Being a young female music fan is a weird experience, or at least it was for me. The fans I knew were disproportionately dudes, and the dudes who liked the kind of music I liked, generally music by old people, were disproportionately older. Often enough, these older dudes saw the record store as a safe space away from the kind of person who might have rejected them in high school (female persons). The weird part is that I looked up to these guys. They weren’t much for eye contact.
Not all of them were like that, but even some of the best could skew a little guyish in their tastes. The accepted icons were Harry Nilsson, Alex Chilton, Ozzy Osbourne. Artists like Kate Bush were “a little shrill.” Better for an artist to sound like a sopping drunk than to sound too much like a broad. For this, and for other, better reasons, feminism is an important lens for music. I’m happy to see talents like Wanda Jackson lauded as feminist icons. Happy to see the word blown up big behind Beyoncé at this year’s VMAs – happy, in the abstract, about all the feminist think pieces she has spawned.
But the feminist take can be self-defeating. There’s a risk of reducing femaleness to a political identity, and of judging female artists by how empowering their message is. It matters that an artist is female, but not just because there are too few in the canon, or because girls need role models. It matters because being female is an experience, or rather a multitude of experiences, and experience informs art. “Female” is a quality, not a qualifier.
This week, Kate Bush performed the first showings of Before the Dawn, a run of 22 concerts, her first in 35 years, at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, spawning “Bushmania” in Britain – all 77,000 tickets sold in 15 minutes – and a torrent of appreciation. (In a frustrating piece for The Guardian, columnist Zoe Williams compared her favourably to the current lineup of female pop stars, and wondered if Beyoncé could “emancipate herself from the craven redomestication agenda” of Single Ladies.) Bush is a living icon, but she wasn’t always so beloved. As part of The Guardian’s roll-out Bush coverage, Simon Reynolds wrote that “she was not afforded much respect by critics or hip listeners in the late 1970s.” Debuting with Wuthering Heights in 1978, Bush appeared as a squeaky-voiced, mime-eyed sylph, dancing with dangling sleeves in character as a Brontë heroine. It seems fair to call this “girly.”
Bush’s femaleness (and I emphasize that hers is only a female experience; artists from Beyoncé to Grace Jones to Laura Jane Grace populate a limitless horizon of female perspective) is not a statement, or a simple matter of context. It’s aesthetic, part of what makes her work what it is. A useful point of comparison is Laura Nyro, another one of the most singular and complete artists of the 20th century, whose influence as a songwriter stretches from Elton John to Alice Cooper, and who performed as if there was no difference between the way she felt and the way she sang it.
Like Bush, Nyro was so deep in her own bag that good taste was irrelevant to her work. She was prone to romantic grand gestures and to dressing like a girl who read the Brontës, although her references are more Sixties New York than the myths and legends of old England. (“She looks like the girl down the block dressed up in a long white gown for her First Communion,” Michele Kort quotes a Rolling Stone writer, in her Nyro biography, Soul Picnic).
And like Bush, Nyro was ecstatically female. She was “a guidepost for soul-searching young women, especially high-school and college students,” writes Kort, “and her songs became a soundtrack for their lives.” She had a special resonance with many gay men as well, and “became a code of sorts for certain sensitive young straight men: If they could crack it, they could perhaps gain entree to the women who attracted them.”
Nyro wrote love songs to female friends (and, later, her female partner), lamented the plight of lonely women (Lonely Women), warned other girls off bad men (Eli’s Comin’) and counselled the heartbroken (Time and Love). Her second LP, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, released when she was just 20, was something of a concept album, a “coming-of-age memoir,” in Kort’s words. Its songs were as ambitious and its emotional pitch was as intense as either could be while remaining pop. It was sold with a scented lyric sheet.
She was compassionate and playful with those she worked with – she once rolled a six-inch joint and later stopped a take to savour the way her piano keys felt – while insisting on absolute creative control. Mood and intuition were crucial to her. On the way to the recording sessions for New York Tendaberry, her third album, she would ride through Central Park in a horse-drawn carriage, then “sashay in in a magnificent gown,” Kort quotes recording engineer Roy Halee. She’d then set up candles, and “have a beautiful dinner catered, with tablecloths and wine.” The album sounds like nothing recorded before or since, and is at least as powerful as Pet Sounds or Abbey Road.
Bush told stories and invented personas – invented, for her videos, whole capsule dimensions – to capture feelings rarely examined in pop music, and wrote an impassioned, transatlantic hit about the actual work of empathy. Nyro, who died of ovarian cancer in 1997, invented new song structures to fit her emotions. Both artists are completely unpredictable, a consequence of their fidelity to their instincts, and both sometimes embarrass for it: Bush flies in a bat costume across the back cover of her third album, Never For Ever, scat-sings in a birth-giving frenzy during the outro to The Big Sky. Nyro composed a song from the perspective of her cat, as well as one about “the descent of Luna Rosé.” (It is surprisingly good.)
Embarrassment is liberating, if you press into it: A great performance involves feats you couldn’t replicate, either because you lack the talent or you’d never allow yourself to, and, ideally, both. Bush soars with her enthusiasms, and Nyro did the same with her vulnerabilities: Her voice flies into the glass-breaking register and hangs there a little flat and unreinforced, the science way you’d hate to sound to a significant other. I found this off-putting in my record-store days, when I cared what men thought. But I realize now how galvanizing it is: She so owns those qualities that I once associated with weakness and defeat. For Nyro, heartbreak was grace.
Both seem to perform “in the sense of inhabiting another reality,” as Jeanette Winterson put it in The Guardian. They do so in a way that often resonates with young women as a form of escapism, comparable to fantasy, and which spawned a lineage continued by the likes of Tori Amos. Maybe it’s because girls aren’t normally socialized to think of the wide world of stuff as theirs for the taking (not that all women were socialized to be girls); maybe it’s because female culture can be so cryptic, enacted so tacitly, to begin with. When I was in middle school, the appeal of the “ethereal” singer-songwriter lay on a continuum with Wicca, which wasn’t about casting spells, or goddess culture, or even female bonding so much as the promise that if I learned to squint just right, my world could be magical.
The appeal of secret worlds isn’t just a “female” thing, of course, nor does it speak to everyone who is female – and again, there are many, many ways to be female. The fact that femaleness is so vast and undefinable makes it perfect for art, which says what can’t be said about the infinite spread of experiences people can have. As for feminism, part of the point, as I see it, is to fix this world so that the experiences of women, all women, are considered as seriously as men’s have always been.