this is a torch song

Photo by Chris Darling
Photo by Chris Darling

You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

-Margaret Atwood, “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing”

It is an old story, and it goes like this: women and girls aren’t allowed to be fully developed humans with all the myriad contradictions that being human entails. This is even further complicated by things like race, class, and sexual orientation. The more minority groups you belong to, the farther away from “human” you’re considered to be. Society sees your identities as things that trump your humanity. We see men and boys as the baseline, the standard issue human. That changes somewhat if they are men of color, or poor men, or queer men, but as a whole, to be a man is to be human. Which means that they get to have their complexities. They can sleep around and still be good guys. They can be angry, and instead of it being something frightful and monstrous, the world lauds them for it. If they write dark poetry and do drugs and live like a vagabond, rather than having it mean they are damaged, it makes them the sensitive, brooding heroes of their own stories.

It is an old story, and it goes like this: women don’t get to be the heroines of their own stories. Women don’t get to be complex, or flawed (when women have flaws, the flaws are all people see). Women get to be archetypes and muses. No matter what archetypal role you are cast in, it is a tiny, bare room that you are not allowed to leave without being punished in some way. You’re either a raging harpy or a sweet little thing. You’re either a slut or a good girl (prude). On top of that, you can only act out your role in certain prescribed ways. If you embrace it too much, take it too far, you’ll receive punishment for that, too. It’s all well and good if you’re the strong, powerful woman who doesn’t take shit from anybody and doesn’t need a man. But be careful about being too strong, too powerful, shunning men too much – because that means you’re cold, a bitch, a dyke. And it’s fine to be the sensitive, emotional girl who cries a lot and wears her heart on her sleeve. But if you’re too sensitive, cry too much, are all bared bloody heart, well then you’re damaged, crazy, playing the victim.

It is an old story, and it is wrong. There are women (there are so many women) who are the heroines of their own stories. There are women (there are so many women) who sing their stories, whether those stories are made of power or pain, and demand the world listen. “I am human,” they sing. “Hear me roar.” But the world still wants to put them into one of those little rooms, and to punish them for trying to sing their way out; to punish them for being too, too much. It is such an old story, such an old song sung by so many women that it’s almost impossible to find the beginning. Who was the first sad lady singing of her scars and sorrows? Who was the first who penned an anthem declaring herself queen, goddess, force of nature?

I can’t find the beginning, so I begin with the music. I put the records on and I listen to the voices of these women, and as they sing they appear before me, flickering like footage from an old film. There is Billie Holiday, Lady Day singing the blues with flowers in her hair and veins full of opiates. With her golden reed of a voice, she sings her own pain – good morning, heartache – and the deeper pain of topics no one else will touch: Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. There is Nina Simone, with her barrelhouse presence, belting out the words to righteous anthems: All I want is equality – for my sister, my brother, my people and me. Then she turns her gaze inward, and sings the loneliest lost-love ballads – I drink much more than I oughta drink, because it brings me back you. When I listen to “Lilac Wine,” I hear that sad, damp, drunken night in her voice. It sounds like smoke and tears. Next come the ‘60s girl groups and girl singers, sashaying in their short skirts, with their thick eye makeup and their teased-up hair. The Flirtations sing about how it’s nothing but a heartache every day, but it’s the kind of heartache you can dance to. Then, The What Four turns the tables, saying: “I’m Gonna Destroy That Boy.” It’s a psychedelic rave-up about using your feminine wiles to get what you want. He’s gonna fall so fast it’s absolutely frightening. And once that boy is yours, well, there’s Lesley Gore to help you remind him: “You Don’t Own Me.” I get goosebumps when I listen to her pleading – just let me be myself, that’s all I ask of you. I’ve had similar conversations with boys I’ve dated.

Speaking of no one owning you, there is Nancy Sinatra, menacing and sexy in her spike-heeled boots, singing: one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you. Ouch. And then there is Janis Joplin. She’s hard to pigeonhole. People try to cast her as the damaged woman – all the drugs, the sex, the sorrow – but as soon as they listen to her sing, they realize she is so much more than that. She isn’t a conventional beauty, but she is so herself. She decks herself in rags and feathers, beads and scarves, loves men and women, and exudes such a wild sensuality that they can’t help but love her, too. And her voice, her voice. She draws from the deepest well of womanly sorrow, and sings the blues in such a raw, pure way. Well, the fevers of the night, they burn an unloved woman. But there is strength behind it all – she’s gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough. Take another little piece of my heart, now, baby, she yowls. Break her heart, but what you cannot do, is bow her down, who has been loved by you. Joni Mitchell is often perceived as the archetypal Sensitive Girl With An Acoustic Guitar, singing sad, pretty songs. I hear something different. Yes, the songs are gorgeous, and often melancholy, but it is a wry, knowing melancholy: Constantly in the darkness, where’s that at? If you want me, I’ll be in the bar.

And here’s another woman that can shoot an ex down with a few words – Carly Simon, saying: you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you. Then along comes Dolly. She’s got a skintight, spangled outfit, big breasts, and even bigger blonde hair. She’s built like a brick house, and she’s got a personality to match. You can call her a blonde bimbo and she’ll just wink at you, then sing a song that’s a sly up-yours to the boss who controls your “9 To 5.” Then she’ll turn right around and plead to a woman who’s competing for her man’s love, in such a way that it sounds like she’s almost in love with her rival: Your beauty is beyond compare, with flaming locks of auburn hair. With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green. Pat Benatar also has a rival in the game of love, but her rival is her love interest, and her song is her battlecry: Knock me down, it’s all in vain. I’ll get right back on my feet again. Hit me with your best shot (take another little piece of my heart). Then Joan Jett appears, strutting her way into my rock’n’roll heart. She’s dressed in leather, her hair bleached platinum or dyed jet(t) black, her eyes ringed with eyeliner, and she holds the world in her unwavering gaze. She is an outspoken feminist, she is unapologetic about being a lesbian, and she doesn’t really care if you think she’s strange. She ain’t gonna change. She doesn’t give a damn about her “Bad Reputation.”

