Women and/or Rock


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?

Case #1:

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. 

Case #2

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. 

Case #3

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.

Case #4

(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.

Jesse Kavadlo

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11 thoughts on “Women and/or Rock

  1. Being a fan of rock and metal and being a woman who happened to look like Joan Jett back then and who has personally sang I love Rock and Roll while drunk has only one thing to say…..I totally agree. So far no woman has really rocked but we can look to the future maybe some rockin’ woman will come along……

    Great post.

    • jkavadlo says:

      Thanks, Strawberryindigo. Happy that you read and commented.

      As a guy I find it very trick to talk about gender at all without putting my foot in my mouth, so I’m happy for any support. The Joan Jett look is still pretty awesome, though.

  2. Johannes says:

    Okay, I’m still like totally behind in responses (and there’s something important I want to contribute to the previous entry), but so let me right now just write down the gender-crossing cover list that popped into my mind (but they’re not rock songs, so do I get points deducted?): “Universal Soldier” (Buffy St. Marie / Donovan); the Dylan song Adele has been super-successful with, “You’ve Got A Friend,” which I believe lots of folks think is a James Taylor song; “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”–which sounds very different between The Band and Joan Baez (and, of course, the thing about it being a song written from a male perspective). n

    Oh well.

    • jkavadlo says:

      Thanks as usual for reading and posting, Johannes. And thanks for more songs. Your last line, in parentheses, about the song “written from a male perspective” alone is fascinating. As with a few I mentioned, changing pronouns alone does not change perspective exactly, so it raises an interesting problem that there’s no way to settle here: what does “male perspective”–or “female perspective” mean?

  3. Another example perhaps, albeit a non-metal one would be “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Slightly less creepy when the male/female singing parts are role-reversed. (“Hey, what’s in this drink?”)

    Good read!

  4. jkavadlo says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Thanksinternet. Great example of how the lyrics can remain the same but the meaning, implication, or connotation can powerfully shift depending on the singer’s gender or identity.

  5. Al Kavadlo says:

    I was expecting you to mention Cheryl Crow’s cover of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” but you threw us a curve ball with Etta James’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” Nice write up, Jess.

  6. Liz Kavadlo Seymour says:

    really interesting Jesse!

  7. jkavadlo says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Al. A longer post could have had more examples–I’m especially sad to have left off Respect, originally recorded by Otis Reading but them owned by Aretha Franklin.

    Cheryl Crow pretty much took GnR’s most sincere ballad and made a more sincere more-ballad of it. She (and Etta James) also proved that Axl has the range of a man and a women put together. No man besides Axl can actually sing these songs.

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