Thelma’s Gaze

Pop songs from any era are infectious little bastards, I think. There’s a rotation on the local radio station, Clear Channel’s iron grip wearing the same few songs into the three tiny bones of our ears like barbed wire into an oak at the fence line. The 80’s station by me kind of ranges around and plays stuff from other decades. Tonight I was treated to a pair of tunes that make me twitch: “She’s So High,” by Tal Bachman, and “Jessie’s Girl,” by Rick Springfield. They’re catchy, yes, but the “girl” so crooningly sung about in each has no name, no personality– only an appearance and a status. An accessory for desire. I became a little bit frustrated and annoyed, and so went home and played through some of my own music– The Magnetic Fields came up, and I fared no better. And such things wouldn’t be a problem–everyone is the subject of their own story, and everyone else is merely an incidental actor in each other’s tale–except that women are consistently portrayed as faceless objects of desire in so many pop songs, rock songs, hip hop songs sung by men…

And men in women’s songs? They are actors. Often, they are the cause of the pain that many female artists express in song. Listen to Sheryl Crow’s music for many examples. Louise Post’s pains on Veruca Salt’s album “Resolver.” Ani DiFranco sings of strong women, but never that I’ve heard of a faceless sexualized man in her music, though she portrays many an asshole who is distinctly male. Others are perhaps a little more ambiguous.

I realized that this is something that sits uneasily in my mind. I have to shift its weight every now and again, think on it once more. Objectification, when it exists alongside other presentations, when it is shown as one portrayal of many, doesn’t strike me as terrible, because the expectation changes: the objectified party is not bound by that sole image of themselves– there are other models to emulate, other modes in which to exist. In isolation? It becomes the sole example. One is supposed to be like this narrowly defined image, and only this image– there is no other model, no other option to hold up and say, “See? We have all this at our fingertips from which to draw ideas about ourselves and our world’s interaction with those selves.” I think that what is damaging is the way such limited portrayals assign roles. I think perhaps the cure is a proliferation of alternative images.

So I decided to make a list. Lists are nice comforting things, at times. They give a sense of where things stand. This list is a list of all the songs I knew wherein a man was objectified for the female “gaze” (ear?) in a similar way to the literally thousands of songs that pose the reverse. I can only think of four, and three are by the same artist– the third only gains that status by the fact that the covering vocalist is a woman: “State Fair,” “The Olde Headboard,” and “High of Life,” all by Rasputina, and Bow Wow Wow’s recording of “I Want Candy,” by The Strangeloves. This troubles me more. There is a lot of music with which I am familiar, and this is all that comes immediately to mind. There is undoubtedly more out there– do you know any of it? Help me compile this list. Help me take apart these notions and hold them up to the light to see where the holes are. Help me lovingly dissect these notions of portrayal.

10 thoughts on “Thelma’s Gaze”

  1. “Gorgeous” by Girl Next Door is what comes to mind for me, although I’m not sure if it’s exactly what you’re looking for.(lyrics: http://www.musicsonglyrics.com/G/girlnextdoorlyrics/girlnextdoorgorgeouslyrics.htm )Technically this guy is an actor. He is the person that the narrator is singing to. And he does have a personality… it’s just a very, very boring one. The whole song is a big breakup/apology from the girl to the guy, explaining that she only liked him because he was hot.

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  2. “She’s So High” has always extra bothered me. “She’s so lovely/She’s so high/Like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc or Aphrodite.” Really? Joan of Arc? Way to take one of the few female historical figures whose appearance has no bearing on her importance, and decide that her “loveliness” is what matters. Jackass. But to be fair to the The Strangeloves, they were a band that mercilessly lied about themselves to mock the state of pop music at the time, so there is a chance they weren’t entirely serious. – Bessie Smith “Put a Little Sugar in My Bowl” – Blondie “One Way or Another”– Bonzo Dog Doodah Band’s “Urban Spaceman” is about female objectification of men.– Possibly “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton represent!)– Dusty Springfield “Son of Preacher Man”– Peter, Paul, and Mary “Leaving on a Jet Plane”– “Black Boys/White Boys” from Hair– Maria Muldar “Midnight at the Oasis”– Janis Joplin “Me and Bobby McGee”– Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You” (unless it is about her daughter)– “I Saw Him Once” from Les Miserables– Shakira “Underneath Your Clothes” For some subversion of the faceless woman, I would see “Love to Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly)” by Caravan. Her appearance is never mentioned, and the major thing he cites that he loves about her is that she verbally savages people who are sexist at her. And I’ve always liked that when Jade Warrior has a faceless woman of perfection they’re singing to, she is literally a friggin’ goddess. Johnny Cash and June Carter turning “If I Were a Carpenter” into a duet subverted those intentions in the original song, and I’ve always loved that in “Tennessee Stud” the girl with the golden hair was a-ridin’ on a Tennessee mare.

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  3. I’m not 100% sure I’m on the right track here, but the song that jumps to mind immediately is probably “Sexy Boy” by Air. I also like “Your Woman” by White Town, but that’s mostly just because it’s sung by a male from a woman’s perspective, which is unusual. I was also thinking “Damn I wish I was your lover” by Sophie B. Hawkins, but that song is mostly just bizarre, so I don’t know if it fits.

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  4. I don’t like her music, but most songs by Fiona Apple which describe a guy have a faceless example, though as you describe in your post, they’re mostly negative, though not always in the “I’m forever scared” sort of way.There’s always R.E.S.P.E.C.T and “I Will Survive”

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  5. So this whole week, I’ve been looking up lyrics, and trying to formulate a response to all the comments. “Gorgeous” hits it on the head exactly.

    As do all of your suggestions, Maggie, and I’m especially fond of the Joplin cover of “Me and Bobby McGee.” There are a number you listed that I’m still unfamiliar with, and I’m still digging out lyrics. I want to listen to them all. I had also completely forgotten about Blondie.

    Sophie B. Hawkins, while I love that song, “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” hits it a little better than I originally thought. I chewed on that for a while, and then I realized after a bit of thinking that it’s not unlike “Jessie’s Girl” in the type of situation it unfolds; the one thing that sort of negates that is the whole mother/lover complex she sings about– sort of a whole romantic savior thing. It’s its own little problem. Still love the song. The subversion in White Town’s “Your Woman” relates nicely… I’ve missed that tune, I haven’t heard it in so long.

    I think you’re right, Dragan, about the Fionna Apple assessment. I love “I Will Survive,” and it totally belongs on the list, right next to “Gorgeous.” Glee!

    Finally, why can’t there be more booze-ahol commercials like that in the U.S.? I’d like an even mixture of ones that snarkily say things like, “Yeah, booze and sex get linked all the time… that is so last millennium. This booze, it tastes neat. And like all booze, it will get you drunk. Ta-da! Try it.” You know, booze ads for jaded college grads. But this… this one was also yay.

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  6. I find it interesting that that commercial feels compelled to still be singing about male gaze and at the end, breaks the fourth wall so one of the men can assure the viewer that you are also worthy of his gaze.

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  7. Yeah the direct “you” address changed the whole tone, but up until that point it was pure eye-candy… the “she’s fresh fresh” chorus didn’t have nearly the same context without that direct address.

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