The wisdom of pop songs – How strong is a woman?

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
I will survive
Go on now… and close the door behind you

Pop music is an ideal platform for expressing opinions and getting them through to people who don’t go looking for them. A song that’s played on mainstream radio ends up embedded in the brain of millions of people, whereas if you wrote a magazine article about it instead you would only reach the people who happened to read that magazine.

So when women’s liberation became a hot topic in the late 1960s and early 70s, it was natural that the more cerebral of female singers should send out their message of sexual equality. The trick was to do this without alienating their male listeners – not to mention the women who weren’t so fired up about it.

I realise that the more extreme of feminists (and the sort of men who will support any underdog they can find) will consider me ill-qualified to comment on this, but listen – I’m entitled to my opinion, and my opinion is that the feminist message has been sent out very successfully many times in songs that also managed to be enjoyable and even touching.

Perhaps the category should be “Women singing about what hard work it is being a woman”.

Gentle persuasion can be better than haranguing

Take Helen Reddy, for instance. No sex symbol, no great singer, but she had a brain and she was prepared to forsake the lovey-dovey stuff now and then to get this point across. “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman,” she belted out with the assurance of someone who had half the population to back her up. The ‘invincible’ business may be open to discussion as to whether anyone at all, of either sex, could justifiably make that claim, but we got the message.

In 1972 I Am Woman probably didn’t make many men want to go out with her, but many of us warmed much more to That Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady three years later, with its killer opening lines: “I guess it was yourself you were involved with. I could have sworn it was me”.

young hearts
Never be hung up, hung up like her man and her

Even more clued up on the way to influence people without screaming and shouting was Candi Staton with “Young Hearts Run Free”, which simply paints a picture of the mess many women get themselves into by settling for the wife and mother role at the expense of their personal development. Staton advises against it: “Don’t be no fool when love really don’t love you”.

The song that was to become a rallying cry for women was, of course, I Will Survive, but is it really about downtrodden women? Sounds to me more like it’s about downtrodden losers in love of either sex. (And we’ll get to the point about multiple genders later.)

The women of the world jumped on I Will Survive to ensure that Gloria Gaynor, who had the ginormous hit with it, would never have to work again if she didn’t want to. It was written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris, who sound like men to me, but is that important? And by the way, I prefer the less hysterical version by Billie Jo Spears.

Diana Ross, Shirley Bassey and Melanie have also had a go at it, as have Anthony and the Johnsons and Robbie Williams, and the thoroughly contemporary girl Nicole Scherzinger.

Among the lesser known songs of the battle of the sexes is How Strong Is A Woman, a subtle number from the early 80s by soul legend Etta James. The answer to the question, she says, is “A woman is as strong as it needs for the man she loves”. Perhaps if we took out the man and woman and used the word ‘person’ instead we might get closer to the heart of the issue.

Pah! You don’t mean that – you’re just out to make money

As with all contentious issues, though, there have been those who took it too far and lost the original idea. The ladette phenomenon, in which girls asserted the right to be as crass and obnoxious as the worst boys, gave birth to the sneering That Don’t Impress Me Much, in which Shania Twain dismisses just about every man in the world as a jerk, whether he’s trying to impress her or not.

But that’s just opportunistic songwriting: it was co-written by Twain and her then husband Robert “Mutt” Lange, a record producer, and it appears they seized on the idea because they could see a world full of binge-drinking young women ready to buy it.

What next for the lib song, though? The issue has been complicated by the emergence of minorities that have changed the gay movement into LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). So it’s no longer man versus woman.

It’s probably heterosexual man against the rest, because we’re seen as the oppressors. So if you’re a member of a minority group so new that you haven’t had a chance to be offended in public yet, get writing and let’s hear your songs.





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