Joanna Whitehead reviews Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women And The Women Who Love Them, a collection of essays exploring misogyny in music
Content note: this post discusses graphically misogynistic song lyrics
Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women And The Women Who Love Them is a collection of essays by women exploring misogyny in music and the uncomfortable tension that arises when you discover your fave is probbo. As a music fan with an uneasy penchant for such output, I was excited to read this.
While this isn’t the first time women have reflected on this conflict – see Jessica Hopper’s landmark essay ‘Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t’ for a master class in how to smash this – it’s the first anthology of such writing that I’m aware of and a welcome addition to the canon.
The collection covers a broad cross-section of genres, including murder ballads, country, hip-hop, indie and pop. This was especially pleasing to me, as hip-hop tends to be the genre unfairly associated with misogyny in music. While it may be an undeniable and discomforting presence within some sections of hip-hop, the essays serve to remind us that it is not unique to the genre. If readers learn one thing from this book, it’s that sexism does not discriminate in terms of artistic expression and is something we can find in every musical category.
The usual suspects are all present and correct – Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Eminem – but there are also some unexpected contenders for the crown, such as The Divine Comedy and Pulp. An understanding or knowledge of each artist or genre is unnecessary and does not detract from my enjoyment of the essays. On the contrary; two of my favourite essays in the collection concern extreme metal and goth/industrial music, both genres I have limited knowledge of.
In addition to being a fan of extreme metal, Jasmine Hazel Shadrack is also a musician and performer, placing her in an ideal position to critique this genre. She does so with knowledge and expertise and makes some excellent points, asking: “What happens when you love a form of music that doesn’t love you back?”. Shadrack cites Deena Weinstein who suggests that: “the anti-female posturing of heavy metal stars relates less to misogyny than to a rejection of the cultural values associated with femininity”, but recognises that this is still sexist, nonetheless. Shadrack goes on to state that: “Loving a popular music form that exists on the periphery of the social mainstream, it is easy to assume that with a rejection of the hegemony, there would also be a rejection of that gender binary – but this is not the case.” Shadrack acknowledges that the genre is deeply patriarchal and assumes a passivity in women.
Shadrack goes on to profile the charmingly named Dutch band Prostitute Disfigurement. Their Facebook profile picture features the infamous images of the women murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper and the words ‘Hail Sutcliffe’, a reference to the notorious killer, while their back catalogue includes family friendly tracks such as ‘Chainsaw Abortion’, ‘Deformed Slut’, ‘Under The Patio’ and ‘Cum Covered Stab Wounds’. Not content with mere misogyny, the band are also raging homophobes and transphobes, with selected tracks including ‘Dismember The Transgender’ and a choice track titled ‘Rotting Away Is Better Than Being Gay’ [editor’s note: I would disagree]. I would argue that this information is more than sufficient to have a tangible understanding of the group’s politics, yet Shadrack makes the naive suggestion that the band may simply be: “using their band name, artwork and lyrics to foreground these issues, like the vegan band Cattle Decapitation”. I suspect Shadrack is covering all her bases in the face of the inevitable criticism that may come as a consequence of her essay, but this is something I remain sincerely doubtful of.
Using these examples, Shadrack argues that extremity is a crucial component of extreme metal. This, she states, begs the question: “Who is this extremity for? How is this ‘extreme’ when it becomes the normative modes of address and engagement that women are forced to deal with?” Written by someone who knows her subject inside out, Shadrack’s essay is excellent.
Alison L Fraser’s essay on the goth/industrial subculture, with specific reference to a band named Combichrist is interesting. She writes of being introduced to the band and their misogynistic songs (e.g. ‘Enjoy the Abuse’ and ‘Shut Up and Swallow’) when she was around 17-years-old, a time she describes as difficult and unhappy. Fraser states that she was “full of rage” at this time in her life and that listening to this music: “… allowed me to be as terrible and worthless as I felt”. It’s noteworthy that Fraser was taught that women were weak, pathetic and lazy, resulting in her hatred of women, a phase which has, thankfully, passed. Is it, therefore, any surprise that she loved this music?
Despite their obnoxious content, Combichrist are huge. Fraser cites an incredible event that occurred at Kinetik 5.0, Canada’s largest industrial and electronic music festival, in 2012. Two other bands that performed, Ad-ver-sary and Antigen Shift, created and played a video, called ‘We Demand Better’, live to the crowd following their performance, which preceded the headline acts of Combichrist and Nachtmahr. The video used production images from both bands, such as album cover images, music video clips and text from lyrics, to protest the racist and misogynist content that these two bands were churning out. The message was clear: the community deserved better. Can you imagine if more bands spoke out in this way? This is what allyship looks like! According to Fraser, Combichrist frontman LaPlegua has unsurprisingly failed to take responsibility for his work, stating instead that people are “over sensitive” and that “everybody’s offended by everything”. Someone also needs to tell him that his band name sounds like the name of a boiler crossed with a thrush treatment.
