OK, I promised (in this post) to report the results of my immersion in all-female music, so here goes:
With only female singing voices assailing me, what my ear considered normal quickly adjusted, until a high and sweet voice seemed simply optimal to cut through a musical background: why would low-voice growlers like myself even bother? Likewise as a male, I don't generally perceive other males as "singing to me," rather I identify with them, and with female singers, the situation was to some extent reversed, which for me is nice, though strange; not a role I'm used to.
Beyond that initial impression, re. the "female personality" expressed through the lyrics/persona: I didn't get a lot of this, as I was listening widely, not deeply into any one artist, but subsequent to the 3 weeks running out I did make my way more thoroughly through Joni Mitchell and to a lesser extent Alanis Morissette and Kate Bush (which was more of a refresher; I ODed on her back in the day... she was f'ed up and experimental enough to meet my criteria).
One of the philosophy-related tropes with special appeal to me is the excessively self-reflective, diarrhea-of-the-mouth thing, as exemplified in my inspirational speech, not to mention my book. When one of our readers reposted the former on his blog, the first comment that he got was that it was obviously written by someone who'd had a sex change, i.e. it reeked of the feminine. And here I thought I was doing a rough Woody Allen impression, when Carrie Bradshaw is equally apt, I guess. Yes, I do know some women who are incapable of just straightfowardly stating what they want to say and have to go on a second-guessing, phenomenological rant covering every contingency. While I may do this in writing, as a speaker in my daily life, I'm much more the smile-and-nod get-to-the-point kind of guy, all efficient and sardonic. In the aforementioned lady singers, I got a heavy taste of this female stereotype, with Alanis producing songs to the effect of "Fifteen Reasons for You to Stop Being Passive Aggressive Towards Me." Joni, similar to Bob Dylan, speaks in her own 70s-inflected dialect, replete with references to a life I don't really get. Her early stuff, at least, is very sweet, both due to the quality of her voice and her note choices. Suzanne Vega (who was the avatar of a college ex-girlfriend who listened exclusively to female-penned music) exhibits a similar female persona, minus the nice voice and much of Joni's musical adventurousness. Kate Bush is certainly not shy about including the explicitly romantic (puppies and rainbows) imagery that tends to make men feel icky, but displays a similar level of self-reflection.
Of course, this is just one type, one piece of the female psyche, which, as the reference to my own writing is supposed to suggest, is, I think, something more generically human, except maybe we men (even mostly non-athletic, macho-averse men like myself) have a veneer up blocking that for most of our social lives, meaning we have trouble getting in touch with our feelings and communicating and being truly intimate and all that shite. Taylor Swift (who I've listened repeatedly and intently to in the car due to my 8-year-old daughter's demands) displays a much more subdued version of that spirit, more toned down for radio consumption (though I still think she's an honest-to-goodness songwriter unlike just about anyone else in that genre I've been subjected to).
Still, this self-reflective to the point of neurosis streak seems a common thread for smart women in music, unless overshadowed by some sort of affectation (a la Blondie; Kate Bush and Joni project this despite their affectations), whereas a lot of the smart males whose music I like tend to be more oblique (and this holds regardless of sexual orientation: Michael Stipe and Bob Mould are as oblique as the rest of them).
The other bit of this experience that's stuck with me past the 3-week-window is just the joy of the piercing female voice, and I've been taking in vast quantities of this via a band that that is not exclusively female and not even expressive in the ordinary sense, in that they perform rocked-up versions of traditional English folk songs. Like philosophy, they are very unmanly and uncool to be caught carrying around... in much the manner of barbershop quartet or Christmas music or fantasy novels or many another geek eccentricity. Behold, Steeleye Span:
Watch on YouTube
And here's a much more recent song.
Steeleye Span were amazing. It doesn’t look like that video was recorded during the Martin Carthy era, but that looks like Dave Swarbrick on the fiddle. The Watersons and Eliza Carthy (and Brass Monkey) are worth looking at, too, if you like that sort of thing. As well as Fairport Convention, because Sandy Denny had a voice worth dying for, and was also a fine songwriter.
I take exception to your saying Suzanne Vega doesn’t have a nice voice, since her voice is “nice,” just without bel canto pretensions like Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, or Joan Baez, just to name a few. The statement’s even worse, considering the Joni Mitchell video you had just linked is not exactly Joni at her most on-key and is an arguably terrible performance – I’ve never heard Suzanne Vega sound that bad, although to be fair, she doesn’t take any risks, ever, in her vocal melodies.
Mark Linsenmayer says
…Oh, OK. Vega definitely doesn’t have a bad voice (well, Alan Vega does, irrelevantly), and the Joni clip was chosen with some haste. No, Peter Knight was the Steeleye violinist throughout (he was replaced for one album with an accordion player, and the first album just had a guy from the Pogues on mandolin); Swarbrick’s with Fairport (which I like, for those couple of albums with Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson, and their later stuff is nice but has not elicited a significant listening investment on my part… Swarbrick in particular being really great, and Dave Mattacks being one of my favorite drummers).
Mark Linsenmayer says
Amendment: This got me watching a number of Steeleye Span live clips on the web, and this tune sits at the juxtaposition of new atheism (complete with an intro by songwriter/violinist Peter Knight, expressing an arguably anachronistic discomfort with religion), sexism (persecution of witches is one of the oft cited historical ways that bastards kept independent women down), and this post. Plus, it’s one of my favorite songs of theirs: less traditional (i.e. cliche), and freakin’ rocks! http://youtu.be/yKWSuW1DbmU
David Buchanan says
I don’t know anything about music so please feel free to dismiss my suggestions. There is a scholar at Vanderbilt that says the lyrics of Gillian Welch songs are on a par with the best metaphysical poetry. She was especially fond of Welch’s “Barroom Girls”. Lucinda Williams writes some great stuff. Her dad was the poet-laureate of the United States so I guess it runs in the family. Iris Dement writes the saddest songs you’ll ever hear. Once I watched several thousand people weep openly in public while she played a song called “No Time to Cry”. And finally, a very obscure band called The Handsome Family will really amuse those who like weird, dark humor. They are a married couple, two psychotic geniuses. He sings and plays but she writes the lyrics. All these women are working that alt-country americana style and it’s very smart stuff. They all bring a sensibility that pays tribute to the tradition even while turning it on its head.
Al McDermid says
I did something similar this long ago and my ear never returned to where I can enjoyably listen to much other that “a high and sweet voice”.
At roughly the same time, I conducted another experiment and read only women’s fiction for six months (doable as my job at the time did not require reading). The only restriction was that the works be fiction by women, but I read in many styles and genres (even one bodice-ripper) in hopes that some effect would reveal itself. I found that it did reveal another ‘piece of the female psyche’.
I wish now that I had recorded my impressions at the time, but now all I’m left with is a deeper understanding of just how differently women see and interact with the world, but perhaps more importantly, that the male perspective is just that.
Thank you Mark for a very enjoyable post.