The Line That Lies Unspoken

Eli Davies & Rhian E. Jones (eds.), Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women That Love Them

Repeater Books, 326pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781910924617

reviewed by Thom Cuell

We all have our guilty pleasures – the songs that we can’t help singing along to, even when we’re trying not to think too hard about what the words are actually saying. There comes a time, though, when we are forced to make decisions about the art we consume, and what it says about us as individuals. In many ways, the dilemma facing the consumer of culture is the same as that of the high street shopper: do we boycott artists who contravene our personal ethics and attempt to patronise only certifiably ethical products, or is it enough to simply be aware of the problematic aspects of what we are buying? Or do we just not care? As Claire Dederer asked in her Paris Review essay ‘What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?’:

'Is it simply a matter of pragmatics? Do we withhold our support if the person is alive and therefore might benefit financially from our consumption of their work? Do we vote with our wallets? If so, is it okay to stream, say, a Roman Polanski movie for free? Can we, um, watch it at a friend’s house?’

It is this negotiation between taste and ethics that Under my Thumb, edited by Rhian Jones and Eli Davies, explores: the initial excitement of hearing a song, followed by the realisation that it contains a hostile, or outright misogynistic, message – or, that it describes a world which has no place for you. Jones, in her own essay ‘You Shouldn’t Take It So Personal: Bob Dylan and the Boundaries of Rebellion’, discusses the conflict between the euphoria provoked by Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and her discomfort at the song’s lyrical content. Dylan was part of a subculture which was rebellious but also masculinist. Jones incisively describes the interaction between the ‘angry young men’ of the protest movement and the ‘bored, thrill-seeking It Girls and heiresses who possessed power through wealth and social status.' In this milieu, sex was seen as a weakness, a way for men to strike a blow for their class by seducing a wealthier woman, ‘ruining’ her, with the consequence that ‘this song of individual agency, liberation and escape is also built around a woman’s downfall.' This trope features in several Dylan songs of the period (and, later, in a number of Pulp songs). As much as Jones wants to identify with the class politics of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and express the same sense of injustice, the intersection of these ideas with regressive gender politics acts to exclude listeners like her.

In addition to issues of interpretation, there is the question of whether we can, or should, separate the artist from the art. Dederer recalls a conversation with a male acquaintance who insisted that Woody Allen’s film Manhattan must be judged only on its ‘aesthetics’:

'Which of us is seeing more clearly? The one who had the ability – some might say the privilege – to remain untroubled by the filmmaker’s attitudes toward females and history with girls? Who had the ability to watch the art without committing the biographical fallacy? Or the one who couldn’t help but notice the antipathies and urges that seemed to animate the project?'

Jones and Davies argue, in their introduction, that the ability to judge art purely on aesthetics is a function of privilege, and that the instinctual awareness of ‘antipathies and urges’ is a result of women’s real-life experiences of misogyny. They write:

'The ability to consume 'problematic' media often relates to your real-life proximity to it. Men do not face the same threat of sexual violence, harassment and objectification that women do, and so will necessarily have a different reaction to hearing music which is predicated on the subordination, exploitation or exclusion of women.'

All this is not to say that there is an inherent link between misogynistic lyrics and actual physical or mental abuse of fans (although this does, clearly, happen) – it does, though, create an unwelcoming atmosphere for female music fans. Jones and Davies point out the dominance of men in music criticism ('Traditionally, the boys not only do music, they also criticise, analyse and canonise music. The girls? We're just there to applaud and appreciate’). Beyond this, there is a pronounced imbalance in the treatment of women in the music industry. On a practical level, this is manifested in everything from sound engineers who only listen to the male members of bands, to audience members groping crowd surfers, to a lack of hygiene facilities in rehearsal spaces and music venues. In the wider culture, as Charlotte Lydia Riley points out in her essay on Taylor Swift, there is '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)'.

Importantly, Under My Thumb does not confine its critique to mainstream artists, but also demonstrates that subcultures can be equally hostile places for female music fans. Non-mainstream genres draw part of their cultural capital from their hostility towards teenyboppers and ‘music for girls’. This attitude contributes to hostile behaviour, even in outwardly right-on movements. (I’m reminded of fans at All Tomorrow’s Parties, in 2000, posting creepy notices about Lauren Laverne on the informal festival noticeboard, and a man in a Tortoise t-shirt running between chalets at 2am with his cock out). Structural imbalances and regressive attitudes to women are also identified within the goth, emo and American indie scenes. Judith May Fatallah’s essay on emo, ‘Invisible Girls’, is particularly strong in its discussion on queer or feminine behaviours being acted out by heterosexual males onstage. It might be less of a surprise to learn that extreme metal is founded on an ‘overarching patriarchal narrative’, which, in the case of Norwegian black metal, has involved participants embracing far-right ideologies and committing murder. But Jasmin Hazel Shadrach’s discussion of female musicians attempting to create their own spaces within the movement is an example of the positivity which can be found within Under My Thumb.

Published in the year of #MeToo, Spacey and Weinstein, a cynic could describe Under My Thumb as a contribution to call-out culture, and certainly there are plenty of heroes and national treasures held up for critique here – Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon in particular, for men of my generation. However, there is much more to it than that. The essays, always sharp, often indulgent, funny and introspective, are an important and welcome addition to critical discourse on music, and challenge the reader to evaluate their own guilty pleasures.