Last week I wrote about VH1’s Metal Evolution and was thrilled to see it linked to Banger Film’s social media. I never actually expected anyone to see what I wrote, so I wasn’t thinking about readers’ reactions. Yet of all the possible reasons to balk, the one that jumped out was calling the show on its gender imbalance. Feminism somehow trumps Marx and Freud on the controversy-meter.
First, I stand corrected: there were not three women interviewed in the eleven hours; there were ten.
And, of course, there’s the inherent numbers problem: how many women of metal are there? No one would take Ken Burns to task for leaving women out of his documentary on baseball.
But music is, obviously, very different. The easy solution to the skew would be a Women in Metal (or Hard Rock) episode. It was the first thing I thought of. And it would probably be great. This has been Rolling Stone magazine’s way around their usual disparity. Yet while it solves one problem—balance and equality—it raises another: wouldn’t it be better to include women throughout the year rather than offer the consolation prize of a separate—and, according to the Supreme Court, by necessity, unequal—issue? There is something about a special issue reserved for women that smacks of tokenism, as though female musicians didn’t make the real cut but want their Participant ribbon.
But you know what? The truth is, I’m not going to resolve any of this here. And that’s OK with me.
Here’s what I’m really interested in, anyway: how gender works in rock, or whether gender in rock even matters at all.
And one way for me to create the closest thing to a study of something as defiantly unempirical and unscientific as the meaning in music (evolutionary metaphors to the contrary) is to look at covers of songs where one version is performed by a man and the other by a woman. What difference—other than obvious vocal tone—does it make?
No, Joan Jett didn’t write it or even record it first. But when you listen to The Arrows plod through it—their own song!—after years of hearing Jett, you wonder why she even thought it would be worth recording at all. When sung by a guy—or maybe, in fairness, THIS guy—it seems a pretty typical homage to the joys of jailbait, and the references to dimes and jukeboxes sound pathetic, nostalgic, and dated, even in the 1970s.
OK, the video does seem a little goofy today. (See a smokin’ 1980s live version here; I didn’t want to compare studio to live.) But the gender inversion works wonders. Instead of seeming pathetic, like some dude in his 20s (30s?) hanging out by the record machine hoping to pick up a girl about seventeen, Jett seems tough, in control, and able to breathe life into the phrase “I Love Rock & Roll,” a deathly cliché for The Arrows but totally believable and sincere here—even as the butchy jacket and bangs suggest a singer with a wink and wry ironic sensibility.
I know you didn’t need to click on the link—you can hear the whole song in your head at this point just by reading the title. OK, not rock, exactly, but certainly rockin’, a song that has become synonymous with post-breakup empowerment for a generation of women lip-synch sobbing into their hairbrushes.
Cake did a brave thing by covering a song that women own. And unlike The Arrows, their version, way after it became iconic, wears well. But it’s nothing like the original. Where Gaynor belts it out, Cake plays it cool, except for the one lyrical update, “stupid lock” becomes “fucking lock.” With that shift, and overall laconic, behind-the-beat delivery, the song seems less about getting over an ex than an angry passive-aggressive possible psycho holding a grudge, the mantra of the jilted stalker who protests too much more than the surviving girlfriend. Its cool façade can’t cover the righteous anger.
The famous, the classic, but not the original.
Elvis was hated and feared for his devastating hip swivels and pelvic thrusts in his day, but funnily enough, his Hound Dog is neutered compared to Big Momma’s. The gender inversion is just weird when you think about it: when sung by a woman, the song is clearly about a cheating man. You hear tha anger, but also the passion. When sung by a man, however beautifully Elvis emotes and growls, it seems to be about… a hound dog. But, you know, 100,000,000,000 fans can’t be wrong.
(YouTube won’t let me link to the video, so here is a live version, despite what I said above)
Bias: Possibly the best song on possibly one of the best albums ever. I vividly remember the first time hearing this when it was released and thinking, “This is like nothing I ever heard.” It’s like all the heroin in their bodies somehow seeped into the recording, so that between the delay on the guitar riff, the echoing shriek, the modulating keys, and the bouncing beat, it feels like the best nightmare. The guitar and vocals are somehow so metal yet so blues that it’s no surprise that the song appealed to…
Etta James. [UPDATE 5/30/12: the linked video has since been removed] Too many variables: gender, but also race and age. Still, James’s version makes the jungle seem like a funhouse, less frantic than Guns and more inevitable: if you’re lucky, and you live, maybe you can enter my jungle. The thing that’s dangerous in this version of the song isn’t LA, rock, or drugs. It’s Etta James.
Case #4a: Girls, Girls, Girls, Motley Crue
When feminists want a case-in-point for rock misogyny, they have one-stop shopping with Crue. “Break her face or take down her legs” in Live Wire; “Use you up, throw you away” in Piece of Your Action, and this. I hate to get all feminist theory again after last week, but this is a case study of the male gaze, where women exist only as objects. But the issue isn’t whether anyone agrees with that point, since it’s obvious. The issue is whether you object.
4b: Take it Off, The Donnas
No, this is not, of course, a cover. But it’s a great flipside and way to wrap after Girls x3. Taken together, these songs force the listener to consider: What changes when women play and sing a song that objectifies men, where they’re the rockers and the subjects of the sexual chase? The lyrics certainly invert the Crue:
Need your love 1,2,3
Stop starin’ at my D cup
Don’t waste time, just give it to me
C’mon baby, just feel me up
C’mon, just give it up
Go on and take it off
You gotta shake it off baby, for me.
In many ways, it’s less a tribute to MCrue than it is to Joan Jett, decades later. Reversing the gaze doesn’t seem demeaning to them, or, really, to men.
And the video, playing on viewers’ latent biases and sexpectations of what women in rock are supposed to look and act like, is worth more than a mountain of Rolling Stone’s Women in Rock issues.
Commenters: Got more examples of songs covered by both men and women? Post and discuss.
Time: I’d love to keep going, but even rushing and trying to keep it short I’m at 60 minutes.