And here's our conversation—I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed having it.
At its core and for its first 25 years, all pop music was about women. Either songs written by men about women or to attract women. Or songs by women revealing to boys and men what it is like to be a woman. 3 min 30s being about the maximum length of time that any ordinary man can spend conjuring up ways of expressing love or lust. In its early days, many songs were written by men about men but were hidden under the accepted auspices of being about girls.
Pop songs in terms of their narrative and characters tend to create strong women. As subjects of affection they are pedestalled but not pitied. As heart-breakers they are strong and unyielding. And, as narrators, they have a self-worth and credibility that, in the other populist genre of the time, film, they lacked.
Samantha: When I've been serenaded (live, by the person who had written the song) I'm afraid I've felt hideously uncomfortable & massively anxious that I wasn't getting all the song's "hidden meanings".
But, my disastrous love life aside, my absolute favourite pop song is Wuthering Heights, and isn't that song about a woman declaring her love for a man?
Though I think you're going to tell me it's about being a woman, and a particular kind of woman, "hot", "greedy", motivated by "jealousy" and a need to "possess"...but she does kick off with an appeal to "HEATHCLIFF!"...
Ben: The Beautiful South – like Billy Bragg – so much better at writing love songs than political songs yet better known for the latter.
I think that “hidden meanings” don’t tend to exist in pop songs, even if you play them backwards (regardless of what the Evangelical Christian right would say). That is the magic of disposable pop; each listener can find what they want in it but, in general, the writer is pretty one dimensional in the message they are conveying. Simplicity lends the listener the opportunity to interpret in their own way.
Now Wuthering Heights is interesting because it is a song about a book – the narrative in the song isn’t really the narrative of novel. To me, the heroine in the song is not Cathy the character but Kate the writer. It is a song about a young woman’s reflections on being struck by a piece of art. I would say it is a song about a young woman declaring her love for life.
In terms of Kate Bush, I would say the true heroine is the narrator in The Man With The Child In His Eyes which, I think was actually written by her when she was only 14.
There is a simplicity to the narrative; and its melancholic joy is the very essence of the hold a song can have on you. Why is the narrator a heroine? Because despite her youth, her wondrous nature and her confusion, her thought is to worry about the stranger she loves. I mean, who wouldn’t fall for that!
So let me give you an alternative, Debbie Harry in Heart of Glass.
Not only is this in my opinion the greatest pop single ever made but lyrically, it puts the female narrator centre stage; not criticising her ex but writing off the relationship as a pain in the ass after her heart is broken.
Beating GirlPower by 15 years and Madonna by five, this is exactly the kind of song that all girls should live their lives by. So, whilst the debate has always been is Debbie Harry a feminist icon (I neither know nor care), the actual debate is whether, out of all of those who crawled out of CBGBs, she isn’t the one who has made the greatest, positive impact through her music let alone through her looks.
Samantha: Yes! Heart of Glass is a wonderful feminist anthem, I think...I love how, despite the melancholy, she is so breezy about moving on from Bad Men who just aren't worth the heartbreak.
As we're looking at songs narrated by women, I'd also make a case for Madonna's Papa Don't Preach, a really great song about a young woman standing up to her conservative father, and other patriarchal authorities and making a strong decision.
I also love Patti Smith's passionate, propulsive Gloria, where she rejects organised religion, victim-blaming and the patriarchy in favour of declaring love for another woman.
(I also love Kimberly, for its image of Smith as a young girl, holding her baby sister in her arms and watching a barn burn down from a lightning strike. She compares herself to "some misplaced Joan of Arc" and what's more heroic than that?
And I have a massive soft spot for pretty much every song on Sleeper's album Smart; especially the candid sexuality of the narrator of Delicious, and the clear-eyed realism of the girl who knows her boyfriend is "not a prince...not a king", that she's also "not a work of art or anything" and this relationship is just filler, he is just her Inbetweener.
