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Women on the music they love (but doesn’t love them back)

Under My Thumb is a new collection of essays by women on how they reconcile their politics with the often misogynistic music they love

When I was a young, impressionable, pre-teenager, I discovered my first love: pop punk. Shortly after, I fell in love with emo, its sadder cousin. I loved everything about them both: the words, the style, the sad, heartbroken men who wailed about the girls who had hurt them. I happily sang along with lyrics about the “whores” that had wronged these men, I went to shows where I was groped and punched before I had even turned 14, and, despite considering myself pretty feminist even then, saw no issue at all with any of the above. As I got older, though, I started to actually think about the songs; about the emotional manipulation and hateful words hidden beneath power chords and heartfelt choruses.

Now, it’s 2017, and while I still love some of the less problematic pop punk, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore that sick feeling in my gut when I listen to it. When I think about all of the men in the scene who’ve been outed over the years for being predatory towards underage women. When, recently, the lead singer of my favourite band confessed to just that. There is very real misogyny in the scene I’ve been in for half my life, and it’s getting harder to reconcile that with my politics.

Sadly, I can only delete bands from my playlists and stop going to their shows; I can’t retroactively fix whatever makes me love those whiny, nasally, melodramatic songs in the first place. In a new collection of essays, Under My Thumb, women writers explore their experiences of loving music that doesn’t love them back. Every essay explores a different song and artist that the writer loves and how they reconcile their enjoyment of these troubling, off-putting, or dubious songs with their personal politics. Together with the editors, Rhian E. Jones and Eli Davies, we’ve curated a collection of essay extracts from the book alongside the song they explore.


Stephanie Phillips: The main reason I love Spector’s work, especially his early work, is because it captures the voices of young black women, a segment of society that was rarely heard at the time. As a black woman, it’s reaffirming to know some of the greatest hits were made with the talent, youth and spirit of people like me. And it is because I connect so deeply with these young black women that it hurts even more to acknowledge the reality of who Spector was and how he treated his stars. To be both a feminist and a Spector lover is to be constantly at odds with oneself, as his aggressive personality is integral to the quality of the music he made. The Spector that instantly brings a smile to my face when I hear ‘Be My Baby’, and brought me my heroines in the form of Darlene Love and Ronnie Spector, stays with me most often, and the Spector that is a violent, abusive, gun-obsessed murderer visits less frequently.


Rhian E. Jones: When I first heard it, Dylan’s vitriol towards ‘Miss Lonely’ was alive with the electric class rage that I was learning how much I wanted to express. The song’s critique, after all, is not simply of a woman but of one who has squandered the opportunities her status affords and who has, until now, experienced life’s lower reaches safely and vicariously. As someone conscious that I too hadn’t gone to the finest schools, that I would never be a debutante, I could sing along until my throat was raw. But I also found it impossible to ignore that my identification with the singer – and more broadly with Dylan as hero-rebel-outsider – could only shakily translate into reality. It was difficult to imagine the song’s story working with the genders reversed, in a world where sexuality is still seen as a weapon for men but a point of weakness for women.


Eli Davies: The whole thing is a deep, thick pool of jealousy and pain; desire is transformed into something sinister and violent, a woman is sneered at, dismissed, her body instrumentalised, but none of this is this hidden; it’s all on plain, ugly show. Costello observes women, pays attention to them; the problem lies in the fact that he often then uses them as a locus of whatever broader war against stupidity, complacency or selfishness he happens to be feeling the need to wage. And this is difficult as a woman listener because it can make it hard to shake off the feeling that this music isn’t really intended for you, that you are just a bit player in some bigger, more important drama.


Rachel Trezise: ‘You get nothing for nothing’ was the line that really resonated though. From that I deduced that the lyricist’s gripe was not with women in general, but with women who did nothing. I knew those women; I was surrounded by them. I suppose I imagined that when I did something – became a tattooist or an architect or whatever I intended for myself at that time – I could still reap respect from men like the one who wrote these lyrics. Having a use for myself would mean that nobody else would need to find one for me. The ‘turn around bitch’ line I just sort of disregarded.


Marissa Chen: ‘Across The Sea’ had been about me. In fact, it was about every girl whom Rivers Cuomo thought could look the slightest bit like me. It didn’t matter if we’d worn our hair differently, or been born in different decades, or dreamt from different rooms in vastly different cities around the world. It wouldn’t even matter if none of us were Japanese. ‘Stationery so fragile’ was the flimsy scrap we converged on despite knowing who we were, because up until that point there had been no scraps at all.


Jude Rogers: When a pop star is a voice in your ear, you’re the person giving it consent. When their mouth and his tongue is between your hammer and anvil, you’re saying yes. You’re taking the words that filter through, the words you choose to hear, and giving them your own narrative and images. You’re taking them in the ways you want to them: you’re heightening their lustfulness, or dampening down their deviations, according to your own imagination. I did this with Jarvis every time I played Different Class’s ‘Pencil Skirt’, imagining I was the woman in the song, the woman who was engaged to someone else but having him, telling him it was alright. I also loved it when I told him to stop. After all, I knew the rules of the game. I was defining them.