Madonna descends upon me, seedy and holy all at once. Black lace and white-blonde hair, that cunning gap between her front teeth. She wears crosses to accentuate the difference between what she’s doing and what the world told her to do. She embraces, flaunts, her sexuality in a way few pop singers did before. She does what she wants, and encourages others – “Express Yourself.” Sinéad O’Connor also uses Catholic imagery in her persona, but in a different way than Madonna. She is, of course, famous for ripping up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. She still considers herself Catholic, but also hates the hypocrisy within the church. She, too, embraces her sexuality, but portrays it in a more mysterious way. Sinéad is a shaved head, elfin cheekbones, big, dark eyes. Her vocal range is at home with the fun, reckless love affair of “Jump in the River,” or the stark strength of an a cappella ballad like “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” And here is Tori Amos, the strange little girl-woman with red mermaid tresses. She might seem, at first, like she’s putting the damage on, but she is stronger than anyone when she sings “Me And A Gun.” She is also the queen of the breakup song, and girls, you’ve got to know when it’s time to turn the page. When you’re only wet because of the rain. Courtney Love shows up and steals the spotlight. She’s a goddess in her ripped-up dresses and smeared red lipstick. She knows that people hate her for loudness, for her abrasive attitude. She’s known all along that the world treats boy rockstars much differently than it treats girl rockstars. “You’ve got to be prepared…” she has said. “You will be a freakshow, a retching wretch, a sloppy drunk. He will be charismatic, vainglorious, a ferocious drunk and Dionysian.” (Men get to be the heroes of their own stories.) So many people hate her, but I love her. I love her even when she’s screaming at fans and punching paparazzi. I love her because she is the woman who knows what it’s like to want – to want fame, to want drugs, to want sex, to want love. To want everything so much it almost kills you. To want everything, even though when she gets what she wants, she never wants it again.

Then there’s Ani DiFranco, the punk-folkstress, with her steel-toed boots and her acoustic guitar. She is not an angry girl, though it seems like she’s got everyone fooled. Every time I say something they find hard to hear, she sings, they chalk it up to my anger, and never to their own fear. She’s just trying to finally come clean, and that is where she shines. Her songs are brutal, honest, and heart-rending, whether she’s singing about abortion, bisexuality, heartache, or anything else. And poor, maligned Alanis Morissette. It’s easy to make fun of Alanis, because for a time, she was the Angry Woman In Pop. She was the one in the public eye, howling about her pain. But I don’t see anything funny in lines like: It was a slap in the face, how quickly I was replaced. Are you thinking of me when you fuck her? Hell hath no fury like a woman who turns her heartbreak into a hit song. Then, there’s Fiona Apple. She can be the “Sullen Girl,” with a voice so large for her tiny frame, singing: he swept me ashore, and he took my pearl, and left an empty shell of me. Asking all of us: “How much strength does it take to hurt a little girl? How much strength does it take for the girl to get over it? Which one of them do you think is stronger?” She can also be the bad, bad girl, the “Criminal” who is careless with a delicate man. Amy Winehouse harks back to the soulful sixties, all teased-up hair and dramatic cat’s-eye makeup. She is the woman who feels too much, who feels guilty about her flaws: I cheated myself, like I knew I would. I told you I was trouble, you know that I’m no good. There is a certain power in declaring your own damage. Beyoncé is the feminist who displays the f-word behind her, twenty feet tall and luminous, while on stage. Yet she is still dragged through the mud for not being a “real feminist,” because she is a wife and mother, or because she is sexy, sexual. But she comes right back and says yes, she is a feminist, and a “Flawless” one at that. Bow down, bitches.

I also bow down to Nicki Minaj, her Minajesty. She owns all her facets – sexy and smart, man-eater and ‘one of the boys.’ People accuse her of being over-sexualized, or of being weird and unsexy, and she does not give a shit. She’s not trying to be sexy for you, she’s sexy for herself. She’s feeling herself: Bitches ain’t got punchlines, or flow. I have both, and an empire also. Lana Del Rey is Our Lady of Glamorous Sadness. She romanticizes self-destruction, but I romanticize everything, and that is why I love her. She is the “Sad Girl,” but on her own terms: Watch what you say to me, careful who you’re talking’ to. I’m on fire, baby, I’m on fire. And, finally, Taylor Swift arrives. She was once a twee little pop-country crooner, scorned for singing songs about her exes. Then she grew up, slicked on some red lipstick, and became one of the most powerful women in music. She uses her history as fuel: Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane. But I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name. It’s a promise, and a threat.

All these women, and so many more that I didn’t mention – they reject the dominant narrative. They are heroines in their own stories. They are multifaceted. They show us that we can fall apart over boys and girls who have broken our hearts, but own our heartbreak. They proudly shout that they are sad girls for life. They say we can be angry and sweet, sensitive and strong. They are slutty good girls, and bad girls who have never slept with anyone. They are punk rock’n’rollers; they are girls with dirty bare feet and battered acoustic guitars. They are new wave divas and pop singers; they are MCs and soul crooners. They are country belters and torch singers. Touch them and you’ll burn.

Listen to the “this is a torch song” playlist on 8tracks.


Jessie Lynn McMains is a writer and zine-maker currently based in southeastern Wisconsin. She writes about nostalgia, desire, identity, music, wild girls, and her misspent youth.

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