#HerTake: women in music, modern love

April 24, 2024

Billie Eilish, Pukkelpop Music Festival, Belgium, 2019 © Lars Crommelinck Photography, licence Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generi.

Sadie Souter delves into the sexual revolution’s influence on women in music

The sexual revolution was a radical cultural upheaval that bubbled up through the sixties and seventies, uprooting popular thinking about sex, gender and reproductive rights irrevocably.

The stiff austerity of the fifties (having babies, the duties of a housewife, and valium seemingly a woman’s only options) collapsed. This breakdown revealed the unbridled freedom that ricocheted through women’s lives, ushering in an era of newfound liberation and empowerment.

This transformation created a new language, a new tongue to express love, lust and sex in screaming technicolor. Pop music, often an acute representation of the terrors, fantasies and political anxieties of the society it emerges from.

From Nina Simone to Joni Mitchell to Siouxie Sioux, sexual freedom became synonymous with creativity. What was born in the sixties, through the words of revolutionary musicians, shapes what we now think of as modern love in the twenty-first century.

“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” – Nina Simone.

Revolution crackled in the air and MAKE LOVE NOT WAR became the mantra of the sixties. The ‘Free Love’ movement coincided with a wave of liberal legislation relating to abortion, divorce, homosexuality and gender equality.

Janis Joplin often crowned the ‘Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll’ certainly made her mark on the male-dominated genre

In 1961, the contraceptive pill was introduced in the UK on the NHS and – while only initially available to married women – heralded a future of autonomy and sexual liberation. Then, in 1967, the ‘Abortion Act’ in the UK meant abortions could be lawfully performed under specific circumstances. These changes to the law, although limited in their scope, symbolised a burgeoning hope that played out to the soundtrack of the sixties.

In this era of flux, gender roles began to blur and shift, and second wave feminism bubbled. Betty Freidan’s polemical ‘The Feminine Mystique’ was published in 1963 which brought to light the turmoil of housewives. The silent question “Is this all?” was what occupied the minds of a generation of oppressed women.

Janis Joplin, often crowned the ‘Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll’, certainly made her mark on the male-dominated genre, ushering in countless female rock stars with her equal measures of vulnerability and grit.

Joplin’s 1969 ‘Piece of My Heart’ – I’m gonna, gonna show you baby, that a woman can be tough – pictures a woman finding her power amidst the overwhelming freedoms of the sixties.

The song’s fractured message – Break another little bit of my heart now – mirrors the new issue facing women, the exploitation of their newfound liberation. Sexual agency came along with a troubling blend of objectification and the assumption of availability and submission.

The divas of disco, like Donna Summer and Andrea True, rose to fame with their sexually liberated records. Summer’s ‘Love to Love You Baby’, which rocketed to the top of the U.S. charts, was a 17-minute sensual epic, a dance track notoriously dubbed by Time magazine as a “marathon of 22 orgasms”.

“I don’t care if I’m beautiful; I don’t care what I am on the outside. It isn’t about the outside” – Donna Summer.

The sexual revolution of the 1970s rejected all the saccharine superficialities of the hippy movement

The media began to discover that ‘sex sells’ and female sexuality became yet another commodity to market. Bruce Schulman, author of ‘The Seventies’, states that “the sexual revolution involved at least equal parts exploitation and liberation, and feminists remained ever on uneasy terms with it”.

With the monstrosities of the Vietnam war coming to light, bitter racial divisions and the breakup of the Beatles, the sexual revolution of the 1970s rejected all the saccharine superficialities of the hippy movement. The music industry embraced a darker, ruder approach to sexual liberation, fuelled by political upheaval, anger and heroin.

Punk became the face of the revolution and sex was yet another shock tactic to upend the establishment. The movement adopted pornography, fetish imagery and graphic language to revolutionise music and culture, bringing the taboo, the illicit, the obscene, out of the shadows. DIY defined the style, putting two fingers up to the stifling repression of mainstream culture.

“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think, oh bondage, up yours!” – Poly Styrene

Punk was a safe haven, creating a space for women to find their voice. The genre boasts so many innovative artists, Poly Styrene of Xray Spex shrieking “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”, Patti Smith the punk-poet-laureate, and the radical, raucous all-girl band, the Slits.

Male musicians are hailed for speaking universal truths while women are reduced to reading aloud from their diaries

Siouxsie Sioux, frontwoman of Siouxsie and the Banshees, became the personification of female empowerment in punk, shattering convention with her unparalleled stage presence and punchy lyrics. Her record ‘Happy House’ mocks the fake model of the nuclear-family – We’ve come to scream in the happy house. We’re in a dream in the happy house. We’re all quite sane.

As Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth, proclaims, “Girls invented Punk Rock, not England!”.

The impact of second-wave feminism in the seventies has rippled across generations of artists. This second-wave focused mainly on reproductive rights, divorce and institutionally engrained sexism, rather than fighting for suffrage like their predecessors.

The singer-songwriter movement, headed by Joni Mitchell and Carole King, allowed women to discuss the every-day intimacies of their lives, from motherhood to mental health.

“I am a woman of heart and mind with time on her hands, no child to raise. You come to me like a little boy, and I give you my scorn and my praise” – Joni Mitchell.

However, to this day, the term ‘confessional artist’ persists in describing singer-songwriters, almost exclusively in reference to female artists. ‘Confessional’, at first glance, is a word full of intimacy, of storytelling and truth. Yet beneath that creeps a sense of shame, guilt and atonement, as if female emotions are sinful.

Male musicians who write intimately are hailed for speaking universal truths while women are reduced to little more than reading aloud from their diaries. This damaging double standard means that women have to work much harder to be heard and prove their stories worthy of consumption.

Third wave feminism’s influence can be traced to nineties grunge and ‘riot grrrl’ punk that politicised music to tackle gendered violence, domestic abuse, rape and patriarchy.

Today, fourth wave feminism, often associated with the ‘MeToo’ movement, encompasses ideas about society’s influence on gender and sexual identity with a stronger emphasis on intersectionality. This impact can be seen in the female-domination of rap and hip-hop, led by artists like Doja Cat, Little Simz and Rae, the recent winner of a record-breaking six brit awards.

While it seems that the sexual revolution has facilitated far greater sexual freedom for modern artists, issues of objectification and body-shaming still persist, particularly for young women.

In her haunting, spoken-word short film, ‘Not My Responsibility’, Billie Eilish talks about the double-standards set for women by the media. Her frank lyrics whispered in her distinctive, chilling style – If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I’m a slut – explore her fraught and complex relationship with her body image.

Whether she hid behind baggy clothes and beanies or wore fitted, old-Hollywood dresses she was scrutinised and shamed. “Nobody ever says a thing about men’s bodies,” she tells Variety magazine. “If you’re muscular, cool. If you’re not, cool. If you’re rail thin, cool. If you have a dad bod, cool. If you’re pudgy, love it! Everybody’s happy with it.”

“Is my value based only on your perception? Or is your opinion of me not my responsibility?” – Billie Eilish

While sexuality is still weaponised against women, men still struggle against toxic gender norms and the LGBT community remain battling systemic discrimination, leaps and bounds have been taken.

As the Beatles put it, all the way back in 1967, “All you need is love!”.

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