Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cheap Whores on Parade!

So the other day, I was talking with a friend about The Rolling Stones -- something that seems to happen less frequently than it used to, now that I think of it -- and the subject of some of their, shall we say, problematic songs came up. By which I mean the, you know, kinda of sexist stuff like "Under My Thumb" et al, and as often happens, we drifted off into the larger issue of morality in art, i.e., is it still art if it's also morally reprehensible? Or, frankly, does art have a responsibility to be moral?

Yeah, right, yada yada yada. I should add, BTW, that in terms of music, at least, it's not just pop that has these kinds of problems. I have friends who absolutely will not listen to Wagner and (to a lesser, perhaps less fair, extent) Bruckner because the sound of jackboots intrudes for them. And what about my personal favorite guy, Carlo Gesualdo, the 16th century aristocrat and composer who wrote some absolutely sublime madrigals at the same time he was murdering and mutilating people and getting away with it because of his social status?

Anyway, at some point in our discussion the subject of Richard Thompson came up, and my friend allowed how it was becoming difficult to overlook the fact that Thompson -- genius songwriter that he most certainly is -- was responsible for what might possibly be considered an inordinate number of songs that demonstrate a, shall we say, problem with the ladies. I countered that this was more misanthropy than misogyny, but I was probably just being difficult; in any case, it got me thinking.

It also gave me an excuse to post clips of two not as different as you might think versions of a Thompson song that could be exhibit A for what my friend was talking about -- "Turning of the Tide."

How many lips, how many hands, have held you
Like I'm holding you tonight
Too many nights, staying up late,
Too much powder and too much paint
No you can't hide from the turning of the tide

Did they run their fingers up and down your shabby dress
Did they find some tender moment there in your caress

The boys all say "You look so fine"
They don't come back for a second time
Oh you can't hide from the turning of the tide

Poor little sailor boy, never set eyes on a woman before
Did he tell you that he'd love you, darling, for evermore?

Pretty little shoes, cheap perfume,
Creaking bed in a hotel room
Oh you can't hide from the turning of the tide

Okay, so first here's Richard's version, from his 1988 album Amnesia. As you'll hear, it's kind of a jaunty rockabilly song despite the downbeat lyrics. Amazingly lyrical guitar, too; the overall effect is strangely poignant.

And now here's the revved up punk rock version by Bob Mould, from the 1994 Thompson tribute album Beat the Retreat. Apart from the dangerous speed level, you'll note that Mould sounds far more disgusted with the trollop in question than the composer; I'm reminded of Jules Pfeiffer's famous line that "In this culture, it's not just homosexuals who hate women -- it's everybody."

In any case, a great song, if arguably troubling, and both versions are keepers, I think. Speaking of which, you can download them from the divShare links; if for some reason, that doesn't work, e-mail me and I'll shoot you the mp3s.


Jim said...

Is it "women," or "a woman"?

coozledad said...

Per misogynist lyrics: I've always wondered if it's just a way self-loathing comes out, for both sexes, straight and gay. There's John Lennon, for example, with "Run for your life", and I think Bob Dylan indulged similar nastiness quite a few times. It's also,sadly, a good fit with that adolescent sneer of pop.

steve simels said...

The adolescent sneer of pop is basically, as Lester Bangs famously put it, a way for teenage virgins to write about sex without revealing their abject ignorance of the subject.

Charley Starkweather said...

If I viewed every pop song as a an admission of intent or belief, rather than an examination of feelings, then I'd never listen to another pop song. Music is a place to try on the cape of the callow, the scarves of the scary, and the mantle of misogyny -- without wearing it in your life. And it's also a way to shine a light on offenders while noting that they're real -- and not cartoons.

It's also a place where a real cocksucker can nevertheless rock yer world for 2' 38'' . . . and you don't have to hang out with the guy.

steve simels said...

Charley Starkweather said...
If I viewed every pop song as a an admission of intent or belief, rather than an examination of feelings, then I'd never listen to another pop song.
And if women knew what men were really thinking, they'd never stop slapping us.

NYMary said...


Seriously, you know where I stand on this. And since right now I'm getting to pick the brains of some of the people I've called out most often on this score, this is pretty timely for me.

And I think a lot of it has to do with pop being a boy's game, though I admit, I do not know why that is.

David said...

In Bob's case, the song lends itself quite well to the trollop being a man: 'the boys all say you look so fine' 'sailors,' 'shabby dress' etc..

TMink said...

As a holder of a minority political position in the world of rock, I have a lot of practice in appreciating the music and lyrics while not agreeing with them. I mean, I can't listen to just the Nuge (shudder) and the Smithereens (who are great!)

I joke, but while I don't agree with misogynistic sentiments, I can relate to having my heart broke and blaming the whole thing on women in general instead of on A woman or (more likely) whatever I did to screw up the relationship in the first place.

Under My Thumb is really sexist, but is has a great beat and I can dance to it. And it is wonderfully, perhaps archtypically sexist. And somehow, that matters and makes it OK to listen to if not to accept.

For me anyway.

