March 8, 2017
Posted in View from the table
I was explaining International Women’s Day to my girls this morning. Lil said, “so it’s saying that women are best and men are puny?” No! Definitely not. It’s celebrating female achievement and highlighting inequality that we globally are STILL facing. And there are plenty of men out there who get, support and challenge that on a daily basis. Plenty. We’re not talking segregation, driving a wedge, but while we STILL have to march, STILL have to fight, then here we are. I wrote the post below three years ago, a labour of love that still holds true so I thought I’d re-post it today because it’s women in music that touch my life the most. I still want to dramatically fling myself face first onto a bed, Marlene Dietrich style, hearing So Long Ago by Nanci Griffiths (I might have done that, not too long ago) and joy of all joys I still know ALL the freakin’ words to Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance. I made a playlist to accompany it, which was so good to make! My life in female music from my mother’s side to this very day and (by no means, not) all in between. A dance in the kitchen this morning to Baboushka – and I’m back in my childhood living room copying Kate’s moves in a leotard, hearing Sister Sledge We Are Family and anything by Florence and I’m coffee table dancing with my best friend, giving it all we’ve got, a post-breakfast ass shake with Lil to Groove Armada’s I See You Baby makes me feel happy to just be, well, alive. Why are we late everyday?
I’m lucky down to my bones to be surrounded by strong, compassionate, fierce, feisty, intelligent, quirky, funny, brave, warm women, I truly hope that you are too because life is a whole lot better when you are.
Today is International Women’s Day. Where do you even start writing about this? How do you choose the most influential, important, ground-breaking women in history to discuss? I could talk about women and food; the indomitable, culinary game-changers like Elizabeth David, Fanny Craddock, Julia Childs, Janet Ross – overlooked but cited by Elizabeth David as her influence (she brought new farming methods to Italy, and new food to England, we really should talk about her more) and today, beloved Nigella Lawson, Rose Elliot, Angela Hartnett, Mary Berry. I don’t know where to start, let alone where to end. But if we’re talking about who has moved and influenced us the most then for me it’s music.
It always feels a bit strange writing and discussing women in music, like some separate entity – we never single out ‘men in music’ they’re just musicians, there’s no singular category for them based on their gender. But for the purpose of IWD let’s do just that.
Women in music have a hard time, I don’t think that’s a sweeping statement I think it’s staring us in the face. You only need to look at the Miley Cyrus circus to get a little insight into an industry that is completely image led, it’s more about weight (lack of) and tits (presence of) than talent. Charlotte Church delivered a brilliant talk on this for 2013’s John Peel Lectures, listen to it when you have a spare moment, it’s insightful. But despite this, or maybe because of this – injustice and anger are powerful summoners of the muse, there have always been women who change the game, who do their own thing and make your heart sing (badly and out of tune unfortunately in my case).
Like most children my first musical influences came from my mum. She loved music – still does and it was always on the landscape of our childhood, Kate Bush was on heavy rotation – no bad thing, Donna Summer who was brilliant but made me feel embarrassed without knowing why and Diana Ross were regular turn table favourites. But one of the first songs I became aware of as a small child was Helen Reddy’s I am Woman. My mum brought us three up on her own, it was most certainly tough. This song was her anthem, I know now that it probably kept her on the right side of sanity. That and Dallas. She sang it at the top of her voice, very often. She taught my sister and I the words when we were growing up; a lesson to be learned, like spelling or how to swim. On family get-togethers this is the song that’s still played the loudest. My mum has all her old vinyl so we get the full-on crackly vibes of Helen’s power anthem. Released in 1973, I was two, it was the official anthem for International Women’s Year 1975. My brilliant mum is in every beat of this song.
I was a child in the 70s so I missed punk but I was fully aware as I got older of Blondie and X Ray Spex. Siouxsie Sioux made my head spin, that eyeliner- that perfectly crimped hair. I still have a girl crush on her.
Bananarama were up there too for me. I remember reading an interview with them in (probably) Smash Hits, they said that whenever they perform on Top of the Pops bucket loads of glittery ticker tape was always dumped on them, “they never do that to Echo and the Bunnymen”. A little while after I was blown away by Neneh Cherry; heavily pregnant and jumping around singing Buffalo Stance on Top of the Pops, I didn’t know why she was important then, but I knew she was.
As I got older I went back in time, as you do when you start wanting to learn who your idols were influenced by. Patti Smith came into vision, she scared, thrilled and amazed me. She still does. I started to learn about Billie Holiday and the dark truths that she sang about.
Music opens your eyes, it teaches you about worlds you might never inhabit, women singers (probably because of the Helen Reddy upbringing) spoke louder and clearer to me. I listened to Karen Carpenter, Mama Cass, Marianne Faithful and Janis Joplin. I fell in love with Carole King – I longed to sit in that room with the cat and the tapestry. I wanted to shoot the breeze with Rickie Lee Jones and talk about boys called Chuck E, Sal and Angelo and ‘the barrio’- I grew up in Corby, an industrial town in the Midlands, the furthest place I had travelled to was Durham, I knew very little of any barrios, but Rickie Lee Jones made me want to.
The first time I heard Joni Mitchell I thought I would die of happiness. Free Man in Paris, Ladies of the Canyon. They lifted me to somewhere else. I wanted to bake brownies (I’m not sure I had ever eaten a brownie) and live in a canyon, I’m not sure I knew what that was either, I now know that I really don’t want to be a lady of the canyon, but no matter. The world expanded.
Then I got older still, and angrier and antsy about EVERYTHING (though I still loved Joni, Carole and Rickie) and along came Courtney Love all smudged make-up, car-crash relationship with Kurt Cobain wearing a babydoll nightie in the daytime and generally being chaotically fabulous. And the Kims – Deal and Gordon, oh my. Could I be like them? Definitely not, but again, no matter, because somewhere in my burgeoning finding-my-way-in-the-world psyche I could pretend to have a low slung bass and be in The Pixies or Sonic Youth. And then there was Cannonball…
I can’t forget Luscious Jackson (woah! female Beastie Boys), Natalie Merchant and Shirley Manson, Sheryl Crow – I wanted to sound like her, and look like her in leopard print leggings too – alas, we can’t have everything. Justine Frischmann from Elastica, I wanted to have a cup of tea and put a record on with her. And Tracy Thorn – Marine Girls and Everything But the Girl, Kenickie, the Shop Assistants, impossibly beautiful Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, Bjork, Sinead O’Connor. Then as I got older and my heart got inevitably broken came weeks of bedroom mourning with Beth Gibbons of Portishead, Dusty Springfield, Diana Ross, Beth Orton, Loretta Lynn and Nancy Griffiths – her beautiful song So Long Ago still makes me want to throw myself on my bed and weep.
I cheered up and found the place that’s always in my heart for The Sugababes, TLC and Destiny’s Child. Oh and of course, Madonna, Ray of Light is one of my favourite songs – EVER, this song means dancing on scaffolding high up in the air and feeling invincible.
Today there’s still all those women who have gone before but there’s also Florence and her machine, Bat for Lashes, Laura Marling, Feist, Alison Goldfrapp, Karen O of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. There was Amy Winehouse; brilliant and broken, there’s Regina Spektor, Haim, Anna Calvi, Kelis, Cat Power and Lily Allen (I really could be here all day) and of course there’s PJ Harvey. Ladies and gentlemen, happy International Women’s Day.