This is the path I’ll never tread/ these are the dreams I’ll dream instead April 21, 2012Posted by dolorosa12 in music.
Tags: feminism, fever ray, florence + the machine, florence welch, kate bush, music, persephone, the knife
When I go back to that well, that well which to me is so deep and giving, I feel guilt. What if they see that I’m still that girl wearing black in the hallway of some eternal school? What if they see that what obsesses me doesn’t make the cover of Wired like post-scarcity economics or reputation-based currency system? I feel I should not be That Girl. I should give equal time to others. But I can’t help it, I can’t help how the symbols of the story crackle in my head, I can’t help how I see my life in that story, how few stories we have that are about a girl’s journey, and part of the reason this one hits so hard is that there is a rape at the center of it, and we all have to decide how we deal with that elephant in the Sicilian field, whether we say she loved the darkness too, whether we give her all the power, whether we say she was stolen, whether we say she was happy underground, whether we say she was miserable and her mother saved her.
– Catherynne M. Valente, ‘My Dinner with Persephone’
A few weeks ago, I started listening to Kate Bush. I did this because I felt it was high time I listened to her full discography, because I love the music of Florence Welch and Annie Lennox (who are her obvious musical descendants), and the music of The Knife and Fever Ray and Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams and the female vocalists of Massive Attack and Strawpeople. Because I love Angela Carter and Frida Kahlo and stories about Persephone and the way Cat Valente writes about interiority, and maybe by grouping all these things together, I’m drawing connections which these people neither intended nor perceive, but to me, what they are (and why I love them) is women who feel things and communicate those feelings.
When I decided I liked Kate Bush, I took to the internet, as is my wont, to do what I usually do when I like something: broadcast my love to the world, Google lyrics, post video clips. After a while, I noticed something: I was apologising for liking Kate Bush’s music. Every time I posted a link, reblogged a clip, tweeted a Tweet, I was saying things like ‘living the cliché’ or ‘aren’t I such a stereotype?’. I was preempting any criticism for being one of those ankh-wearing Persephone girls that Valente talks about in the above quote.
I have noticed that when people criticise these lyricists – Kate Bush and Florence Welch in particular – they are often criticised for their insistent introversion, for the way they verbalise their emotions. (I once read a review of Florence’s Ceremonials album that essentially criticised her for not being Bob Dylan.) It’s as if what they sing about, what they’re feeling, is small and personal and irrelevant, whereas when a man – say, Neil Young* – sings about his feelings, they’re large and universal and important.**
I haven’t quite worked out what exactly this all means. It is a many-stranded thing. There is one strand that denies these songs any universality,*** or suggests that if you see yourself in them, you are an ankh-wearing Persephone girl whose emotions cannot be anything other than adolescent. There is a strand whereby we put these singers off in a ‘kooky’ category, because it’s easier to look at the swan costumes, the masks, the glittery make-up, than actually listen to what they are saying, to unpack the imagery and literary allusions.
And there is a strand of policing women’s emotions. I’m not saying here that men’s emotions aren’t policed (in fact, this is one of the few instances where men have a more narrow range of options than women), but they are policed in a slightly different way. It’s the notion that yes, of course women are (and should be) emotional, but their emotions shouldn’t be complicated, or they should only be pleasant emotions, or perhaps a better way of phrasing this is that women are taught that they must paradoxically be ’emotional’ (because to be feminine is to be emotional), but that their emotions must never impinge, impose, disturb or inconvenience other people. To allow yourself to feel Florence Welch emotions, Kate Bush emotions, Frida Kahlo emotions, Persephone emotions – and, more unforgivably, to express those emotions to other people – is adolescent.
Self-reflection and self-perception: when a man does it, it’s a mirror of the human condition. When a woman does it, it’s self-absorption. Interiority: when a man does it, it can be universal. When a woman does it, it’s introversion. But I am going to stop apologising. I am a Persephone woman. I will feel, and I will give those feelings words.
* I take him as an example because I’ve had so many conversations with my father where he has said that Neil Young’s music is amazing because ‘it’s so introverted and personal, and yet I identify with it so much’. Kurt Cobain might work as a good example too. Nirvana’s songs are so intensely specific, and yet they’re often held up as being definitive representations of an entire era and demographic.
** This is another version of how literature by a man with a domestic setting is seen as an important exploration of the human condition, whereas literature with a similar setting by a woman is seen as small in scope and petty in concern.
*** Which is patently ridiculous. It is pretty obvious what this song is about, and it is a sadly all-too-common experience.