Sunday, January 24, 2016

How Music Gave Me Strength

I was lucky.  I was born into an era when women were allowed to speak their minds without much in the way of "excessive" criticism.  They methods by which they have done so over the years has changed dramatically; initially women's magazines created a sense of community among women who didn't get out of the house much.  Later, when women were allowed to receive an education regularly, books and letters became a popular medium.  One forum to which we have always had access, though, was music.  Initially, women's subject matter revolved solely around love, romantic love, and the void that existed without it and the genre was entirely adult contemporary love songs.  Music has remained one of the greatest outlets a woman has had to express herself, regardless of what she is expressing; but luckily for me, when I was born, music was changing. 

For years, men sang songs about anything and everything under the sun.   Frank Sinatra, "I Did it My Way," Elvis, "Jailhouse Rock," Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison," "Money, Sweet Home Alabama, Smokin in the Boys' Room," I mean this list could last for all of eternity.  But when we turn to the music put out by the women in comparable generations, two things become very apparent:  1.  There are by and large only a small percentage of women singers when compared to men, and 2.  Women's music was always about love.  Finding love, losing love, looking for love, surviving love.  Even when you had the occasional icon who possessed the guts to go against the grain, for instance, Janis Joplin, before it was popular to do so, she still sang about losing love, even though she was tough enough to handle it.  This was, though, a forward motion.  She dared the one who hurt her to "take another piece of my heart."  Love was life for women.  Identified and vocalized in 1963 by Betty Friedan in controversial book The Feminine Mystique, as she studied throughout the 1950s, the entire purpose of a woman's life was to catch a man solid enough for husbandry, in order for her to become a wife and mother.  As if one role wasn't enough.  If a woman was encouraged to go to college or trade school by her family, it was to nab herself a better class of man so that her life could take an upward turn.  She would be better taken care of by a man with an education. 

But right around that time, when women's' voices began to crack, mics were turned up louder, and different themes came out to play, the role of a woman in the world took on a new look as her expressions became accessible anywhere, anytime, through her music.  Though many people consider Aretha Franklin's "Respect," and iconic song for her era, a woman demanding respect, the lyrics actually paint the picture of a woman begging her man to stop cheating, stop lying, stop running around.  Come home at night to me, give me a little respect, and I'll give you everything I have.  Don't want to believe me?  Give the lyrics a read through.  "I'm about to give you all my money, all I'm asking for is a little respect, when you get home."  She doesn't even ask him to come home right away, just when you do, be nice to me please.  This is not the movement we needed to make.  Shortly thereafter, we began to get some stronger voices, from women demanding a life of her own, and melodically declaring there was more to life than landing a man. 

Stevie Nicks, I might swear she changed everything for us.  Stevie Nicks had the gull to sing about herself, her power, her life, her wants, damn near 40 years ago, as she led a group of mostly men to the forefront of the music industry.  Her mere presence allotted us a step forward.  She didn't constantly drone on and on about needing someone by her side.  In fact, when she did sing about love or relationships at all, she was in charge!! What a concept.  "Silver Springs" declares that "you will never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you," almost as if to say, you, the man, will be the one who suffers, I, the woman, will be fine.  "Gypsie," a personal favorite, talks about a woman's power to walk away, live her own life without the presence of a man.  The video ends with a group of females in a utopia, in an array of colors and lights, while the men remain traditional, suited up, and in black and white.  "Rhiannon," declared to be about a bonafide witch, taking claim back over the term and presenting it as something to be desired.  Rumors began about Nicks herself being a witch, something she's denied only once, then allowed the gossip train to run.  In 2014, she played the role of a "white witch," as herself, on the tv series American Horror Story; a legendary one at that, one who the other witches looked up to for years and saw as an icon. 

Soon after, bands like Heart, Joan Jett, singers like Annie Lennox, Madonna, Janet Jackson introduced women to an entirely new arena of what it can mean to be female.  "Bad Animal," by Heart, states that "(I) Got to swim upstream, got a rebel seed."  Janet Jackson came out with "Rhythm Nation," a song that brought all people together, men and women, black and white, to "break the color lines; Let's work together to improve our way of life."  Madonna, a beast in her own right, focused on the woman's perspective almost entirely.  With songs like "Material Girl, Express Yourself, Who's That Girl," she put the female view at the forefront, showing women that it was not only okay to have an opinion, but that you should own that opinion and make yourself visible because of it.  Not only did she take strides with women's roles in her songs, but also in her physical presence in the industry itself, almost demanding confrontation with every stigma held against her.   

