Changing Verses Tell Tale in Song
Musical Study Shows Women's Progression
By Barbara Hey
Special to The Denver Post
Tuesday, September 24, 2002
“He isn’t good. He isn’t true. He beats me, too. What can I do?” - “My Man,” sung by Fanny Brice, circa 1922
“I was in love wit ya. But the hell wit ya cuz you didn’t wanna treat me right.” - Pink, 2002
From powerless to powerful, women have come a long way baby, in lyrics and in life.
Put Fanny Brice in the front row of a Pink concert, and she would likely be more than a bit verklempt. Times they are a-changin’ and, author Dorothy Marcic said, one way to track those shifts is through a close look at the top 40 songs of each decade.
Marcic, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, did a content analysis of the lyrics sung by women over the century and found the themes dominating the hits mirrored the women’s roles of each era. She published the results in “Respect: Women and Popular Music” (Texere, $26.95).
“Music tells the whole story of women’s empowerment,” said Marcic, a management consultant who speaks to corporations and business leaders about gender diversity in the workplace, illustrating her points by belting out relevant songs. “Merely speaking isn’t always enough to make my point. Listening to the songs helps people reflect on how they were shaped by the music.”
Music is not only the soundtrack of our lives; sometimes it’s the script as well. “The popular songs of each decade are indicative of our values, our longings, what we relate to,” she said. Music also provides clues about how men and women relate to one another and how women relate to themselves, she says. And those attitudes have gotten rawer with time.
Today we have Alanis Morissette singing about 21 things she wants in a lover, a stark contrast to 1956, when “Que Sera, Sera” was big. That song was about a woman asking her mother and her sweetheart for advice and being told she has no control and should just accept what comes her way.
Marcic might say what a long, strange trip it has been.
Songs in the first half of the century were about dependent women, with lyrics about victimization, neediness and rigid gender roles. The songs were all about compliance, Marcic said, “I will follow him, I’ll do anything for you; just be my baby; even if you’re no good and treat me bad; just love me and I’ll stand by my man.”
By the 1960s, songs were about women who rebelled and demanded respect. Women were angry and vented that vocally in such songs as Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Another case in point: Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking.” Their anger was aimed at men, but as women entered the workforce in greater numbers, their anger was joined by the frustration and guilt that came with shifting roles and unequal pay, says Marcic.
The next two decades were replete with cynicism -- Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with it?” And about toughness, in songs like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Helen Reddy’s anthem, “I Am Woman.”
By the late 1980s, other themes such as inner strength and self-direction entered the top 40 in songs such as Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love.” That theme perseveres to this day, along with lyrics that speak of self confidence and wisdom, like Alanis Morissette’s “You Learn” and Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboy’s Gone.” Love’s still going bad, but women are at least learning from their misery.
Along the way, men have had their own favorite tunes as well, something that Marcic has recently been investigating. “The themes fit together like Lincoln Logs,” she says. While women were into deference and submission, men were men, in the driver’s seat of their own lives and those of their women.
The prevailing themes for men have been vision (“Dream the Impossible Dream”), domination (“I’m Sitting on Top of the World”) and control (“My Way”). By the 1980s, men’s roles also were in flux, and lyrics began to be less testosterone-driven. Other themes emerged: regret (Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”) and collaboration (John Lennon’s “Imagine”).
Women sang with acceptance about their abusive men in the first half of the century, too. Now that theme has all but disappeared from popular radio play. Although male singers have had hits with such topics - Sting’s “I’ll Be Watching You,” is one example, warning that he will be observing “every move you make.” For the most part, the message has shifted. “Rap music is filled with these messages as well,” says Marcic, “but they don’t appear in the top 40.”
“When women were coming out of their codependent phase, men were sung about as insensitive, abusive creeps. But as women got more strength men weren’t as creepy anymore,” says Marcic.
But what about the female singers of today, swaggering down the VIP carpet at the MTV Music Video Awards in outfits that would make Kate Smith weep, singing songs that would make Doris Day blush?
“Women want to feel power, and what better way than to wield power sexually?” Marcic says. “As women get more equality, we’ll see less of that.”
But, she says, don’t overlook the other faces in contemporary women’s music.
“There is a crop of strong independent women who are not doing sexually explicit music,” she says. Included are such artists as Alicia Keys, India.Arie, Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan.
Marcic, 53, started investigating her musical side after leaving a position as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Economics in Prague and moving to Music City - Nashville. “I started taking singing lessons to help get acclimated, to relieve my culture shock, to learn to like it here.” After months of study, she found a way to bring music to her leadership seminars. “I came out dressed as Doris Day, sang a song and people loved it,” she says.
Music speaks not only about where we are in our lives, says Marcic, but of how far we’ve come.
What: Dorothy Marcic will be singing and speaking as part of the “Women of One World” performance.
When: 7:30 p.m. November 9
Where: The Baha’i Faith Metro Denver Center, 225 E. Bayaud Ave.
For more information: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 303-470-1057.