The Scales of Justice aren’t always about assigning placement of pop culture items in a ranked context. Sometimes it is weighing seemingly differing items to find commonality between them. That is the case for this edition.
There are important milestones littered all around the pop music landscape, but several of them are known through misinterpretation. A particular example of this is Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 mega-hit “I Will Survive,” a song that has taken on the mantle of sort of a feminist manifesto over the years, although that assumption comes mostly through the song’s usage on TV and in films as such a declaration.
One cannot argue that the chorus must lead the listener to that belief:
Oh, no, not I, I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live, I’ve got all my love to give
And I’ll survive, I will survive
And if that was the end of it, all the attributions given to it would be well-suited. The problem is that the verses don’t fully bear that out. A line like, “But now I’m saving all my loving for someone who’s loving me” has little to do with the self-reliance frequently tied to the song. Gaynor is, essentially, not saying she can make it on her own but that she is saving herself for another; one that will treat her well. Is that such a bad thing?
Actually, it isn’t. The depiction of role of women in pop music up to the late 1970’s tended to be utterly deplorable. They either sang songs about loving their man no matter what (“He’s A Rebel”) or following them to ruin for the grace of being their love (“Leader of the Pack”), or toward the sex-charged disco era of being the willingly submissive fantasy (to lesser degree Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More” and, more so, Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby”). This occurs because of the overwhelmingly male, and primarily dominant nature of pop music at the time. The Beatles sang, “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loves” in “Getting Better.” Bad Company had “I take whatever I want, and baby, I want you,” in “Can’t Get Enough.” Joe Tex’s “I Gotcha” is virtually a date rape admission with multiple iterations of the mindset: I bought you dinner, I took you out. You have to put out now.
Gaynor’s song, while not fully in the trenches, does say that I will not be disrespected anymore, you’ve got to go, and there is no reversal of this decision, which means a great deal in the popular musical landscape at that period. It wasn’t the only song to do so, mind you. The song “You’re No Good” covered by Linda Ronstadt has the same strident assurance of “I Will Survive.” Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” is farther into manifesto territory, but has always sounded too much so, more of a slogan or rally cry than a song meant to gently embolden an individual. It is hard to listen to from a perspective of enjoyment.
I believe Gaynor’s song did give courage to many out there in relationship to do-wrong men and women alike, and you could still dance to it. Popular music was always the conduit of youth and to hear someone say, “I will be treated with dignity and respect” with the committed trappings of a disco beat and instrumentation meant there could be a conversation going on between performer and listener, provided that conversation was contemporary. The years of suffering cheaters and emotional abusers, if not physical abusers, were over provided the decider had the courage to make the decision.
And that should have been the end of it, right? Not really. In later years there would be the wishy-washy “Jesse” from Carly Simon, miles and miles of pop stars who would purport their sexuality as being their own and firmly under the aegis of their empowerment, but few of them would say, “you are no good for me; you’re done, and you will never come back.” The hair metal scene saw the scantily clad steel mill crawlers as so much hour-long genital warmers, and not much else. The Notorious B.I.G. notoriously demanded that once the caviar and champagne was done “I’m fucking you tonight.”
Oddly enough, one of the few modern pop singers to take a stance against the submission of young girls and women would be the often derided Taylor Swift. For all of the drama surrounding how she arrives at her breakup songs, she tends to be adamant about her refusal to be treated like a prop, at least within the confines of the lyrics. The same can be said for Kelly Clarkson, although I have found her to vacillate between the extremes at times. Still, she more often than not can be counted as a voice for independence from the constricting girlfriend role.
Which is why acts like Christina Aguilera can be frustrating, to say the least. Her songs almost always position her as the controlling force in her relationships, and yet she is always found seemingly in the submissive pose, the receptacle for whatever her supposed conquest wants to do with her, and all her arguments that she is, in actuality, the winner in this game ring hollow. She comes off as the used member of the relationship that is buried in denial. And while the U.S. fell hard for Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” in the summer of 2012, that song was a far cry from her earlier work that showed less of a tolerance for playing the boy-toy role.
Swift has the cheerleader looks and the cheerleader throng of fans that follow her, and her overall message that she can be independent on some level, and assert that independence in the face of disrespect, is worthwhile. Dismissing these songs as just teenage (or post teenage) insouciance, elevating them to any social credibility as mountains from molehills exaggeration, is to forget “I Will Survive” is just a disco song. Neither have to represent anything more important unless they strike a chord with the listener.
Her songs don’t do much for me, a 44-year old guy, but I’ll admit readily I’m not her target demographic. I’ll also admit that Gaynor’s song didn’t do much for me either, back when I would have been ten years old. I was a rock-head, enjoyed my Bad Company, Foreigner, and other AOR groups that regularly saw women as the means for my fun. It was probably not the healthiest of media for a young mind. And there wasn’t much of an alternative to that, excepting Lite Rock which was sensitive enough but could also be as sexist (as James Taylor once sang, “Do me wrong, babe, or do me right…but don’t let me be alone tonight”).
Girls across the country are put into the awful position of being in abusive relationships with their boyfriends because the stigma of being “alone” in the Middle School/High School setting is that much more painful to them. It inaccurately paints them as a loser, or abnormal. If a Taylor Swift could stand as their emotional avatar, at least for a while until they have the chance to realize the control they actually have over their lives and how they deserve to be perceived, then there is merit in Swift’s work no matter what her critics might say. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” may become the “I Will Survive” for a generation, and that isn’t a bad thing. If it doesn’t, then at least it will directly speak to a group of people who are regularly told they’re only as good as the boy that attaches himself to her. In 2013, no young girl should ever have to think she has to be anyone’s accessory.