Broad and interesting…a necessary and enlightening read. --The Wire
About the Author
Rhian E Jones is former editor of New Left Project and author of Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender, Petticoat Heroes and Triptych. She writes for various publications including The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books and The Morning Star.
Eli Davies is a writer, researcher and former editor of New Left Project. She has written on music, politics, popular culture and literature for the Guardian, Noisey, the Quietus and New Statesman.
John Lennon, by his own admission, was a jealous guy. Hence the song of that name on the ‘Imagine’ album. That same sentiment had been expressed by him in more extreme form on The Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ album, in the song ‘Run For Your Life’, which includes the lyrics “Well, I’d rather see you dead little girl/Than to be with another man” – a line borrowed from the Elvis number ‘Baby Let’s Play House’, written by Arthur Gunter. Indeed, you don’t have to go far to find that women are treated very badly in popular music. Nor is this, sadly, something only to be found in the past.
Even today much music making and music criticism is male-dominated and tends either to ignore women or to treat them purely as male appendages, and what is true of the mainstream is equally true of most branches of the music scene.
Inspired by the response, on social media and elsewhere, to Eli Davies’s ‘Retrospective Sexism: How Women Are Written Out of British Indie Music History’, which in turn was partly inspired by Emma Jackson’s 2005 ‘Huffington Post’ piece ‘Indie Music’s Women Problem and Retrospective Sexism’, Davies and her co-editor, Rhian E. Jones, have put together ‘Under My Thumb’ to examine the subordination, exploitation or exclusion of women in song and the paradox that many of these songs are still beloved by many women.
In addition to the introduction there are twenty-nine essays by women, including separate pieces by the two co-editors, on everything from doo-wop to hip-hop, taking in the likes of Phil Spector, Dylan, Jagger, Rod Stewart, Van Halen, Elvis Costello, Tupac, Eminem, Jarvis Cocker, Kanye West and Taylor Swift, amongst others, along the way.
Of course it’s in the nature of a book like this that one will quite readily think of many other artists or songs which merit inclusion, such as Neil Young (‘A Man Needs a Maid’); The Police (‘Every Breath You Take’); The Bloodhound Gang (‘The Bad Touch’); Pitbull (‘Timber’); David Guetta (‘Sexy B***h) and so on almost ad infinitum, which rather proves the point about the ubiquity of misogyny in music.
In short, this book performs an important function in drawing attention to what we all, women and men alike, can all too unthinkingly absorb and thereby, to a degree, legitimise. It is thought provoking and informative without appearing in the least didactic.
There's not a lot that's new in this collection of essays, which, in the main, follow a theme of women (rightly) decrying misogyny in music while saying 'I love it so I'm going to carry on listening anyway'. To be fair, there is some genuinely insightful, sparky writing here - the contributions on murder ballads and Pulp were both surprising and rewarding, especially given as I'm a fan of both and can clearly see how they may be problematic. But it's disappointing that all but one contributor misses one vital fact: popular music is, was, and always will be about sex, and while men are the primary purveyors of it - whether on a stage or in the boardroom - the music women listen to will always be about sex via the male gaze. If, as women, we want to hear something different - and for our daughters to do so, too - we need to get out there and make music ourselves; not to merely consume, but to create.
Unfortunately, and however well intentioned, this book does little to inspire such action; rather, it simply repeats and rehashes so much of what's been said a thousand times already (is Taylor Swift REALLY a feminist? Oh, and rap can be sexist. No. Way.). A wasted opportunity, Under My Thumb is less a rallying cry and more a resigned shrug.
My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Under My Thumb is surprising. I expected an intense feminist screed attacking the whole music industry. But instead it is a thoughtful, personal and extraordinarily well written collection of 29 essays (mostly from the UK and the USA) showing the awesome power of the pop music industry over women. Because all the women who submitted contributions fell under the sway of their favorite singers and bands, and end up defending them, despite the admitted sexism, the overtly offensive lyrics, the misogyny and the violence they preach and perform.
