n.b. Songs in Conversation is a series of posts in which I write about two songs together. Sometimes the artists or thematic concerns makes the pairing obvious, for others the songs have somehow fallen together in my mind, answering each other in unexpected ways despite being from different times or genre. This the first of these posts since fall of 2014.
If you have spent much time on Twitter you may have come across the #MasculinitySoFragile hashtag. Tweets, like those collected in this Buzzfeed list, highlight the absurdity of the length to which masculinity might go to defend itself from the accusation of being “girly” or thought queer. The irony, of course, is that a gender identity supposedly based on its strength and toughness is so fragile that using a loofa sponge or liking Gilmore Girls threatens to destroy it. This fragility makes sense, though, when we consider the degree to which we are culturally-conditioned to think that gender is natural, emerging from some incontrovertible essence. Of course the lived experience of gender is much more complex than the framework of “traditional” views, even for the most “authentic” manly man out there.
I started to think about this sense of the embeddedness of gender and the possibility for feeling a disconnection from can seem like an authoritative voice, even as it demands the absurd from you, when I noted a peculiar detail of Laurie Anderson’s “Baby Doll,” a song I’ve enjoyed since it was first released.
“Baby Doll” is on 1989’s Strange Angels, an album that was a departure from Anderson’s earlier arty and experimental music, moving towards a more traditional and refined songcraft. Before this she was more of a performance artist, even though “O Superman” reached number two on the British charts in 1980, demonstrating the wider appeal of her work. You might know her from that song, or from her 1986 collaboration with Peter Gabriel.
I’ll let the self-proclaimed, “Dean of American Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau explain Strange Angels in his brief but glowing review on his website. He does a better job than I probably can,
Anderson feels powerless, a speck of dust at the speed of light, and these are the bleakest songs she’s ever written. Positing progress as the force that prevents history from righting itself, she looks the death of nature in its prosthetic eye and sees bad changes coming a lot sooner than, for instance, equal pay for women, which she calculates is due along about 3888. But she also feels connected to the pop firmament, often constructing her lyrics like a human sampler, and this is the most mellifluous music she’s ever recorded. She’s taken voice lessons to match the tunes she’s writing, and hired side people–notably Graceland bassist Bakithi Khumalo, whose fretless flow unifies the four lithest tracks–who she knows will add a savvy, sensual sheen to her most cerebral constructs. Some find these two pop moves a mark of compromise; I find them pleasingly complex. A soothing glimpse of the end of the world.
In other words, it would easy for some to call this album a “sell-out” compared to the perhaps less accessible, but no less bright music evident in her brilliant Home of the Brave film from 1986, which includes perhaps my favorite song by her, “Late Show.”
But, by comparison, “Baby Doll,” (my guess it is one of the four “lithe” tracks Christgau is talking about above), is a song for the radio—I mean, if the radio played interesting music. It not only has a hook, but it’s flagrantly steals it from one of the most famous songs in the public domain, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” This is a song that’ll get stuck in your head in a way only a pop song or a commercial jingle can. And yet, rolling around in the song’s Latin rhythm, carefully layered synths, sonic capaciousness, and stilted lyrical delivery, there is a notable detail in a story about a brain gone rogue.
The lyrics of the song are silly, “I don’t know about your brain, but mine is really bossy…” She sings of finding notes from her brain saying things like, “Why don’t you get a real job?” or “Get a horse!” The brain just wants to be right, to be pleasured. In the hook, he doesn’t want to just be taken “out to the park,” but “out to the movies” and “to Tahiti.” But what strikes me about this is how she genders her own brain as “he.” Considering this juxtaposition, I start to wonder about how her brain’s desires can be seen in a different light. The song’s title comes from her “male” brain’s patronizing her as “babydoll.” He loves it when she “comes when [he] calls.” He tells her “You don’t have to talk; I know it all,” but elsewhere in the song tries to convince her that “cow” is close enough to “horse” to be a synonym. He [the brain] is a boor and a clod.
