Willis died. Here's a link to her web page at NYU, where she taught in the journalism school, with links to some of her articles.

My friends celebrated Rocktober last month-- an e-mail exchange about a different band every day of the month--and there was an odd day about the Indigo Girls. Now, one of the biggest disagreements Ben and I have ever had was about the Indigo Girls: he likes them, and I don't. I did see them at Lilith Fair when I was in high school and they're good performers, just not my kind of thing. It's not antipathy, I'd say, but apathy. And sometimes mere statement of apathy turns into antipathy in an argument. When I'm feeling more on the side of antipathy, I always cite Ellen Willis's essay about the problem of feminist music, "Beginning to See the Light" (from the essay collection of the same name):
"...why did I like so little of the women's-culture music I had heard? The feminist music scene had two main tendencies. One was a women's version of political folk music, which replicated all the virtues (simplicity, intimacy, community) and all the faults (sentimentality, insularity, heavy rhetoric) of the genre. Some of it was fun to listen to, but the idiom was too well worn to promise anything exciting or original. The other tendency actively turned me off: it was a slick, technically accomplished, rock-influenced but basically conventional pop. I believed that this music could be a commercial success; supposedly the product of a dissident culture, it struck me as altogether compatible with the MOR blandness of most white pop music.

What disturbed me most about both brands of women's-culture music was that so much of it was so conventionally feminine. Years ago Ella Hirst had told me that she thought most female performers did not have a direct line to their emotions, the way men did--they were too busy trying to please. It seemed to me that too many of the women's-cutlure people had merely switched from trying to please men to trying to please other women.

A couple of years ago I had gone to see the feminist folk-rock group, the Deadly Nightshade, at a lesbian bar in Boston. They sang "Honky Tonk Woman" with rewritten, nonsexist lyrics. Someone in the audience sent them an outraged note, attacking them for singing an antiwoman song. The lead singer read the note aloud and nervously and defensively complained that the writer hadn't been listening. The incident had helped me understand why I wasn't enthusiastic about the group. They did not have the confidence, or the arrogance, to say or feel "If you don't like it, tough shit." It was not that I thought performers should be indifferent to the response of their audience. I just thought the question they ought to ask was not "How can I make them like me?" but "How can I make them hear me?"

...[M]usic that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated--as good rock-and-roll did--challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics."

This is my favorite of her essays from that book, many of which are very much documents of the 1970s and '80s (the essay about the Velvet Underground is also good). That's not necessarily a bad thing, but, for example, I'm unsurprised that the idealism of the genre-mixing and transgression she discusses in an essay about Tom Wolfe and Ken Kesey didn't end up being as influential as it seemed it would be. Liza Featherstone's piece about Willis on the Nation's blog notes Willis's interest in sexual liberation and transgression in the 1960s and '70s, when she formed the radical Redstockings group in New York:
Writing during this period, she created an alter ego for herself -- and anyone else trying to live a passionate life in hostile times -- an alienated character called Ruby Tuesday, periodically adrift from a cohesive community or social movement, asserting deviant desires in a culture that pretends we all want the same things.

But despite Willis's sense of isolation and libertarian commitment to the individual -- both of which pervade her writing in every era -- she never lost sight of the importance of social movements: "The struggle for freedom, pleasure, transcendence is not just an individual matter. The social system that...as far as possible channels our desires, is antagonistic to that struggle; to change this requires collective effort."

Like her character Ruby Tuesday, who ends up seducing reporters who come to interview her, Willis was boldly optimistic about the transformative powers of desire, and the threateningly political implications of happiness. "The power of the ecstatic moment," she writes, "This is what freedom is like, this is what love could be, this is what happens when the boundaries are gone -- is precisely the power to reimagine the world, to reclaim a human identity that's neither victim nor oppressor."

Some of those ideas seem more vague than interesting, but I guess I'm applauding the attempt to challenge the idea of what liberation and freedom can/could/will/would look like.

It will not look like "Honky Tonk Woman" with non-sexist lyrics.

This summer, Willis wrote a piece about the Village Voice and the feminist movement:
Many years after leaving the Voice, I still think of the Karen Finley story as summing up what I most appreciated in the paper's relationship to feminism while I was there: It captured the rawness of our urge to transcend limits. It's a different publication now, in a profoundly different time—-an era in which feminism has been assimilated as common sense even as its more dangerous impulses are forgotten or stylized to death. How fortunate to have that outrageous cover, those incendiary words, to remind us that the unsocialized woman existed, and will rise again.

In an odd way, she reminds me of Laura Kipnis in her unwillingness to give definitive answers to the questions she poses about feminist liberation, as they're both allergic to prescriptiveness and easy comparative language. This is a good interview with Kipnis from Bookslut about her new book, The Female Thing, which I read and thought was pretty good. The writing isn't exactly my thing--the one-liners are distracting sometimes and the digressions aren't always rewarding--but I like that she tries to ask different questions than the usual ones about feminism. Here's an excerpt from a Minnesota Review interview about her previous book, Against Love (which isn't a pro-adultery polemic, by the way--it's a lot like her other books in its sometimes contrarian way of reframing arguments about love and marriage, an argument that is sometimes rewarding and sometimes interrupted by digression):
Kipnis: I'm squinting at the "for liberation" because I worry about falling into those simplistic binaries, transgression and liberation versus repression. I'd like it to be more complicated than that. I don't think it is simply a pro-transgression argument. My work has never really been that invested in some simple notion of sexual liberation. Even the pornography book wasn't simply pro-pornography, or not in the sense that pornography is the path to some kind of sexual liberation. I've never been a sexual liberationist, even though I guess I've written a lot about sex.

Willis's 1992 essay collection, No More Nice Girls, is a great collection to read with Kipnis's books.
Blogger Ben on Thu Nov 16, 04:35:00 PM:
I admit that some Indigo Girls songs are bland and transparent. But other songs manage to be both badass and critical of stuff! I suggest "Land of Canaan", "Dead Man's Hill", "Cold Beer & Remote Control", "Andy", and "Jonas & Ezekiel".