We had a bit of a debate in our VI Form common room once, on the subject of female empowerment. It was sparked by the song ‘You make me feel like a natural woman’. I tried to defend it, but met some pretty convincing opposition. Why does Aretha Franklin need a man to express her true femininity? And what about that line ‘If I make you happy I don’t need to do more’? I could see my friend’s point. One moment she’s spelling out RESPECT, the next she’s playing accessory to some asshole boyfriend. Still, I’ve always loved that track because Aretha sounds so ecstatic. Whoever the new guy is, he’s clearly a blast in the sack. And with a voice like that, I doubt Ms Franklin has really surrendered to him at all: she’s having fun, feeling alive, and who are we to gainsay her?
It nags nevertheless, as do many of my favourite songs whose messages appear dubious on close examination. So many great tracks that celebrate the spirit and resilience of women are in danger of reinforcing various archetypes. For example, I’m a sucker for disco feminism, and Chaka Khan’s ‘I’m every woman’ is one of the very best of its breed, a tremendously exciting record. The credentials are all there: the songwriters no less than Ashford and Simpson, the team behind all those glorious Marvin and Tammi duets from the 1960s, and the vocalist one of the most redoubtable of the pop age. The sheer impact of her singing overwhelms us; Chaka is every woman and more, a whole gallery of femmes fatales. But then you look at the lyrics and things take on a more uncertain tone. The line I always heard as ‘I can sex your knees’ (which sounds rather kinky and fun) turns out to be ‘I can sense your needs’. Like rain onto the seeds, no less. Is that Gaia I hear emoting through those fiery strings? Constructivists be warned: Chaka the Earth Mother does anything her man wants ‘naturally’ – that’s when she’s not acting the bewitcher, or getting down to some ‘good old-fashioned loving’. She’s a walking Second Sex chapter; the mythical female in Studio 54 sequins.
And then there are songs like ‘I will survive’ or ‘Young hearts run free’. The lyrics are heartfelt, even radical, but they’ve been compromised in the general consciousness by ubiquity at the hen-party karaoke. I groan every time I hear the piano flourish that kicks off Gaynor’s disco anthem, knowing that when those four minutes are up, my morale will have been sapped by tuneless collective bellowing. It’s great that such a landmark single continues to have resonance, but the original message has pretty much been rewritten as a series of Clinton Cards platitudes; I can’t hear it now without feeling like I’ve binged on wedding cake and burped my way through ten glasses of bubbly. And some of the recent expressions of female strength are glorious, yet ambiguous in content. Who doesn’t like Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’? It still sounds like absolutely nothing else, a shrieking, hiccupping, giggling piece of bootylicious avant-pop. If Gloria Gaynor’s man came back from outer space, he might well recognise it, such is its interplanetary slap and slink. Of course we know that Beyonce Knowles is entirely in control of her body and its suitors. Only she can dance to such a glorious noise; I’ve tried myself and found it nigh-on impossible, unless you hop around and swing your arms simultaneously like a sort of mutant monkey-frog. But the fact that we still need to state that being single can be empowering is worrying, and says a lot about our values a decade after Bridget Jones and her descendants. And that line: ‘If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it’. How very Jane Austen! At least Beyonce can claim to have reformed Jay-Z, who apparently now regrets all that horrendous misogyny: nice to hear that you don’t ‘thug ‘em, fuck ‘em, love ‘em and leave ‘em’ these days, Shawn.
Very often, the brassier the better; but the toughest of all can be the softest. Step up, Ann Peebles, unsung heroine of early seventies Memphis soul, with the perfectly judged ‘I’m gonna tear your playhouse down’. You probably know the classic ‘I can’t stand the rain’, a grand piece of heartache set to the spookiest pizzicato plops outside the hall of the mountain king. ‘Playhouse’ is less obviously lovelorn, but more soulful. It opens with the kind of smooth, smoochy groove you might associate with all those lush Al Green tracks from the same period – crisp midtempo beat, legato strings, Fender Rhodes. That’s the producer, Willie Mitchell, responsible for ‘Let’s stay together’, ‘Take me to the river’ and a whole series of creamy, dreamy late-night numbers. ‘Playhouse’ could have come from the same sessions as all those Green classics, but where the Reverend beckons you to slip off your shoes, Ann’s secretly longing to hurl hers at the man who’s done her wrong. ‘You think you’ve got it all set up’, she sings; ‘you think you’ve got the perfect plan’. The minute she opens her mouth, you know we’re hearing her during a transitional phase. She’s been devastated, but now she’s on the up, regaining composure. It’s all there in the phrasing of the word ‘plan’; amazing that one word of a song can provoke such goose-bumps. It’s ever so slightly broken, suggesting the wounds are still fresh; but she’s in control, which gives us the impression that the slight, almost imperceptible break in the voice is actually meant to be sexy, meant to turn victimhood into erotic friction. The miserable cheat thinks he has a plan; but it’s Ann’s strategy that has the upper hand. In the middle eight, she has news for him; she hopes it doesn’t ‘hit [him] too hard’. The chords rise expectantly, anticipating some kind of showdown, but when the chorus comes the music shrinks back to the level of the verse. It’s not a defeat, not a retreat. It’s just that she’s not going to rise. Instead, we get a potential act of violence rendered with unbecoming calm. Those who are all talk make melodramas of their lives; but you know the Ann Peebleses of the world intend to do what they say. It’s always the quiet ones.
I really love this oxymoronic combination of melting caramel soul and bitter, dark resolve. Peebles sings of tearing, but the immaculate vocals and band performance don’t admit a single blemish; there isn’t even the threat of a rip in the silk. She refuses to let her guard fall, revels in the act of keeping her cool. There’s also an effortless wisdom here. Whether the playhouse is a theatre, or a kind of kiddie hideout, the inference is the same; this man’s a tantrum-throwing drama queen, no match for the real Queen Ann in her regency splendour. Nothing to do but to pick him apart ‘room by room’ (such a thrilling itemisation, I always think). Of course, you may well ask why she wasted her time on him in the first place. Surely the answer is obvious though; she knew it would make a bloody good song. What splendour; what sagesse.
In the eighties, the British nouveau-soul singer Paul Young covered ‘Playhouse’ and took it to number nine in the charts. He’d already had a number one hit with a jolly if little-known Marvin Gaye B-side (‘Wherever I lay my hat’), which he shrewdly turned into a fretless bass-smothered, slow-dance snogathon. Young’s version of Peebles’ fantastic record grates, because the message turns sour on the lips of a man; at best it sounds petty, at worst chauvinistic. The 1974 original, however, is an absolute triumph. You can listen to it from a completely different angle to mine, and hear heartbreak constantly rippling through the still, millpond surfaces; or you can hear it as I do, a singularly beautiful combination of steel and sweet serenity. I find myself utterly convinced; I want to run around after Ann with a dustpan and brush and clear away the playhouse rubble. I also want to let her know that I’m on her side, and that I’ll stand in the dock for her if it gets to court and that loser takes out an injunction. Sometimes it really is no fun being a man; thanks to Ann for allowing me to take the female side, even for three minutes. I’ve got news for you, Aretha – that damned Peebles makes me feel like a natural woman. Respect.