Reevaluating the 'Romantic' Hit Songs of Pop Music's Patriarchy
Odessa Chen performs at 'Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy' at the Women's Building in San Francisco. (Courtesy C Project)
In the last week of September, while viewers around the country were glued to the three-ring circus of sexism and institutional power that was the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, San Francisco singer-songwriter Kendra McKinley was jetlagged in Iceland. Holed up with former Sigur Rós keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, she fought through the fog as she rearranged Doris Day’s 1952 hit single “A Guy Is a Guy.”
I walked to my house like a good girl should He followed me to my house like I knew he would Because a guy is a guy wherever he may be So listen while I tell you what this fellow did to me
McKinley was there at the behest of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who’d selected her to be the bandleader for Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy, a three-day performance piece that took over the Women’s Building in San Francisco from Nov. 9 through Nov. 11. Comprised of 32 local women artists singing 25 pop songs—well-known selections from rock, folk, country, hip-hop—the performance focused on music from the past century that's been viewed as romantic, but upon closer investigation reveals a deep strain of misogyny.
“Being there during Dr. Ford’s testimony gave me this really deep sense of responsibility, of purpose behind the piece,” says McKinley.
“Here’s this historic moment we’re having, and I think we’re seeing that there’s a gravity to what we consume culturally—it affects our lives, it affects the decisions of people in power ... when we’ve all been listening to music and watching movies and working in institutions that reinforce that [things like sexual assault] are normal,” says the songwriter. “The reality is that patriarchy is inescapable. And you can’t get out of it. It’s in the air we breathe.”
She stayed tuned into the hearing from afar as best as she could. She helped arrange “Blurred Lines,” by Robin Thicke, and “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon” by Neil Diamond, and “Lo Mejor de Tu Vida” by Julio Iglesias for fingerpicked acoustic guitar. She drew up charts that put all the songs in the same key, and recorded herself playing and singing each of them, so the other performers could practice.
She flew home. Brett Kavanaugh got confirmed to the Supreme Court. Christine Blasey-Ford has been forced to move four times since.
So the thing with the toxic airborne pollution-as-misogyny-metaphor is that it’s too easy, right, when California's literally on fire? But it's also tough to avoid right now: it is true that I walked the three blocks from my apartment to the Women’s Building on Saturday through an unnatural pink haze, breathing in toxic chemicals—the couple stores I’d been to were out of masks—and considering, as the light fell in odd bright slivers on the buildings around me, the difference between Instagram golden hour and apocalypse chic. A marketing problem, I thought perversely: this fire needs a new publicist.
I got in line behind 30 or so other people, and then volunteers in respirators began working their way down, confirming our tickets. And then I was inside, and I don’t know what I was expecting, but for the next 90 minutes, I did not breathe normally at all.
The performers, many of whom I recognized from the Bay Area music scene, positioned themselves around the building’s four floors—in offices and boardrooms, on staircases and scaffolding, or tucked into janitorial closets. Each woman dressed in black, each played a guitar, and each sang, in a loop, a familiar song.
Kjartansson is known for the use of repetition in his work—but to be clear: each performer in Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy played one song, nonstop, for the duration of the three-day performance, 19 hours total. They took breaks only for tea and the bathroom. It seemed an endurance test both physical and emotional, an experience neither comfortable nor pleasant.
There were stylistic differences in their playing. Some sang directly to their audience, with a smile and a hint of tongue-in-cheek; some stared forlornly into middle distance. Some screamed, some sang sweetly, some intoned the words as a sort of Hail Mary. In some rooms, the performers shared space, their words and guitar chords bleeding into one another. They sang in Spanish and English. Many of them sang songs I knew, some by heart. But I’d never heard them like this.
On the first floor, a performer sang the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” while perched atop a bank of mailboxes:
He hit me And it felt like a kiss He hit me And I knew he loved me
On the second floor, in what seemed to be a daycare room, a woman sang “Under My Thumb,” by the Rolling Stones, near a wall of little kids’ cubbies.
Under my thumb It’s a squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day… The way she does just what she’s told, down to me
Around the corner on a trellis, I heard the British Invasion's nice guys, the Beatles, represented by “Run For Your Life."
Let this be a sermon I mean everything I've said Baby, I'm determined And I'd rather see you dead.
In a bright classroom on the third floor, I found a woman singing Lil Wayne’s “Love Me,” backlit by the afternoon’s grey-orange sky.
She said ‘I never want to make you mad, I just want to make you proud’
I said ‘Baby just make me cum, then don’t make no sound’
I watched this song, perhaps the project's most explicit, for a full two loops, as groups of three to four people filtered into the room, stared helplessly for a few moments—the discomfort palpable—then backed out.
