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Music Chrissie Hynde on artistic expression and the sexual revolution

Chrissie Hynde

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Chrissie Hynde grew up on sixties rock, and came up in punk: She embodies, in her swagger and her gut-punching, elemental songwriting, 50 years of rock 'n' roll. Her memoir, Reckless, is tough but unassuming, marked with tragedy and offhanded resilience, an account of her life through her early years with the Pretenders, the band she formed in the late 1970s. Hynde has written about, and discussed with journalists, her views on sexual assault and women in the music industry. Critics have called them regressive and irresponsible; Hynde maintains she's not giving advice, only her opinion. In this interview, we discussed the sexual revolution and self-presentation.

Was there an impetus for writing a memoir?

I'm not really sure. I don't know; does it matter? I'm not a writer. You know, I've been asked a lot of questions over the years, and it gets very repetitive. So, in a way I think it's making sense of the past, when you have some perspective, and getting stuff out of the way, because it gets tedious. And also it was fun. I don't know if I sat down to write a book. I was just kind of knocking out some vignettes.

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You write pointedly about the sexual expectations of the 1960s. What do you think the sexual revolution has done for women?

I think it's very convoluted. I've heard this kind of feminist argument a lot, there was a big sexual revolution and we took our lives into our own hands. It wasn't like anyone took charge. I'm not saying whether that's good or bad, but I think it confuses people. The idea of being promiscuous was cool in the sixties, because it meant you were free and you weren't hung up. But that spreads a lot of disease. We could get rid of those diseases, so nothing seemed to matter. All people cared about was that you weren't hung up. I mean, it's very nice if you don't want to have to be a stay-at-home housewife, but I'm not sure that was the choice people were making. I think they were putting that off as long as they wanted to and having as much sex as they could. I think it probably fucked up some people's heads. You could bastardize what I'm saying, because I'm not making it very clear. But I'm not sure it was as liberating as it was almost enslaving. What's liberation? That's the real question. I'm still wondering myself.

Do you feel like your career was any more difficult because of your gender?

Not at all. I've never thought that. That's why I'm unpopular with feminists – I'm not really sure why that is, but I've noticed that. Whereas, it seems to me like, if anyone's a feminist around here it has to be me. Like, I walk it, I don't talk it.

In the book you describe being accosted by a group of bikers, who took you back to their headquarters for a 'party.' There was a strong response in the Internet cycle about your statement that you accept responsibility for the sexual violence –

See, I never said any of this, and I don't read my press. I was talking to a journalist, and she was sort of prodding me – she was nice, I liked her, we had a fun afternoon. But I think she missed the point, that when this altercation happened I was so fucked up on Quaaludes I didn't even care. So she kept prodding me to say, was I traumatized by this thing, or was I victimized, and all I was saying was that I was an idiot to even be there. She kept trying to get me to rephrase that. And it went into an article that I didn't read. And the next thing you know I'm vilified for defending rapists! I never even said I was raped. And you know, frankly, if you're being very provocative – let's take a music video. You know, if you're being sexually provocative, and you're a woman, in a video, what's the message?

What is the message?

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I don't know. I'm asking you. What do you think the message is?

I don't know that there is necessarily one message. In general I think it's fine to make a living with your body.

That's a really interesting response. Because you're just selling a song by being sexually provocative, and like you say, you're using your body to sell something. I'm not sure that being sexually provocative is speaking to other women as much as it's trying to get money out of men, and trying to get attention.

I can think of female musicians for whom sexuality is part of the package, and it doesn't feel outside of the music. Someone like Madonna's sexuality feels like part of her art.

What if you took her sexuality out of it, and just listen to the records? Do you think she would have sold as much of it?

No, I don't.

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That's sex work. That's still using sexuality to sell something. Why be sexual, that's the question. Why? To what end? Why not just be a person? You see, to me, sex is an appetite. Better to play it down, because it causes a lot of problems.

Well, I think it's natural to want to be looked at and admired.

Is it?! In a sexually provocative way? To be admired as an object of desire?

Absolutely. And I also think it's reasonable to expect men not to violate your personhood just because you are desirable.

But what does that say about the mentality of someone who's walking down the street trying to be sexy? I disagree with you; I don't think that is natural. I never felt like that. Ever. I mean, I want to look pretty good. You don't want to go out and look bad. But to go out and look sexually provocative and sexual, no. I've never tried to do that. And I think a lot of women don't try to do that.

I think it's natural, I don't think it's default. I think it's natural to not want to be looked at as well.

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I don't know why anyone would. Why don't you just look cool, why don't you just look good? Why is sex so important? Why is it so important to be sexy, or desirable? I mean, ultimately, what does that lead to? It leads to sex. So if you don't want to have sex, why are you trying to look like that? Are you trying to make someone think that you're sexy but you don't want to deliver? If you're a sex worker, that's got an end to it, and that means something. I'm not saying that everyone has to be completely covered, but why can't you just be?

I guess I don't see anything inherently wrong with wanting to look desirable or pleasing in that way.

I didn't say that. I never thought there was anything wrong with it. All I'm saying is, Why do you want that?

Because it feels good, and it's validating, and sometimes it makes people happy.

Well, I've gotten by without it. Not that I'm saying I'm any prize. Or that I've done anything right. I'm not comparing myself to anyone. It's just an interesting question that you brought up. And I've been waiting for someone to bring this up, because of this kerfuffle I got in where I said look, if you're drunk, and you're walking down the street in your underwear, the message that puts out is the same message as a sex worker: Come and get it. That's all I said! And that seemed to trigger off some kind of debate, which I wasn't really a part of because I don't read the press. In any one of the interviews or discussions I've had in the last few weeks, I've never said that I thought women should dress a certain way or do a certain thing. I was just talking about what happened to me. And then you know, only a total imbecile would have been where I was, and that applies to about 30 years of my life. Hence the name of the book. I don't recommend it to anyone. And I lost a lot of people along the way.

My only advice is don't kill animals. That's the only advice I've ever given in my whole career. Dress how you want, do what you want, think what you want, be who you want, act how you want. Be yourself. The rest of it is – they're interesting subjects, but they're not really my subjects. They are now, I guess.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

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