Which makes me wonder, as I often have, if Voice of the Beehive's Don't Call me Baby is a riposte to all the many, MANY songs by men in which women are called that...?
Ben: Well the Ting Tings That's Not My Name is specifically about that. And brilliant for it.
So, what are the guiding lights – the five rules to be a successful heroine in a song?
I’d say Rule 1. You’re in control. Whether you are the subject of adoration or are adoring from near or far, you have got to be the one who calls the shots.
Samantha: Good first rule! I think, Rule 2: the heroine has a point of view. She has an opinion, she has thoughts, and she's not afraid to talk about them.
This doesn't mean she can't be talking about being afraid...Hounds of Love (yes, Kate Bush again) is brilliant on fearing love but wanting to let go of that fear so she can take off her shoes and throw them in a lake (etc.)
I also like Ani DiFranco's Not a Pretty Girl, about resisting the meanings other people have put on her: "I am not a pretty girl...I ain't no damsel in distress...I am not an angry girl...I am not a maiden fair...I am not a kitten" and so on.
Katy Perry's Roar would be a contender if it weren't for the video...I don't need to see her surviving a plane crash by giving an elephant a pedicure, and using berry juice for lipstick...the song, though, is a bit of a guilty pleasure...
I LOVE Transvision Vamp's I Want Your Love; she says clearly what she wants, and what she doesn't want. It's exhilarating.
And Suzanne Vega's Luka is interesting because she is singing from the perspective of a 9-year-old boy who is being abused, but the song also contains and expresses her own feelings about what is happening to him, her fury, her concern, her despair; it also feels like a song about empathy; she is putting herself into the child's shoes, trying to imagine how he feels. And I wonder how important empathy is to pop songs...wanting to feel strong feelings, or for someone to express the strong feelings we can't articulate ourselves...
But I worry all these songs are sung by women...surely there must be heroines in songs sung by men?
Ben: I’d like to add one example to your Rule 2, the narrator in All Saints' Never Ever. One of the greatest break-up songs ever written exposing her vulnerability at the beginning “I need to know what I’ve done wrong” but, by the end, it is a celebration in the majesty of a relationship’s end.
But to move on to your rule 3 – heroines in songs by men need to be three dimensional. It’s not enough just to be the subject of adoration. There’s got to be a twist or something additionally interesting about them. As a listener, your interest has got to be extended into wanting to meet them for far more than merely their looks.
So I would suggest Caroline No from the Beach Boys Pet Sounds
Red Molly in Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Lighting
Lou Reed’s Femme Fatale
Eileen by Dexy’s
and whoever Bowie is singing about in Absolute Beginners (which is probably his most straightforward song of adoration albeit maybe written to suit the soundtrack).
I guess you could also add Gloria in there but I think we’re probably moving back into one dimensional types by this point.
I think rule 4 has got to be about what do you want from your heroine as the listener? As a man do you want to fall for the heroine – as a woman do you want to be her?
Samantha: Absolutely! Your point about exposing vulnerability made me think of a fifth rule...the heroine can show she's hurting, but she can't be a drip. She can't wallow mindlessly, she can't be a wimp. She's not the crying, "cool", man-tormenting girl who makes all The Beatles sigh right through Girl...
she's the powerful, interesting, successful heroine of John Lennon's Woman.
If she's been hurt, she's not letting it destroy her. This strength makes Lesley Gore's song You Don't Own Me (released when Gore was only 17) so captivating.
It can come with the zest for life of Cyndi Lauper's party manifesto Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
or it can be darker, as in Liz Phair's dark, furious Fuck and Run.
It's there, too, in Robyn's electro-disco Dancing On My Own, where the punchy rhythm contradicts the theme of heartbreak; this woman may be hurt, but her heart is still beating, beating hard, and she's staying at the club, watching her ex dance with someone else, but she's not leaving, she's having her own dancefloor catharsis, she doesn't need anyone to dance with but herself.