Punk rock pioneer Patti Smith’s influences can still be seen through the songs of notable womyn in the music industry today. In “Just Kids” we see Patti Smith’s individuality and feminist personality reveal itself through anecdotes in within the text. Early on in the memoir she narrates observing her “mother performing her female tasks”, conforming with society’s standards for female beauty and established that this “seemed against [her] nature” (10), setting herself apart from the norm. This trend continues as she grew older and through establishing herself as a female in rock music. As explored by Frith and McRobbie rock is a primarily male dominated genre. In this exploration it is established that there are a set of norms for females and a set of norms for males. Notably, when it comes to expression of sexual desire and actions associated with male behavior. Rock is characterized as “cock-rock” and describes that it takes on “conventional concepts of sexuality as rampant, animalistic, superficial and just for the moment” (375). In contrast “teeny bop” music characterizes female sexuality as serious, diffuse and implying total emotional commitment” (375). When Smith emerged she challenged this norms through her choice of attire and covering songs such as Gloria, without changing the pronouns. Patti Smith set the tone for a new era of female artists who don’t conform to current pop standards and create music that express their feelings in an unrestrained poetic manner.
This playlist will explore examples of womyn who have taken on a similar persona to Patti Smith either musically, lyrically, or in challenging standards established standards in society.
Patti Smith – Gloria
To begin with we take a look at Patti Smith’s iconic performance of Gloria. To open the performance, she exclaims, “Jesus died for somebody’s sin but not mine!” This is also something cited in Just Kids, where she explains, that this is a way of taking ownership for her actions (247). These powerful words before performing a cover song where she adopts gender pronouns usually sung by males to address females, in my eyes, also signal her taking ownership of this song. The lyrics of the song such as, “humpin’ on the parking meter” would fall under the category “cock-rock”. Patti Smith sang them with no reservation, reflecting her power and aggression. Frith and McRobbie noted female performers needed to channel this type of aggression to be taken seriously (377). The combination of these lyrics, her androgynous attire and her powerful stage presence during this performance, highlight a turning point for females in music. As Smith paves a new path for womyn who no longer want to conform to standard gender practices. Additionally, her sound and delivery of vocals is distinct in itself giving rise to the new genre of punk rock.
Lana Del Rey – Video Games
Which brings me to Lana Del Rey’s song, “Video Games”. Lana Del Rey as an artist channels a darker yet playful personality, not adopted by a majority of female pop stars. For instance in her song “Kinda Outta Luck”, she talks about hitting a guy on the back of his head with a gun and talks about killing people; something that you wouldn’t associate with female behavior. In “Video Games”, in particular, Lana Del Rey’s lyrics, sound, pace, and vocal range remind me of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night”. Both songs share a similar theme of interacting with a lover. Del Rey expresses how she enjoys playing video games, shattering the notion that this is just a male activity. The lyrics also describe being intimate with her partner i.e. kissing, getting undressed just as Smith’s “Because the Night” repeatedly says, “take me now” and “the night belongs to lovers”. While in both these songs reflect the submissive female stereotypical role, such as in Smith’s describing herself being “under your command” and Lana Del Rey’s “it’s all for you, everything I do”. Both these performers had previously established themselves as powerful female who are in control of themselves, so these actions can be seen as a manner of expressing their sexual desires; which is a form expression commonly adopted by men in music as opposed to womyn.
Florence and the Machine – Shake It Out
Florence and the Machine bring back poetic lyrics along references to sins, demons and defying the devil. In “Shake It Out” the song calls us “shake [the devil] off” our backs, as well as referencing drinking and drowning your sorrows. Much like Patti Smith, Florence paints a picture for a listener through her lyrics and uses religious imagery, referencing concepts from Christianity. This song reflects Florence’s character defying the devil, a male figure in the song, and regaining her independence; which reminds me of Patti Smith’s declaration at the beginning of Gloria, discussed above, to take ownership of her actions. It also reminds me Smith saying, “Christ was a man worthy to rebel against, for he was rebellion itself” (247). The sound of the song as a whole also carries a similar vocal sound and depth to that of Patti Smith’s music, as the music sounds as if it carries more spiritual and musical weight than other popular songs. “Shake it Out” was a refreshing change from popular music songs that were on the radio at the time of it’s release. In Just Kids when Smith describes her fear that “the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose” as an impetus for the need to create, it reminded me of how I felt when I heard “Shake It Out” playing mainstream for the first time; that this song carried meaning that others didn’t.
Tove Lo – Habits (Stay High)
Popular song Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High)” is an example of challenging gender norms within music. According to Frith and McRobbie, “the collective notion of fooling around refers explicitly to male experience; falling in love refers to the expectation of girls.” (376). Instead of fitting Frith and McRobbie’s description of a typical female character in music who is serious and seeking emotional commitment, Tove Lo’s character exhibits behavior that is more akin to “rampant, animalistic, superficial and just for the moment” (375), in order to get over her ex-boyfriend. Her lyrics reference her going to sex clubs and having “been around” and “seen it all”. In the music video she “fools around” with several different men and womyn, shows a frivolous cyclical daily routine and submitting to her needs to use substances. This behavior somewhat matches that of Patti Smith’s as they both worked to avoid letting their gender identity limit their behavior.
Sia – Chandelier
Similar to Tove Lo’s Habits, Sia’s Chandelier references the story of a Party Girl, in this case struggling with addiction, again breaking away from the “teeny bop” associations of females with being domestic. This pop music tale describes a womyn who is struggling with substance abuse and heading down a destructive life path. The music video is perhaps what separates this song from the current chart topping songs. Reminding me of how Patti Smith as a pioneer separated herself from the norm. It is also different from seeing current female pop stars in revealing outfits flaunting their sexuality in their videos. Which may come from rock music as Frith and McRobbie describe, dancing as “a socially sanctioned sexual activity” (388). The video instead portrays through a contemporary dance by a preteen girl, in nude colored leotard and ballet shoes, which allows focus to be on the lyrics being explored thematically through movement. To my dismay, upon reading the YouTube comments, I noticed some people (particularly male commenters) still were trying to sexualize the girl in the video (it’s actually pretty disturbing); this could indicate how people so accustomed to womyn in music videos appearing in sexual manner. In live performances of this song Sia does not face the audience, further adding to the effect of focusing on the movement, musicality and lyrics; she creates a performance spectacle and her presence is still felt heavily through her voice even though she doesn’t face the audience. This triggers a powerful control over her audience, just as Patti Smith has a mesmerizing effect on her audience doing something unexpected in “Gloria”
Overall, Lana Del Rey, Florence and the Machine, Trove Lo and Sia’s songs in this playlist all channel the essence of Patti Smith through their sound, lyrical themes and nonconformist nature. As a byproduct they also challenge the gender roles established in the cultural of rock music that Frith and McRobbie clearly outline.
Frith, Simon, and Angela McRobbie, eds. “Rock and Sexuality.” On Record (1978): 371-389. PDF file.
Smith, Patti. “Just Kids.” HarperCollins Publishers (2010): 3-13, 238-258. PDF file.