4 Sep 2001: Hammerstein Ballroom New York
Apparently, I’d heard correctly—and the critic was the gangling boy behind me, piping up shortly after lead singer Polly Jean Harvey joined her band onstage. While throngs of the crowd whooped as she seductively strapped an electric guitar over her plunging red blouse, forcefully cupped the mike as if it were something too hot to handle and began crooning, he leaned over to his Doppelganger/companion, his face screwed and eyes ablaze. “Damn it”, he grunted. “I liked her so much better when she was uglier”.
Certainly, the PJ Harvey there on that Tuesday night has been embroiled in the issues laid bare in that fan’s gripe ever since her first beautiful, agonized wail on Dry in 1992. Part temptress, part medusa, and always unconventional, PJ Harvey reigns in a genre where female artists are still confined about who, what, and how they are. Fans, record companies, and media onlookers are notorious for pushing and pulling women rockers for flowery femininity or hardball with the boys, and demanding music and images that affirm stereotypes or blast them to bits. And the forums at which the general public interacts with these musicians—videos, magazine spreads, and concerts—take on heightened significance, supposedly speaking volumes for a performer’s intentions.
But how much is form and indication of content? For PJ, that she’s redirected herself musically has been evident since the release of Songs of the City, Songs of the Sea. And as the critical acclaim widened and a herd of new fans stampeded into the PJ Harvey domain, another serious noise was drowned out—the familiar grumbles of fans as they find their idols are moving within unfamiliar territory. The PJ Harvey of the new millennium has shrunk down from “50 Foot Queenie”, and seems content to explore woman-sized emotions and previously disdained vistas. From even a cursory listen to her current album, you know at once that she’s both fallen in love in New York and with it. And emotional reckoning, caution-in-the-wind, and rose-colored observations are at the crux of nearly every track.
Assuming the stage in New York, the shift was hyper-evident. Early on in the set, the band quickly and easily peeled off a group of numbers from the latest release—including “One Line”, “A Place Called Home”, and “Good Fortune”—which showcase tender and heartfelt vocals more than the crazed, borderline ugly noises that dire PJ Harvey fans have been groomed on. PJ herself was mostly quiet, barely speaking to the crowd save for a few timid thank yous. And a rendition of the cult hit “Rid of Me”, performed solo by PJ on an electric acoustic guitar, seemed to leave the audience in shock as much as in awe. The loud, psychotic narrator of that song—the one who so many PJ Harvey fans identify with in their most obsessive moments—was gone. In her place was another kind of woman—perhaps reaching back to an angrier time, but literally and symbolically without any validation.
Unexpected it may have been, topography of the show was purposefully laden with valleys and hills. A wild version of “Man-size” aimed for piquing the raw and the rowdy; “This is Love” and “Kamikaze” exploded with firecracker strength; a brooding “Angelene” and haunting “Horses in My Dreams” altered states of mind, like a powerful hallucinogen/downer mix. Though the packaging may be different at the moment, her ability and obligation are the same. And PJ Harvey did what she came to do: deliver a mighty show, never shirking from the responsibility to rock.
But a concert is a scene where new converts, the faithful and the non-believers come together. So the scene was peopled with those who seemed to find the music beside the point: the boy who stood next to me and bitched about PJ’s new style; the army of guys who seemed to come for jack-off material and at one point shouted “nice tits”; the host of attendees who, regardless of gender, objectified her in judgment, lust and jealousy. Maybe for them, she was something else—a sell out, a tease, or a waste of $37.00. But why for her—and for so many women—does this “something else” become the central concern?
It’s easy to say that, for those who make the culture we imbibe, their body they do it in is just as important as the product they’re churning out. So for those who found PJ Harvey’s anti-beauty image liberating, they may be disappointed by what they saw on Tuesday night. But in a world where few women are able to successfully claim a space outside of stereotypical confines of beauty, we do drastic damage when we conflate sound and surface. What’s more, realistically, most of the complaining likely emanates from their inability to embrace what they’re now hearing—in short, a satisfied, lovesick woman. And it is telling of the inability for some to appreciate PJ for what she’s always been: full of conflicting juxtapositions, and emotionally honest to the core.