GIRLS LIKE US, 1969-79 For a while I’ve been unsure about how to open this rate. How can I possibly begin to summarise four of the most important records in music history, let alone just within the canon of female singer-songwriters? How can I cover the significance of each of them without running on for thousands of words? How do I introduce them to people who’ve never heard them before? I turned it over in my mind. How would Joni, Laura, Carole and Janis want to be written about? Their music was, almost always, about themselves, about their lives, their histories, their loves and losses. It is profoundly individual but also written for everybody. And then I realised. The insistent mantra of 1970s feminism was, famously, “the personal is political”. So let’s start at the beginning…. * I have often asked myself the reason for sadness In a world where tears are just a lullaby If there's any answer, maybe love can end the madness Maybe not, oh, but we can only try Tapestry by Carole King was probably one of the first albums I ever heard. It’s my mum’s favourite and to this day she plays it in the car while she drives to and from work. Maybe the most famous album here, and certainly the most accessible, I’ve long felt like both of those factors sometimes obscure what a personal record it really is. Songs like You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman and You’ve Got A Friend are hard to separate from the place they hold in culture, which is one of the reasons I’ve found them so difficult to introduce. How do you summarise something so ubiquitous, so already important? Stripped of that context, significant though it may be, I think it’s essential to remember that at it’s core Tapestry is a classic album about maturing womanhood, about relationships, about self-care and reciprocal affection. In my mum’s car as a child, and in that same place nowadays, that’s what I heard in them. Every album here is about being a woman and it’s a theme I’ll return to over and over again, but, for me, this is about what it’s like to reconcile that fact with being in a relationship. If Blue is the definitive female break-up album, Tapestry is its more knowing sister, already having been through it all and come out the other side, stronger, happier, but recognisant of the importance of those experiences. It’s an album for being a grown up, which I suppose makes it ironic that I loved it as a child. This rate takes its name from a book by Sheila Weller, and in planning this write up I came across a Guardian review from when it came out in 2008. I have no desire to link to it or give the author any attention but it’s safe to say he exposed himself as, well, a fucking idiot. The words ‘narcissistic’, ‘self-obsessed’, ‘insipid’ and ‘mewling’, to give a few selections, are used to describe the work of the some of the women here. Carole herself is dismissed with the dismal term ‘hit-maker’. It’s a cretinous piece of writing and I mention it only to highlight the extent to which, even in the last ten years, women’s music from this period has been subject to unparalleled attack. Tapestry is by far the most commercially successful album here and I think, if anything, that article is a suitable reminder that this is still pop music. As such it’s subject to all of the criticism the genre seems to inescapably encounter, precisely because it has been historically led by women. These 4 albums are proof of that, but none epitomise it more than this. Commercial success is a historical bind for women but to choose to define this record by it is wilfully obtuse. Tapestry is so successful because it taps into something we all understand, namely the longing for love and the rejection of the idea of it as inextricably linked to pain. Its genius is its universality. All good dreamers pass this way someday Hiding behind bottles in dark cafes, dark cafes Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away Only a phase, these dark cafe days I was fifteen when I first listened to Blue in full. It’s the album here that means the most to me and as such it’s also the one I’ve struggled the most with writing about. How can I talk about it? What is there to be said that hasn’t already been written by people much more eloquent and qualified than me? I found Blue when I really needed it and it’s never left me. I’d never been in love or had my heart broken when I heard it but there’s such a truth to every song that I found solace in it anyhow; I was terribly unhappy, and it made me feel known. It still makes me feel that way now. Joni’s great power as a songwriter is that she understands the human heart, but perhaps more than that she knows women and our unique sadness, our most specific, perhaps intrinsic, wounds. It’s what I heard in it then and still hear now. When she sings “And she said ‘Go to him, stay with him if you can / but be prepared to bleed’” in A Case Of You it’s beautiful but it’s also true, because it captures so well how women are with each other when it comes to love. It’s why I don’t like male covers of Joni songs – perhaps more than anyone else here, she writes about being a woman and all the things that entails. That sensibility is all over Blue: it’s in Little Green perhaps most explicitly, but every song here is imbued with the notion of existing in the world in this way, unsure from such an early age how we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to say. It is, of course, the definitive break-up album and I think in some ways it’s why that perspective feels so particular here, out of all of her albums. It’s about the death of a relationship, yes, but it’s also about what it means to have been one half of that and how you can exist, as a woman, when you’re no longer with a man. When I was younger, I used to like the story about Kris Kristofferson saying “Oh Joni, save something of yourself” when he first heard it. It still, I think, captures well what it’s like to hear it for the first time, but these days I feel as though he somehow missed the point. The purpose of Blue goes beyond