The voice of the song—the “I”—on the other hand, is not explicitly gendered, except that of course that since it is sung by a woman in a voice that is identifiable as a woman’s (as least in terms of how I’ve been cultured to think a woman’s voice sounds like). While I think that is sufficient evidence to associate the voice with an embodied woman, I think other songs on Strange Angels provide thematic circumstantial evidence, like “Beautiful Red Dress,” which embraces menstruation as a point of womanly solidarity, or “Monkey’s Paw,” which warns of the dangers of giving into the pressures of bodily modification. However, even without that gender misalignment between brain and self, the disconnect created by the speaker’s lack of specific gender highlights the brain’s masculine identification.
But what does it mean that her “bossy” brain berates and infantilizes her, thinks only of its strange wants? Yes, I can imagine her brain representing a kind of internalized sexism, the voice of the patriarchy demanding to be both in charge and mothered, forcing her to question and doubt herself. But I also find it fascinating how it helps us consider how gender works as a kind of a frame for embodied behavior. Of course her brain is a “he,” he is freakin’ obnoxious and arrogant and demanding, and while none of those attributes are distinctly male, they are typically performed and embodied as a form of masculinity.
When I talk to my students about how gender is used to frame behavior I frequently use the case of a 28-year-old man in Brandon, Mississippi who was sentenced in 2000 to 20 years in prison for taking a 7-year old girl’s life-jacket to save himself in the choppy waters of the river, leading to her drowning. At the time, when this story made the national press, I remember a lot of rhetoric around it calling him a coward, questioning his manhood, and referring to the old custom of “women and children first.” Going back and reading news stories of the time about the case, I see that the situation might have been a little more complicated than the versions that made their way to me, but that doesn’t matter, because it was that very simplification that made framing the event in terms of his manhood possible.
What interests me about this (and what I ask my students to imagine) is what the criticism might have been if it were a woman who had done the same. I am sure the woman’s selfishness would have been juxtaposed to supposedly inherent “motherly instinct” of “real” women and she’d have been judged for not upholding the nurturing expectations of her gender. What becomes obvious in this consideration is the way the same actions are gendered in different ways that work to reinforce easily digestible narratives that evaluate human ethics. In these cases, gender’s constructed nature becomes obvious because the very acts being framed as violating manhood or womanhood are the same.
The first time this discussion came up with my students was because I had assigned a writing exercise wherein students chose a set of three songs (from a predetermined list) and had to write about what they saw as common threads in the work of one artist. One of the sets of songs were those by Loudon Wainwright III and among those songs was “Men” (which is also the one we used as an example in class), from 1992’s History, whose very first verse is a reference to the “women and children first” custom.
When a ship is sinking and they lower the lifeboats
And hand out the life jackets,
The men keep on their coats
The women and the children are the ones
Who must go first
And the men who try to save their skins
Are cowards and are cursed
Every man’s a captain, men know how to drown
Man the lifeboats if there’s room, otherwise go down
Unlike Anderson’s song, which creates a tension within its lithesome catchiness with a dialogic framework for its voices (her and her brain), Wainwright’s song is more straightforward. It does not have a hook, but its structure, rhyme scheme and thematic progression makes it cohere—men are captains and generals and kings, and bear the sad risks and responsibilities of the roles.
I’m surprised I’ve never written about Loudon Wainwright III’s songs on this blog. They seem so fecund for thinking and writing about. Now that it’s struck me to write about him I’ll return to his work to consider the problematics of his raw honest autobiography in songs like “Hitting You” and “A Father and a Son,” and maybe even the toxicity suggested in his daughter’s song to him “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole.”
What struck me about “Men” when I first heard it, however, was the way it calls into question the expectations of masculinity, the sense of disposability that also comes along with the problematic responsibilities that are a part of our culture’s view of manhood.