Thank goodness for Amanda Barokh and her excellently titled essay ‘How I learned to stop worrying and love “Big Pimpin”’, a song on constant heavy rotation in my house. Barokh tells of how the song – which she describes as: “one of the most caustically misogynistic songs of recent times” – contributed to her claiming her Arab heritage due to the song’s sampling of an Egyptian song from the 1960s. Barokh states: “If Arabic music was cool enough for Jay-Z then maybe it was cool enough for me”.
Barokh continues to analyse the track, positing the idea that the hypermasculinity featured throughout is: “employed as a shield against the vulnerability men expose themselves to if they leave themselves open to love”. She argues that: “there is power in not surrendering to love and in staying free from the shackles of emotional attachment. One way to do that is to objectify women and treat them purely as sex objects.” Bingo! While Barokh acknowledges how toxic masculinity can also hurt men, she then goes on to state that: “we are all [men, women and everyone else] victims of power structures”, which I can’t help but feel is a massive cop-out. While it may be true, it doesn’t excuse men from wielding their power to harm women which they arguably do. I can’t deny that it is a sweet hook, though …
Johanna Spiers’ piece on feminism and hip-hop included a welcome reference to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’, arguing that this controversial tune is “a lovable ode to women who eat properly and who should be proud of their round rears”. I struggle with this, as I also love this song, but disagree with Spiers’ analysis. Regardless of her size, the song focuses on objectifying bits of a woman’s body and that doesn’t strike me as enormously empowering; this needs to be on a woman’s terms, not a man’s. Neither does a track that states: “when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and a round thing in your face/you get sprung” [this refers to an erection].
I did like that Spiers, a self-confessed hip-hop head, acknowledges the wealth of hip-hop artists who rap about politics, equality and love. Readers looking to explore such artists would do well to check out Arrested Development, Dead Prez and Public Enemy.
A recurring theme for a number of authors in this collection was their internalised misogyny and how they felt “uncomfortable” with their womanhood or disliked being a woman. Charlotte Lydia Riley explicitly acknowledges this: “Girly music wasn’t for me. I had fallen for the line that lies unspoken in so much pop cultural critique, that anything beloved of teenage girls must be stupid (because, of course, deep down, we all believe that teenage girls are stupid, too).” There seems to be an understanding of the “cool girl” trope, but in the same mouthful, some contributors seem to be defining themselves in this way. Larissa Wodtke, for example, spends much of her essay outlining the ways in which she is different from other women who like music, stating: “I know and enjoy music in a way that ‘other girls’ don’t.” While her essay does explore her alienation from womanhood and her non-binary identity, I fear that she is doing other women a disservice by assuming that musical knowledge, fandom or even obsession is inherently not something that women do. And, this is incorrect.
There is only one essay concerning women artists who produce sexist music, namely, Charlotte Lydia Riley’s on Taylor Swift. Listening to The Pussycat Dolls’ ‘Don’t Cha’ was a seminal moment in my feminism that inspired me to pick up a pen and paper and begin writing about feminism, so I’d have liked to have read more about this.
I also felt that the collection could have done with a heavier edit and spotted a number of typos and grammatical errors which detracted slightly from the content. Also, does Manon Steiner really believe that Mick Jagger is “unmistakably straight”? The rumours about Jagger and Bowie are as old as time. I also struggled with Steiner’s assertion that “our gender’s” attraction to Jagger reveals: “… an archaic desire to be dominated”. I don’t think everyone sexually attracted to Jagger necessarily wants to be dominated by him and neither do I think people’s desire for him is restricted to a single gender, assuming that there is such a thing (and I would argue otherwise).
I was also enjoying Kelly Robinson’s insightful and knowledgeable description of murder ballads, a genre which some scholars argue were created and passed on as an oral tradition to warn young girls of the dangers that could befall them should they not be “cautious around men”. My feelings take a turn, however, when she states that the murders featured in the aforementioned ballads: “… are the result of love rather than hate”. While the men in these songs may well insist that they love the women they have murdered, the failure to challenge this disturbs me. We all know how many women a week are killed at the hands of men and, I would argue, that the general populous tends to have an increased understanding that it is not “love” that makes men harm women, but an effort to retain power and control. For this not to be acknowledged strikes me as remiss.
That said, the range of writers in the collection is excellent, from established, professionals to less experienced authors. It’s great that the editors chose a diverse selection of voices for the book.
In conclusion, Rhian E Jones neatly summarises my feelings and, I suspect, many other women’s on the subject of misogyny in music:
Acknowledging and exploring the tension between existing as a woman and identifying with male creators or narrators is just that – recognition, not resignation or acceptance. It’s an eternal journey with no comfortable destination in sight.
While this book doesn’t make you feel guilty about listening to music with a side order of misogyny, let’s never stop thinking critically about this and look forward to a day where this is an uncomfortable choice we’re no longer required to make.
Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women And The Women Who Love Them is published by Repeater and is available to purchase here.
The picture at the top of the page is the front cover of Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women And The Women Who Love Them. It’s a white cover, with a pair of bright red, snarling lips staring back at you.