But it is interesting to me that the same sort of thing in a comic leaves me flat. Andrew Dice Clay, whether he was a satire or not, just never made me laugh. His sexist attitude just got on my nerves.


steve simels said...

Of "Under My Thumb" -- or maybe it was "The Last Time," I don't remember -- Jon Landau (back when he was a rock critic, not Springsteen's manager) famously observed that "it's like every high school boy's fantasy of how he'd like to talk to his girlfriend."

Of course, he said that in 1966 or 67.

Seriously, I think the Stones are a complicated issue; I think on some of the songs -- "Backstreet Girl" in particular, which I was planning on blogging about -- it's obvious that the lyric is written from the perspective of a fictional character, not Jagger himself. In the Randy Newman "I'm writing in the voice of a bigoted redneck asshole" sense.

Noam Sane said...

"I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for" - Chrissie Hynde working hard to confuse us all.

"He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" - The Crystals beating Chrissie to the punch, so to speak.

"Such a duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?"

-Katherine to Petruchio, "Taming of the Shrew".

Kate then offers to put her hand beneath her husband’s foot.

Upshot: it's a confusing world, and it's not just males who are confused.

As for "Under My Thumb," I always heard the narrator as a really sad dope who, one day, might wise up. You know, as soon as you start thinking that way, you're about to get burned.

I guess for that reason, the lyrical content never bothered me.

steve simels said...

David said...
In Bob's case, the song lends itself quite well to the trollop being a man: 'the boys all say you look so fine' 'sailors,' 'shabby dress' etc..
PBS -- The Undersea World of Jacques CousteauOn tonight's episode, Jacques and the crew of The Calypso cruise the colorful waterfront bars and nightclubs of Marseilles.

MBowen said...

I've always thought of that particular run of Stones songs (Under My Thumb, The Last Time, Stupid Girl) as a reaction to what they were going through at the time. They were getting the equivalent of that nasty, bloated feeling you get from eating candy all the time; after getting so much of what you want it stops being appetizing and becomes gross. It became easy to lash out at what you thought you wanted.

I've never thought of "Turning of the Tide" as a misogynistic song; in fact, just the opposite. The narrator of the song is looking at the aging prostitute and feeling compassion for her, not putting her down.

steve simels said...


It certainly can be read that way, but given the entirety of Richard's ouevre, I think the disgust Mould locates in the song is definitely there as well.

Anyway, just thinking out loud..

jeff said...

For the record, a homosexual doesn't, by nature, hate women; they're just not turned on sexually by them. If you don't see a difference, than maybe that's a problem.

Having worked twenty-odd years in record stores, when I think of a PowerPop fan I think of a guy quoting song lyrics (usually Elvis Costello) whenever he had girlfriend trouble.

As for RT, leaving sharp, witty Linda for sweet, but less challenging, Nancy says more than enough. (See the doc from a few years back, an excerpt from which was included on a DVD with The Old Kit Bag. It used to be available to watch, in segments, on YouTube.)

David said...

Jeff, your points on male homosexuals and the myth that they have something against women are well taken (whether the same can be said for some female homosexuals is not as clear), but as for Richard Thompson eschewing the complicated for the less challenging--nobody can really say with any degree of certainty why a person chooses a partner. It's convenient to draw a conclusion that the second person was less of a challenge than the first, but the reasons are likely to be more complicated than that. Even if a documentary makes it seem that a pat answer exists, people are far too complicated for such choices to be explained in a sentence fragment.

jeff said...

David: Point taken, and I won't belabor this on a site obviously not intended for such discussion (the Pfeiffer quote just got me), but for RT to dump Linda after she had done so much to accommodate his Sufi Muslim lifestyle in the '70s, then write songs about women and their illusions... well, nobody's perfect, not even Richard Thompson.

David said...

I think we can agree that Richard is a brillaint guitarist and an unreliable narrator.

steve simels said...

jeff said...
For the record, a homosexual doesn't, by nature, hate women; they're just not turned on sexually by them. If you don't see a difference, than maybe that's a problem.

I know, obviously. And I wasn't endorsing the sentiments in the Pfeiffer quote, although it's not without a grain of truth vis a vis misogyny in our culture.

jeff said...

David: Agreed. (I'm actually a fan, though I may not sound like it.)

Steve: The "you" wasn't you; sorry if it came across that way. In retrospect, I should have just quoted Gator from John Waters' Female Trouble, when rebuffing Aunt Ida for pressing him to be gay: "I like guys fine, Aunt Ida, I just don't dig their equipment."

David said...

Jeff, you had me at Gator (who later moves away to be closer to the auto in-DUS-try)
My favorite exchange:
Aunt Ida: Well I just use common sense. I mean, if they're smart they're queer, and if they're stupid they're straight, right Ernie? Are you sure you won't have another pretzel?
Ernie: I'm sure, miss Thing, I'm sure. Pretzels give you plaque.

jeff said...

David! Your getting me in trouble. Twice now I've been asked by a coworker what it is I'm laughing about. (And that, of course, illustrates a sad truth: You don't have to be straight to "work in an office" and "live a sick and boring life!")