It is very personal and often very deep. There are family situations, teenage angst, class warfare and unattainable aspirations all over these essays. There are extenuating circumstances and rationalizations galore. The authors know full well how obnoxious the singers are, how horrific the lyrics are, and how damaging they can be. One woman wants to protect her ten year old daughter from seeing her favorite band that she herself can never get enough of.
They almost all become apologists for the likes of Kanye, Guns N Roses, Eminem, Tupac, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. They admit they are actually drawn to murder ballads. “Even when he’s tackling the most reprehensible of topics, I am still desperately, guiltily enthralled” is a very typical admission in Under My Thumb. Many don’t mind memorizing the words of abuse heaped on women. The essays are sharp and well written, analytical, fair, but above all, cathartic.
They are not naïve, either. The authors are mostly academics, 30ish, and freelance writers. At some point in their adolescence, they all came to some variant of the same conclusion: “Men who claim to be down for the cause will merrily sit upon the pedestal you give them, and not knowing or asking how not to, they will continue to hold in place every facet of the system that oppresses you.” A lot of the authors like to say their relationship to the artist/band is “complicated”.
The authors take their favored genre very seriously, assigning all kinds of importance, significance and virtuosity to it, be it death metal, hip-hop or rock’n’roll. To them, the genres showcase enormous talents, are microcosms of society, and demonstrate great depth of feeling and insight. Also astonishing subtlety and nuance. But they’re sexist: blatantly, revoltingly, and humiliatingly. (In the case of death metal, the author has a solution: more women in the bands.)
The irony, if that’s what it is, is that when asked, the musicians all seem to claim the women took it too literally. Like this from AC/DC: “We take the music far more seriously than the lyrics, which are just throwaway lines.” But the pen is mightier than the sword, and the harm done is simply beyond the comprehension of these musical geniuses. The essay authors are torn.
The essays seem to be blind contributions; there are no references to each other. Had they seen each other’s work, perhaps they wouldn’t be so repetitive. But the near unanimity of it all is striking by itself. It comes from many angles, and ends in doubt, which is far too charitable an outcome.
Your favorite movie. Your favorite TV show. Your favorite author. Your favorite musician. Your fave is problematic. You should definitely stop liking them.
This is a common refrain on the internet. This 'problematic fave' meme has gotten to the point where it's more a joke than anything, something someone rolls their eyes at and keeps moving. Because our faves are our faves, problematic or not. And we're not interested in someone who isn't a die hard fan telling us why our beloved show, our beloved book, the song we listened to on repeat during our misspent youth, makes us bad people with no sense of the realities of this world.
And this is a problem. Because these things need to be talked about. We, the fans of Joss Whedon, the fans of Johnny Depp, the fans of Eminem, the fans of The Rolling Stones and Kanye West and yes, Taylor Swift. We need to be aware that our faves need to be held accountable for their actions, for their words, for their inaction.
This book is not about how your faves are problematic and you should hate them. This collection of essays, written by a diverse and talented group of women, is about how your faves are problematic and it is okay that you still love them.
That is the most important take away from this wonderful collection of essays on the intense problem in this variety of musical genres with the degrading and devaluing of women. It would have been very easy to have this book focus on the obvious genres. Hip hop, classic rock. But we also have classic country, emo, heavy metal, goth industrial*. These essays are in chronological order based on when the music was released, meaning the first chapter references Dion and the Belmonts (didn't see that coming, did you?).
This is exactly what is needed in any discussion of problematic faves. This isn't a bunch of old people screaming about the "kids today and their music." These are Guns n Roses fans talking about 'You're Crazy'. These are Tupac fans talking about "Wonda Why They Call U *****". These are the voices needed in any talks of misogyny and the problems with normalizing it in any form of art. The problem with letting the harsh words go in one ear and out the other, the problem with being okay with this treatment because "those women" being talked about are (obscenity removed), you're not like them, it's okay because it's not about you.
These authors aren't telling you to hate these artists. They're telling you they love them, too, but that these problems need to be addressed. Love the artist, but expect better from them, and future artists in the genres we love.
Received via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review
* Didn't even know this was a thing. Learned so much from this book.