If he didn't care for me/I could have never made him mad/But he hit me and I was glad. An article in today's Guardian explores the work of Deborah Finding and her thesis on narratives of violence in pop music.
The lyrics above are actually how Finding illustrates the somewhat cyclical nature of how our culture interprets and accepts sexual or domestic violence. The article opens with the song, explaining:
Back in 1962, the Crystals released a song called He Hit Me (And it Felt like a Kiss). "If he didn't care for me," warbled one of the most popular American "girl groups" of the day, "I could have never made him mad. But he hit me and I was glad."
Deborah Finding, from the gender institute at the London School of Economics, recites the line in a monotone before adding: "It sounds all the more chilling in the light of what we now know about their producer, Phil Spector. Not just about the murder of Lana Clarkson, but also his treatment of Ronnie Bennett of the Ronnettes." She was his wife at the time. She claims in her autobiography that he kept a gold coffin with a glass lid in the basement of their mansion and threatened to kill her if she left him.
Finding decided upon her interesting PhD title by combining two of her interests: music and narrative.
Finding's parents ran a disco. "The wardrobes at home were always cluttered with singles," she says. And she has an impressive collection of over 2,000 CDs at her home in west London. "I've always tuned into the lyrics," she says. This proved invaluable as she embarked on a project directly connected to the work with abused women she has been carrying out with various non-governmental organisations since leaving Cambridge in 2000. She has a degree in philosophy and theology and a masters in Jewish-Christian relations after the Holocaust. "I was always interested in the narratives people tell about their traumas and whether or not they are believed," she says.
"I knew that I wanted to do a PhD that would contribute something to the overall understanding of the way sexual and domestic violence was represented in our wider culture and how that influenced the way people think about the issues personally and politically."
Finding explains that part of the strength of the narratives came from the acceptance from society that this type of gender based violence was a social problem as well as an individual problem. She points out that artists like Tracy Chapman, Tori Amos (above), Suzanne Vega, Beautiful South, Sheryl Crowe, and Alanis Morrisette gave voice to all aspects of a woman's experience, from very explicit violence to hazier, more gray actions. However, Finding is beginning to see the cycle of acceptance shifting back into a narrative that accepts sexual violence:
We've gone full circle in the post-feminist era," Finding says. "Florence and the Machine, hotly tipped for this year's Mercury prize, recently came out with A Kiss With a Fist is Better Than None, equating violence with passion in a way that sounds depressingly familiar."
When asked about misogyny in hip-hop and rap lyrics, Finding provides an interesting response:
These are female artists for the most part. But what about the men? What about "gangsta" rap and hip-hop, and their alleged encouragement of aggressively misogynistic attitudes? "That's been written about elsewhere," she points out, "and it worries me that there's usually a racist element to these discussions. Black artists are condemned, while white bands like the Rolling Stones and the Stranglers get away with deeply unpleasant lyrics. I was more interested in analysing the way that women were narrating their own experience of sexual violence or how they imagined other women's experience."
Personally, I would love to see a visual representation of Finding's work mashed up with Sut Jhally's Dreamworlds 3. Ever since I watched Dreamworlds 3 one video in particular stood out. Limp Bizkit released a video for their song "Eat You Alive" which is the epitome of glorifying violence against women:
The lead woman's palpable fear fades away into lust and desire after Durst decides to paint a pretty picture of their future - after screaming in her face lyrics like this:
and that's cool you want nothing at all to do with me.
But I want you,
ain't nothing wrong with wanting you cause
I'm a man and I can think what the hell I want,
you got that straight?
No doubt now (no doubt),
I'd love to (id love)
sniff on them panties now.
I'll EAT YOU ALIVE!!!! i'll eat you alive.....
I'll EAT YOU ALIVE!!!! i'll eat you alive......
There is power in placing these images and words into context, a subversive power. Dreamworlds 3 was able to tap into this by juxtaposing image after image together so the viewer looks at one long pattern, instead of several distinct images. Another subversive adaptation of music and lyrics comes from Tori Amos, who decided to cover Eminem's "'97 Bonnie and Clyde":
Amos did not change any of the lyrics, just presented it in a different light, though a woman's voice. In one of her many responses as to why she chose that particular cover, she notes:
Eminem's fans hate her cover. "That's the greatest compliment I've received," she says, teeth gritted. "My version invades his space, and men aren't used to feeling invaded, it drives them mad. Empower the wife, give her a voice. That's how you are an activist, I think. Is the song pretty? No, but I never said it was." Her blue eyes blaze. "Singing it is not a tribute." — Tori; The Times (UK), Dec 18, 2001
Ultimately, Finding's work is amazing because it illuminates the role of narrative in healing from assault or abuse by speaking these stories into existence. And if they happen to live on in the popular consciousness because they were attached to a song lyric, then so much the better. As is stated in her piece, many of us use music "as a means of emotional support."