The Magnetic Fields’ Cynical Pseudo-Feminist Anthems
Last week, I wrote a guest post for ladyblog BFF Tiger Beatdown on the many break-up songs of the Magnetic Fields. The Magnetic Fields have figured out a fun little trick that allows them to keep churning out interesting tracks in the heavily clichéd relationship-ending genre, which is: Keep the clichés, but filter them through an unflaggingly cynical world-view. Voilà: Songs that speak to the human experience while constantly reminding you how pathetic that is.
As it turns out, the cynical treatment also works to provide musical commentary on two genres of particular Sexist concern: the pseudo-feminist anthem and the girl fight anthem. Below, the Magnetic Fields take on empowering Playboy and girls beating up girls.
Pop music's greatest pseudo-feminist anthems succeed by providing a false sense of female empowerment—without the power. Last year, Playboy covergirl Joanna Krupa inspired feminist suspicion when she attempted to re-cast as the experience of posing naked in lad mags as an empowering, feminist act. Translating that pseudo-feminist sentiment into song, "The Nun's Litany" provides a ringing endorsement for expressing female sexual freedom as obtained by sex industry performance. In the song, our nun lists off a series of positions that she's itching to shed the habit for:
I want to be a Playboy’s bunny
I’d do whatever they asked me to
I’d meet people with lots of money
And they would love me like I loved you
I want to be a topless waitress
I want my mother to shed one tear
I’d throw away this old, sedate dress
Slip into something a tad more sheer
I want to be an artist’s model
An odalisque au naturel
I should be good at spin the bottle
While I’ve still got something left to sell
I want to be a cobra dancer
With little Willie between my thighs
I may not find a cure for cancer
But I’ll meet plenty of single guys
I want to be a brothel worker
I’ve always been treated like one
If I could be a back-street lurker
I’d make more money and have more fun
I want to be a dominatrix
Which isn’t like me, but I can dream
Learn S&M and all those gay tricks
And men will pay me to make them scream
I want to be a porno starlet
For that I’ll wait ’til Mama’s dead
I’ll see my name in lights of scarlet
And get to spend every day in bed.
I want to be a tattooed lady
Dedicated as I am to art
Characters bold, complex and shady
Will write my memoirs across my heart.
The difference between Krupa and our exhibitionist sister? "The Nun's Litany" acknowledges that aspiring to be Hugh Hefner's ideal sex object is indeed empowering—for a woman who has heretofore derived her power from an institution that forces her to live a life of sexual repression. Real power lies somewhere beyond the virgin/whore dichotomy (or in this case, the nun/dominatrix dichotomy)—in jobs where your power doesn't expire after the age of 23.
"California Girls," also off the album Distortion, is the Magnetic Fields' catfight anthem. "California Girls" is about hunting down young, blond, tan traditional beauties and bludgeoning them to death. Please, briefly take joy in the misery of women who succeed at meeting America's narrowly-defined traditional beauty standards:
See them on their big bright screen
tan and blonde and seventeen
Eating nonfood keeps them mean
but they're young forever
If they must grow up
they marry dukes and earls
I hate California girls
They ain't broke, so they put on airs,
the faux folks sans derrieres
They breathe coke and have affairs
with each passing rock star
They come on like squares
then get off like squirrels
I hate California girls
Looking down their perfect noses
at me and my kind
Do they think we won't
well, never mind
Laughing through their perfect teeth
at everyone I know
Do they think we wont
get up an go?
So I have planned my grand attacks
I will stand behind their backs
with my brand-new battle ax
Then they will they taste my wrath
They will hear me say
as the pavement whirls
"I hate California girls."
Here, sarcasm works to creep a bit of shame into the song's blonde-bashing Schadenfreude. At one show, Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt reportedly said of "California Girls": "This is a song about media literacy. And feminism."
If the song is actually speaking to feminists, this is what it's saying: Beating up women who succeed in sexist pursuits—like, say, Playboy covergirl Joanna Krupa—is easy. And satisfying! In the end, however, we're not improving the station of women. We're just fighting amongst ourselves while Hugh Hefner continues to relax in his geriatric sex mansion built on the bodies of young, tan, blonde bunnies. "California Girls" proves that the cultural obsession over catfights goes far beyond the straight guy's sexual fantasy.