just personal catharsis, beyond putting all the men we’ll get to later under the microscope. It’s an expression of self in the public sphere, an artistic statement, yes, but a personal one too: it’s Joni saying, “I’m a woman and I’m unhappy”. It is an acknowledgement that the two things are not mutually exclusive, which in 1971 was still radical – the unhappiness of Blue is not only directly expressed, but both existential and individual, something that went beyond the concept of the so called ‘feminine mystique’. Joni is not a political songwriter, but it is useful to acknowledge this dimension of her song-writing. Part of the reason it matters, part of the reason we’re here in fact, is because she was willing to be open about her emotional life to the point of extremes. It’s why Kristofferson was wrong – I fell in love with her because she made sure there was nothing left to be saved. Friends have their lovers Men on a string There must be something terribly wrong with me Sometimes I feel like I haven’t learned anything Janis Ian came to me from a recommendation by my therapist at the time, barely a few months after I’d become a fan of Blue. We talked a lot about music and in hindsight I can see she used it as a way to get me to open up. The song she mentioned to me was At Seventeen, which is, of course, the definitive Janis song and her biggest hit. On face value At Seventeen is a fairly straight forward track about adolescent loneliness, but in the context of Janis’ identity as a then-closeted lesbian (she ultimately came out in 1993 with the release of Breaking Silence) it becomes more clearly a tale about queer alienation. This is true of the whole album – tracks like The Come-On are terribly sad in any context, but are given a new dimension by what we now know of her life at the time of writing them. It might be the saddest album here, in fact. There is sorrow in all of them, yes, but here it feels foundational, perhaps because it’s rooted in the knowledge of a concealed identity. What is more fundamental than that, the very question of who we are and how we choose to define ourselves? Every song here is a product of a life not able to be lived, and of the hurt and dislocation that causes. I’m a straight woman and so I acknowledge immediately I’m not best placed to ruminate on the queer elements of Janis’ music. I’ve known loneliness, though, and this is an album to which that feeling is inherent. The run from Bright Lights and Promises to The Come On is probably the closest an album has ever come to distilling the sense of loss that accompanies true isolation; the way it can, paradoxically, end relationships as it becomes ever more consuming, the way it pushes you to do things you don’t want to. Maybe more than anything she captures the unimaginable way it aches, especially at night and especially with other people. Janis is the most straight forward songwriter of all these women – Joni and Laura write in metaphors, and Carole’s work is simply thematically less brutal. It’s something that leads people to write her off because there’s an embarrassment in emotional honesty these days. But there is no lyric in this whole rate that touches me more than “I am wiser now, you know / and still as big a fool concerning you”. It’s simple, perfect and desperately sad. It’s this album in two lines. I want to die You don’t love me when I cry Made me love to play, made me promise I would stay Then you stayed away There is a line in the novel About A Boy by Nick Hornby where a female character is described as looking like Laura Nyro on the cover of Gonna take a miracle. We had to read it in class for our GCSE English exam and I was the only one who liked it. (It was the inspiration for another selection in this rate too, one I think you’ll be able to work out if you’ve seen the film, but I digress…) The description piqued my interest and I stumbled into one of the most complex discographies I’ve ever come across. New York Tendaberry is easily the most difficult album here, and I debated about whether to include it for that very reason. It’s a sparse, intense record of extreme emotions, both high and low, and Laura herself even once said it isn’t necessarily an album to be ‘listened to’ in the traditional sense. Once it reveals itself to you, however, it’s an experience like no other. Every album here is about the female experience, but Laura’s version draws in some ways on the methods of opera and 1940s melodrama in portraying it – it’s about the totality of the thing, felt so deeply as to be almost overwhelming and, to a listener, sometimes hard to reckon with. Laura’s disputed heroin addiction during the writing and recording process is often referred to as the source of the album’s profound sense of sorrow and it is, to me at least, certainly a valid interpretation of the artistic statement it feels like she’s trying to make. It’s a record that has a fundamental sense of fighting a battle with something and losing. But its emotional core is oblique and open for discussion – whereas the other women in the rate write with specificity about their lives, Laura finds expression in far larger concepts and as such it can be seen in any one of the moulds we’ve already come across. It’s a break-up album, an album of personal growth and about her bisexual identity all at once. It’s the one I have the most complicated feelings about: it exists with no comparison, and fascinates and terrifies me in equal measure. On Thursday I saw the Dorothea Tanning exhibition at the Tate Modern and gave the album another listen while I walked around. It was the perfect accompaniment. I was worried I’d made the album sound impossible in this write up, too full of sharp edges as to be understandable, but the exhibition made me realise something I think I needed to soothe my anxieties about including it here. Art can be opaque, but there’s a beauty in that unknown, even as it might be perverse. Laura sadly died in 1997, the only one of our Big Four who is no longer with us. I hope we’re able to do her justice.