And then the 90s came.  Rage girl defied all logic and songs became about patronizing the lovey-dovey icons we were used to and becoming our own women.  To start the decade off right, "I'm Just A Girl," by No Doubt, androgynous Gwen Stefani facetiously reminds us that being a "girl" is just as good as being a guy.  Starting with making everything pink for us from birth, all the way up to the legal rights we still don't have, she sarcastically points out that we still look at being a girl as a position of weakness.  She says she's sick of it, gone numb, and not giving in anymore, all the while, playing with a band of men to back her up.  Stefani is easily one of the greatest female musical icons women have ever had in the fight for gender or relationship equality.  Married to a man of equal hype, she marched on with her own career, had children, and never stopped singing about the life she enjoyed.  Her music was always whimsical and topical, and while she sprinkled in songs like "Don't Speak," to remind us of our occasional vulnerability, she always came out on top.

Alanis Morissette, however, will remain the voice of a generation.  In 1994, the lives of women and young girls changed forever.  "You Outta Know," came out of nowhere and told us that we had permission to be loud, vengeful, angry, and proud of it.  No one will be better than me, she let us know; and with the imagery of the video, not clearly showing her face, blurring the entire video as if to remark that appearances aren't relevant, romping around in a dusty desert, changing out of her feminine dress and heals into a white suite and tennis shoes, and later into, of all colors, a blue shirt, and combat boots, Morissette comes out of the park swinging in the face of femininity and love, cussing it out and telling us we're better than that; it's not a requirement for us to live.  We can hitchhike and walk the road alone, as she does throughout the video.  Her career continues on with the majority of her songs being about universal love, charity, indifference, religion, change, and learning your way through life; the minority of her music focuses on the volunteerism regarding romantic love.  Songs like, "21 Things I Want in A Lover, Are You Still Mad, and Right Through You," keep Morissette in control of the role that romantic love plays in her life, when it does at all. 

Today, singers like Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, Pink, and so many others, allow women to be whatever type of individual they choose.  Clarkson has taken a stand against Hollywood and the entire music industry around the ideals of what a woman is supposed to look like after gaining a few pounds and having a child.  Her career has ran for over a decade at full force and she has literally told them to fuck off, she will do what she wants.  While her music is more on the traditional side of femininity, she still takes a path of "since you've been gone, I've been free for the first time," as well as songs like, "Breakaway," and "Stronger," sustaining her spot as a genuine female icon for the ages. 

Lady Gaga, with "Born This Way," and a plethora of others you may as well simply list all of her titles, adamantly declares that everyone is important and everything matters.  Love is one emotion, not the only emotion, and we should use it often and give it away freely.  She fantastically and outrageously demands that she will not succumb to traditional roles, and that her fans, her "monsters," need to take control of their identity and be whomever they truly are.  Conformity is not an option.  In this season's American Horror Story, she performs a makeover on a man who firmly believes he is a woman, and allows him to live out his notions of gender and sexuality in her world, as a woman.  Though it's a character she simply played on tv, it seemed a little like typecasting.  Gaga has carved out an entirely new path for any person to walk along, and visibly created a new mold for the likes of love and sexuality.  She has taken onlookers to a new level of individuality; so like her or not, her uniqueness is one for the record books.  She made it to the top, and she did it "her way." 

Pink, possibly the strongest of them all, has gone so far as to playing the male role in her videos, declared herself a rockstar in spite of rejection, and told the world she's "fucked because I live a life of sin."  She has let women know that they are "fucking perfect" just the way they are, that she will send a man home alone with his hand before she will bow down to his needs, and questioned how powerful we can become as a group in "Are We All We Are;" a song where she declared that it took her "four (years) to get through the lesson that I had to do it all my own.  Three, that's how many Hail Mary's they would pray for me thinkin' I was gonna end up all alone."  In true militant style, Pink salutes the crowd in her performance, noting that stereotypes expect a man to carry her, but in her reality, they, her fans, the crowd, are one, and they will all make it together in this life, regardless of their status.   

At one point in the new millennium, even Christina Aguilera took part in smiting love for a stronger role in her song, "Fighter."  Getting down and dirty in the video and playing to images that keep men attracted to her "style" didn't take anything away from the fact that she waved the middle finger to those who tried to hurt her.  As the strongest of women do, she took the high road, pointing out the flaws of  contemporary love, "After all of the stealing and cheating you probably think that I hold resentment for you, but oh no, you're wrong.  'Cause if it wasn't for all that you tried to do, I wouldn't know just how capable I am to pull through so I wanna say thank you cause it makes me that much stronger," and continues on to the benefits she gained from a stale encounter. 