Most of my students react negatively to the song. It is too downbeat for them. Some students complain that he is whining. They can’t look past a man who is all in his feelings to see that their very reactions are influenced by what they have been conditioned to believe are acceptable expressions of manliness. For others, mostly young women keyed into the debates about gender in the cultural discourse, the song comes off as some kind of MRA anthem. The second verse especially rubs them the wrong way, because if the history of war has taught us anything it’s that despite lip service otherwise, we don’t really behave as if “When [women and children are] killed it’s not right.” The saga of war could probably stand to be re-written from the perspective of all the civilians killed. Men don’t just “kill [other] men in uniform.” And in the song’s conclusion, for Wainwright to sing that a man is “really just a drone…has no sting” is to understate male privilege, and the abuse and destruction wrought by unleashed masculinity.
Yes, in the final verse he explains,
It’s the men who have the power
It’s the men who have the might
And the world’s a place of horror
Because each man thinks he’s right
But nevertheless, his call for pity on men has a touch of distasteful narcissism to it. The way the masculinity he is critiquing targets women and the genderqueer shouldn’t be erased or men left off the hook for benefiting from all this to varying degrees.
And yet, despite this weakness in the song, I still think its plaintiveness and its willingness to challenge the absurd and self-destructive assumptions of ideal male behavior is powerful step towards dismantling toxic masculinity. The problem with MRAs and self-proclaimed betas is not that they can’t see the ways that masculinity is a harmful trap, but that they can’t take the next step to solidarity with women. Instead they transform it back into more misogyny, because they can’t stop seeing women as soft targets. But if more men and boys could see that while this “male” brain—a baby’s id made into adult ego, an invented voice that can be hard to take seriously, but that’s nonetheless dangerous—may feel like an inextricable part of who they are, it is also exists outside of us, and in women as well. Louis Althusser famously said, “ideology has no history,” and patriarchy seems like the most obvious successful ideology to convince us of this fact. What feels natural and spontaneous is the result of frequently invisible, complex, and even self-contradictory, ideas. Even a few minutes spent probing its assumptions reveals its disjunctures and pitfalls, but sometimes that fact seems worthless because even men who see this are often willing to bully and shout down a woman that might question a particular instance or manifestation of one of one of those disjunctures in a way he does not agree with. Mansplaining mansplainers mansplaining mansplaining to everyone but other men.
Robert Christgau is less generous to Loudon Wainwright III than he is to Laurie Anderson, and I can understand that. It seems like nearly every one of Wainwright’s songs is a social difficulty wrapped up in personal bitterness and delivered with language complex to the point of awkwardness and punctuated with a schoolboy crassness. But I appreciate his difficulty, the degree to which he is an acquired taste, a bit of a proud asshole. On songs like “Tonya’s Twirls” he brings together considerations of gender, class, sex and nationalism in a sneering song about Tonya Harding that’s entertainingly abrasive. I am hard-pressed to imagine anyone else pulling off such a feat with aplomb.
While as musicians and songwriters, Laurie Anderson and Loudon Wainwright III could probably not be more far apart (well, I guess they could, it depends on where you are looking from—I mean, The Roches do backing vocals on both albums these tracks are from) there is some essence of the weird that permeates their songs. Both write songs that function through defamiliarizing the everyday. Wainwright sings about death by describing the awkwardness of explaining to the waiter why he’s eating alone, and the creepiness of being alone at someone else’s house. Anderson explains that “language is a virus from outer space” and the title track of Strange Angels gives a heavenly evening spent with friends a sense of crucial mortality. “Baby Doll” even casts her brain into the role of an alien invader when it commands, “Take me to your leader,” a jokey moment that leads to her explaining that she doesn’t know George Bush.
I think developing a sense of defamiliarization with gender is a healthy thing. It is an important step in avoiding over-identification with it conclusions, since it seems more concerned with describing results in order to define causes, but as I’ve said when writing about a song before, gender is over-determined.