This is my contribution to this year’s Unbest blog. You can see more entries here.
In case you’ve managed to forget the incessant phone calls, e-mails, attack ads, and debates, 2012 was a political year. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a politician using popular music to further his or her agenda, nor, seemingly, could a politician open his or her mouth without talking about ‘women’s issues,’ from birth control to equal wages. The refrain ‘war on women’ was oft-repeated, and someone even had the acuity and audacity to label it the war on men.
My Unbest songs – one a tragic ballad, the other a defiant anthem – are by women about women responding to societal oppression. Their tone and conclusions are influenced by the times they came of age and in which the lyrics were written, but both are still relevant and will remain so. Even when pushing forward, we shan’t forget what we’ve escaped.
Lissie, “Cuckoo” from Catching a Tiger.
The video isn’t exactly my taste, but it is lovely to see a woman taking charge (of her education, sex life, career, etc.) and encouraging young girls to do the same. These lyrics could have been written as a class exercise on feminism. Wanting to be defiant, walking alone, etc., could all be ascribed to teenage angst or people trying to be Their Own Person In A Sea Of Mediocrity, but the song is clearly by a Thelma and Louise -esque narrator. Finally taking a leap with another [woman], a roaring vehicle, ‘they’re telling our story on the radio,’ ‘they couldn’t break us,’ the two never growing old, etc; it could serve as the Thelma and Louise DVD synopsis.
The line that gets me, though, is ‘you don’t have to be quiet no more.’ Women throughout patriarchal history are to be seen and not heard; like small children, women are to be subdued, dignified, polite, unquestioning, and obedient. Bombastic, powerful, self-assured, women, those who raise their voices, are referred to in a derogatory way by many, including an absurd number of 2012’s headline-makers. We are told to be objects of desire, cookers of meals, fillers of binders. But Lissie crows triumphantly WE DON’T HAVE TO BE QUIET NO MORE, something generations had been waiting for Thelma and Louise to come along and say. “Cuckoo” is conquering, celebratory, defiant of 2012’s sexist mantra.
Even as we acknowledge we still have much to fight for, we can join this anthem to the progress we’ve made and those who paved the way, specifically women who hurtled themselves off a cliff and into freedom.
Lucinda Williams, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” from Twistable Turnable Man
– Listen here or it’s available on various streaming services.
While this ballad has themes from Thelma and Louise, it’s also akin to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Boy, systematically oppress a group of people for hundreds of years, they can end up with some fatalistic thoughts.
The song has been performed by several artists, but I gravitate towards Lucinda Williams’s version for two reasons. First, the music is more of a dirge, rather than the ironically contrasting music most versions (Marianne Faithful, Belinda Carlisle) use. Second, the singers’ intention comes through, giving differing interpretations. Marianne Faithful’s version is more ‘funhouse’ and allows for Lucy to go to a mental hospital, whereas I hear more finality in Williams’s funeral sound and vocal intonations.
Together, Williams’s music and performance creates a feel which syncs with my view that Lucy Jordan jumped, was led gently down, and was driven to heaven – not an insane asylum – in the long white car. Some may think this interpretation more depressing, but as women’s mental hospitals in the 19th century were akin to religious descriptions of hell and purgatory, it’s a merciful, beautiful ending.
A better ending, of course, would be Lucy Jordan achieving agency, equality, choice, happiness. But as Chopin, Edith Wharton, Tolstoy, et al. so poignantly pointed out, attempts towards those things were always brought to a bitter end. Years after The Awakening came suffrage and voting and women like Lucinda and Lissie, but even 2012 was filled with battles for basic things won and lost. From regressing on equal pay to paying the ultimate price, perhaps we’re closer to Lucy Jordan and Thelma and Louise than we wish to acknowledge.
Melanie Killingsworth is a writer and filmmaker in Madison, WI. Her modern noir The Lilith Necklace (www.thelilithnecklace.com) is applying to a festival near you.