By the time I reached the fourth floor—Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” among others—I felt vaguely as if someone had just removed all my skin with a potato peeler. I made brief eye contact with two women silently sobbing in front of a performer doing Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.” (“He slaps you once in a while / And you live and love in pain…”)
And then I retraced my steps back through the building, thinking: yep, that's about right. This is what women walk around with, all day, every day. These are the stories replaying in women’s heads, stories of rape and harassment and lechery and violence and condescension and the understanding that our lives do not belong to us. That we are object, never subject. In board rooms and classrooms and at childcare. And no one is safe: not a janitor nor a CEO. I walked down the stairs, noticing my claustrophobia growing with each repeated verse.
And then I was back on the street, passing by visitors as they entered the building, not knowing what to expect. I walked home, trying to breathe, trying not to breathe. I wondered how much those masks were even filtering out. I wondered about the irreversible damage that had already been done.
“I feel like I just got hit by a truck,” a friend I’d seen inside the performance texted me afterward, by way of explaining why she had to split. “Gasping for air,” read another friend’s Instagram post. “I cried,” another texted simply, “twice.”
I went home and, masochist that I am, put on “Runaround Sue.”
You see, I’d had this experience with “Runaround Sue” a few weeks ago, in which I was horrified-slash-delighted to learn that the cheerful song—warning about the immorality of a girl who dates many guys—was by Dion. Don’t know him? Dion's other best-known single is called “The Wanderer,” a similarly cheerful tune that celebrates being a guy who dates as many girls as he can—so many, in fact, he can't keep his dates straight:
Where pretty girls are, well you know that I'm around
I kiss 'em and I love 'em cause to me they're all the same
I hug 'em and I squeeze 'em they don't even know my name
The double-standard was so textbook, I kind of loved it. Because, I suppose, I like to think I'm smarter than that. I tell myself that I’m blocking out the misogyny when I hear it over the radio, or on the street, and I believe I am successful in that, to a degree: that it doesn't affect me.
But I came home from this performance with my bubble burst a little. Because the truth is it's impossible to be fully academic about pop music. There's no outsmarting it. You don’t get out of popular culture shaping the way you experience life just because you can write a thesis on it. Pop music, perhaps in particular, is by its very nature both borne of a time and place—a mirror of existing culture—and a building block of it. Just ask the musicians of Stax Records during the Civil Rights movement, or anyone who was 18 in this country during the Vietnam War.
“Given all that women are expected to live with—the leers that start when we’ve barely begun puberty, the harassment, the violence we survive or are constantly on guard for—I can’t help but wonder what it has all done to us,” wrote Jessica Valenti in her 2016 book Sex Object. “Not just to how women experience the world, but how we experience ourselves. I started to ask myself: Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”
I come back to that line often. And I came back to it after this performance, because this performance reminded me that blocking out misogynist messaging every day takes energy, and effort. That you're not winning if you're still doing all the work, that there are no medals for a job well done.
Perhaps most insidiously, these messages are so all-encompassing that you truly stop noticing: I can’t tell you how much of my brain is devoted to trying to prevent the most damaging kinds of misogyny from entering my body, because I don’t know, because I've been doing it as long as I’ve been alive. It's as much a part of what it means to be a woman as knowing which street to walk home on late at night, gravitating toward streetlights and people and noise.
Where would that energy be going if it weren't being used to construct an elaborate force field every day? Too bad I'll never know.
On Monday, I caught up with McKinley on the phone. She was resting. All the women are psychologically fine, she wants everyone to know, despite the obvious demands of the project. And she was mostly riding high from the experience: she talked about the camaraderie between performers. How important it was that the song selections were all popular, all love songs, all technically good songs—nearly deified, in some cases. How powerful it felt—at a time when our leaders lie, when language feels like it's failing, when our culture's misogyny is more raw and exposed than it's ever felt in our lifetime—to poke a hole in something so accepted. To pull back the curtain just a little on the canon.
Still, she broke down twice over the course of the weekend. She got used to people crying as they watched her sing, to the waves of pain as people recognized a song they loved as a conduit of trauma. She grew accustomed to feeling blank at times, a screen onto which attendees were projecting their own experiences. But there was one moment that caught her: she was singing “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon” when a couple of children, young girls, entered the room.
“Here’s this song that’s supposed to be romantic and seductive,” says McKinley. “And here are these girls, on the cusp of having to be subjected to this onslaught of bullshit, and having to develop the defenses necessary to survive.”
There were a few kids running around when I was there, too. "Cool parents," I thought, at first. And I wondered how much, if any of this, they really grasped. I even questioned briefly if conversations like this one can push the needle—if pop music might be ever so slightly different by the time they were my age.
But McKinley's right, of course: soon, in one way or another, they’ll understand.
Emma Silvers is a writer living in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter here.