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In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut tells of a playwright disguised as a Nazi radio personality who sends coded messages to the Allies over the airwaves. The playwright later discovers that the propaganda containing those codes may have done as much to inspire German troops as the secret messages did to aid the Allies. Vonnegut’s lesson: “We are what we pretend to be.” But Vonnegut’s statement only applies sometimes. In reality, we don’t know what we are when we pretend. Since musical performances, like Vonnegut’s fictional broadcasts, can have unexpected consequences, we need to not accept their surface realities.


In his recent book Fever: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Transformed Gender in America, Tim Riley spends a considerable amount of time exploring the relationship between girl groups and their male producers or managers. Riley describes the most complex of these relationships — that between Phil Spector and the Ronettes — as one that plays out in an ultimately progressive way. Despite Phil having control of the lyrics, music, sound, money, publishing, and touring, Ronnie Spector comes out ahead simply through her magnificent performance (even if, years later, she ends up locked away with her mad husband and if we most remember his opening beat on “Be My Baby”).


On the surface, it appears that Riley just misses with his reading of music history. While the Ronettes might have made a hit song, it was the male-dominated music industry (and one controlling male in particular) that benefited. What the group accomplished was nothing more than fulfilling the need of the capitalist patriarchy, reinforcing the existing power structures and lining other people’s pockets. Merely because you sing like a liberated woman doesn’t mean you are one (think of Tina Turner’s struggles against Ike). In this way, Riley’s flaw comes when he confuses the performance with performativity (and don’t worry, I’ve got my own jargon counter running). By singing “Be My Baby”, Spector didn’t announce a female sexual assertion; she simply portrayed the character that the male figures wanted to see portrayed.


Just as you go to dismiss Riley’s reading, however, you have to step back and ask what the actual effect on the culture was. Did teenage girls listening to this song feel empowered? Was Ronnie Spector’s voice (independent of Phil Spector’s puppeteering) a call to make their own voices heard, either in music or other fields? Determining the political implications of a piece of music requires more than just understanding the words, exploring the tone of delivery, or generally examining the performance itself. To get to a song’s meaning or importance, we have to place it in the world. It sounds self-evident, but too many critics write on music (especially when moral stances are taken) without any consideration of a song’s cultural position.


“Be My Baby” was released in 1963, reaching #2 on the US charts. The sexual revolution was gearing up, and American culture was being turned from its post-war idyll (at least for white suburbia) into a time of dramatic change. In this light, “Be My Baby” sounds almost reactionary. Spector sings, “For every kiss you give me / I’ll give you three”. Her economic offer places her in a subservient position (emotionally and physically), and her plea sounds more like a male fantasy of female desire than it does an honest proclamation of a woman’s right to want. Not only did Phil Spector write the lyrics, he also crafted the heavily and deservedly praised production. The result: a song driven by the sonics and fantasies of a male that benefited the bank accounts of those already in charge. “Be My Baby” echoes the recent past without anticipating the changes to come. Hardly a feminist highpoint, even if Ronnie did sing the hell out of it.


Placing a text within its culture requires, maybe literally, an endless process, and we need to recognize that anything we call an “answer” could actually be better considered a “point” in a process. Given that reservation, we’d be well served to explore the way that listeners actually put their music to use. To do so, we benefit from considerations of what an audience brings to its text. Stanley Fish grouped people into “interpretive communities” to explore how a text is received in a place (geographical or otherwise). His ideas still carry weight and studies like Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance demonstrate the political implications we can pull out of even the most apparently banal texts.


Naturally, the reader response tools and research won’t always be in place for us to have statistically significant findings. Looking at music shouldn’t (and doesn’t) require years of sociological study. We need to allow ourselves to return to the long-gone days of formalist analysis to pull out what’s really going on in a song. The idea that a text’s meaning can be derived through its internal structure has been in decline for at least half a century, but that doesn’t mean its opponents are correct.


The meanings, values, and functions of music will frequently be found at this intersection of formal critique (the New Critic approach to content or post-structural search for inconsistencies, hidden signification, etc. or any other tactic) and cultural placement (speaking with listeners or observing trends within defined groups). If our answers are always unstable, it’s the continuing push that makes useful knowledge possible.


Returning to Riley and Fever, we leave the early girl groups behind and move to Tina Turner. Riley claims Turner’s earliest strain of feminism comes not so much in what she says (despite songs about “how women were treated by men”) but in how she says it. Riley explains that Turner “wasn’t a singer so much as a feminist tsunami”. The argument parallels the one he used to place Ronnie Spector at the vanguard of a new movement even as she was being controlled both mentally and physically.


The argument, again, falls flat. After arguing that Turner’s vocal on “A Fool in Love” hints at how the men of pop turned their women into whores, he goes on to describe a prostitute who filled in onstage for Turner and still took clients on the side. At this moment, we get an explicit demonstration of woman-as-commodity: Turner, allegedly a unique stylist striking out for women everywhere, can be substituted at a whim (while convalescing after childbirth, no less). Ike Turner exploits his wife and star’s body even while keeping her safely tucked away in domesticity. The people in charge — the men of the music industry and the men in the audience — are arguably encouraged as much to maintain the status quo of mini-skirts and cheap fucks as the women of the time are encouraged to step out.


The true moment in which Turner’s music becomes a feminist progression occurs with “What’s Love Got to Do With It”. She recorded the track after her divorce from Ike and after her distancing herself from US culture with a UK stint. With the knowledge of Turner’s tribulations (Riley points out the proximity of the song’s release to the publication of her autobiography) and the grasp of stated — performed and actual — independence, her audience could scoop up the song as an anthem. The mini-skirts remained, but now by her choosing and not by Ike’s pimping. Even though the song was penned by men for profit, Turner not only takes the song on her own, but delivers it in a way and a time that made it useful for her audience.


Of course, there’s something problematic about my reducing Tina Turner to an archetype and a revelatory moment simply to serve my purpose. The fuller sense of the relation between performance and its political implications can’t be explained in a couple of paragraphs. My point, instead, is to hint at the complexities involved in such a challenging area. But only through attacking the intricacies of these moments in pop can we start to assemble a bigger picture. Hopefully as we pull that bigger picture together, we can tune into our radio broadcasts and be more able to decode their hidden messages.

Justin Cober-Lake lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, kids, and dog. His writing has appeared in a number of places, including Stylus, Paste, Chord, and Trouser Press. His work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson. He's recently co-founded the literary fly-fishing journal Rise Forms.


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