Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: 'Under My Thumb' by Rhian Jones

Pop Apologists

Under My Thumb is surprising. I expected an intense feminist screed attacking the whole music industry. But instead it is a thoughtful, personal and extraordinarily well written collection of 29 essays (mostly from the UK and the USA) showing the awesome power of the pop music industry over women. Because all the women who submitted contributions fell under the sway of their favorite singers and bands, and end up defending them, despite the admitted sexism, the overtly offensive lyrics, the misogyny and the violence they preach and perform.

It is very personal and often very deep. There are family situations, teenage angst, class warfare and unattainable aspirations all over these essays. There are extenuating circumstances and rationalizations galore. The authors know full well how obnoxious the singers are, how horrific the lyrics are, and how damaging they can be. One woman wants to protect her ten year old daughter from seeing her favorite band that she herself can never get enough of.

They almost all become apologists for the likes of Kanye, Guns N Roses, Eminem, Tupac, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. They admit they are actually drawn to murder ballads. “Even when he’s tackling the most reprehensible of topics, I am still desperately, guiltily enthralled” is a very typical admission in Under My Thumb. Many don’t mind memorizing the words of abuse heaped on women. The essays are sharp and well written, analytical, fair, but above all, cathartic. 

They are not na├»ve, either. The authors are mostly academics, 30ish, and freelance writers. At some point in their adolescence, they all came to some variant of the same conclusion: “Men who claim to be down for the cause will merrily sit upon the pedestal you give them, and not knowing or asking how not to, they will continue to hold in place every facet of the system that oppresses you.” A lot of the authors like to say their relationship to the artist/band is “complicated”.

The authors take their favored genre very seriously, assigning all kinds of importance, significance and virtuosity to it, be it death metal, hip-hop or rock’n’roll. To them, the genres showcase enormous talents, are microcosms of society, and demonstrate great depth of feeling and insight. Also astonishing subtlety and nuance. But they’re sexist: blatantly, revoltingly, and humiliatingly. (In the case of death metal, the author has a solution: more women in the bands.)

The irony, if that’s what it is, is that when asked, the musicians all seem to claim the women took it too literally. Like this from AC/DC: “We take the music far more seriously than the lyrics, which are just throwaway lines.” But the pen is mightier than the sword, and the harm done is simply beyond the comprehension of these musical geniuses. The essay authors are torn.

The essays seem to be blind contributions; there are no references to each other. Had they seen each other’s work, perhaps they wouldn’t be so repetitive. But the near unanimity of it all is striking by itself. It comes from many angles, and ends in doubt, which is far too charitable an outcome.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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