Even in the immediate present, singers like Jessie J and Sia are continuing the good fight with songs like "Masterpiece," where JJ tells the world how incredible she is in style, and though she's not perfect, she damn sure is good enough, and will keep getting better, while Sia tells us that "you did not break me, I'm still fighting for peace."  We have women to lead us into a future that is void of demands for incredibly specific types of relationships.  These women have sang to me for decades; I am so thankful that I have listened.

Music is only one aspect of our culture that impacts the way we envision our world.  It has always been very prevalent in mine, however.  Music is a necessity for my sanity.  As Bob Marley once said, "the thing about music is, once it hits you, you feel no pain."  Music is a powerful tool to help us through anything. It allows you to channel the emotions of another human being, expressing themselves in one of the most powerful ways, and experience a level of catharsis you wouldn't know how to access otherwise.  Music alleviates your pain for you, heightens your awareness of experiences and perspectives you may have never known about, and deepens the emotions and stance you have decided to take on a particular issue because it connects us to one another.  The way Betty Freidan pointed out that magazines once created a community for women to share the lifestyles they led in such a disconnected way, music now has entered an era where people who have never met embrace one another and create communities of new expectations and ideals.  And with the women I have listened to over the years, the music that I have been drawn to, has allowed me to understand that I am good enough, complete even, on my own.  So where music can bring us together, it can also tell us that we don't have to be part of something to be beautiful.  We are complete entities, entirely our own. 

More and more, we receive images of women with careers and kids, careers and no kids, kids and no career, marriage and career and kids, marriage and career and no kids, and the gamut of combinations on lifestyle choices, because we have entered an era where those choices are now fully available to us, with limited judgment.  I say limited for a reason.  I still hear it all the time.  "When are you going to have kids?" "I have someone to fix you up with."  "Why don't you want to get married, again?"  It's incessant.  And it's incredibly annoying.  Have I not proven it enough to the people in my life that I am strong enough to make a decision about my interpersonal relationships with limited interference?  That is what astounds me so; in all other areas of my life, I have been found to be intimidating, scary, standoff-ish, and a thousand other words, to such a degree that people don't approach me about most things until they have gotten the opportunity to get to know me.  However, as strong as that personality trait is of mine, the stigma of a woman and man being together, happily ever after, is so much more powerful that vague strangers have the gull to ask me about my relationship status.  These people believe they know what is best for me.  Why?  Because for the last couple millennia, women have been told that their purpose revolves around the pleasure of a man.  We are here to serve.  From biblical reports of being created from a man, to laws regulating domestic abuse through the 1960s, women have been conditioned to believe that alone, they are lost. 

Contemporary musicians are encouraging us to look for a different answer.  Beyoncé says today that girls run the world.  Even Grace has remade the classic, "You Don't Own Me," with a modern twist, a man interrupting her, telling her he's good enough for her to settle down.  She continues to refuse.  Finally he realizes, "she will never, ever, ever be owned."  It's about time someone said it out loud.  The fact that it is a male rapper is just icing on the cake. 

My declaration isn't that love is a terrible thing.  Love is incredible when used for the right purposes; and in that regard, it should be used all the time, toward everyone.  Love has been so widely discussed because of its universality.  We all understand the need and the desire to have it in our lives.  Maybe if we began treating one another as divine creatures, worthy of unconditional love, rather than judging the deservedness of romantic love, we would all begin to benefit and find happiness with ourselves.  Women in music have figured this out, and they have taught the lesson to at least one of their listeners.  They're telling us we're perfect the way we are, and that we should find out what type of life we want, and simply create it.  That's been my plan all along.  Love has gotten in the way a few times.  Promises of intermittent joy don't make up for the time I have lost looking for my smile in another person's spirit.  Frankly, I think it's a lot easier to find those smiles inside of yourself.  No one knows you better than you, ultimately you have the upper hand in your happiness.  If you get stuck, have a bad day, or just feel down about yourself for any reason, turn on some iconic chick rock and listen with your spirit.  In the words of Jessie J, remember your worth; "I still fall on my face sometimes and I can't colour inside the lines, cause I'm perfectly incomplete; I'm still working on my masterpiece."


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