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Thread: Dry / Rid of Me - Feminist interpretations of the content

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    Alt Universe CliqueMember Spikey's Avatar
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    Dry / Rid of Me - Feminist interpretations of the content

    We started an interesting discussion in the Lana thread, that is probably best continued here.

    The first two albums, when "PJ Harvey" was actually a three-piece band, had an enormous unexpected success - and impact on the music industry. All of the music and lyrics were written by PJ herself (of course), allowing her to launch a solo-career. Many, many artists cite her as an influence. PJ Harvey paved the way for many other women. However, she got a lot of backlash when saying the following;
    "I don't ever think [about feminism]. I mean, it doesn't cross my mind. I certainly don't think in terms of gender when I'm writing songs, and I never had any problems [as a result of being female] that I couldn't get over."

    Anyway, aside from the impact, I never heard someone refer to the first to records as political - basically because I never interpreted the contents as such before. I thought it was just the impact. As Perky noted, some stuff can be feminist even if the intent isn't there (therefore alone I wouldn't call it political, but that is just taste). In this thread I hope we can explore and analyse the lyical content for a bit, and how and why they can be interpreted as being feministic.

    Quote Originally Posted by Perky Compson View Post
    A work can be feminist and about feminism even if the creator doesn't identify as feminist or identify the work as feminist, if it's explicitly about leveling relationships between the sexes and exploring the fragilities of gender roles - which tracks like "Dress", "Sheela-na-gig", "Snake", "Man-Size", "50ft Queenie" etc are. But yeah, would love to discuss this with you in the PJ forum!
    Most of the stuff Harvey writes about - we don't even know what it is about; a lot of it is original interpretation of the listener. The only thing we can go on is the few things she ever said about the songs - as well as direct links and similarities of texts she uses as an inspiration. Harvey exhibits that troubadour-like quality of storytelling and perspective taking; excluding Uh Huh Her, the stuff she writes about isn't autobiographical. She often takes a certain perspective and it often isn't clear whether what perspective is a man or a woman. Like "Rid of Me", that song sounds psychotic because she wrote it at a time when she was "almost psychotic", but it is completely gender neutral. Somewhat further; "When I’m writing songs I never write

    with gender in mind. I write about people’s relationships to each other. I’m fascinated with things that might be considered repulsive or embarrassing. I like feeling unsettled, unsure."

    Haven't revisited the songs since you named these, but I definitely will soon. I write up my current thoughts / interpretations of the songs you named;

    Dress
    This is a song where gender relations feature heavily. A woman dresses to impress - but seems to fail. The man in the song is a patronizing asshole.

    Sheela-na-gig
    Tied both to the image of the ancient goddess, and probably as well the book "Carrie" by Stephen King, in which the word "dirtypillows" means breasts (it is likely one of PJ 's favorite books, as I think "Taut" even cites from it directly); I hardly ever listen to the song, but I assumed she took the perspective of a certain people in that particular book.

    Man-size
    A song about insecurity with an unknown perspective.

    50 FT Queenie
    About the movie Attack of the 50 foot woman. Never gave it any further thought.


    Would love to hear how you interpret the songs.
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    I will write a longer post when I find some time but for now one thing caught my attention...

    Quote Originally Posted by Spikey View Post
    excluding Uh Huh Her, the stuff she writes about isn't autobiographical.
    What makes you think that Uh Huh Her was autobiographical? She clearly stated in interviews around that time that the songs were about stories and characters that had nothing to do with her, just like on other albums. I know the lo-fi aesthetic of that album, the self-portraits, "all that matters is my voice and my story" etc. might suggest more earnest authenicty (ugh, I hate this word) but it's just smoke and mirrors. PJ is pretty much a writer of fiction.

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    Not saying that it is definitely autobiographical, it is just that I'm unsure. Of all other albums I'm certain that many of the songs aren't autobiographical in nature, but in the case of Uh huh her I can't really tell; so I don't want to say, "there are no autobiographical songs in existence" because I'm not sure. I'm not sure because;
    - The millions of self-portraits
    - The seagulls near her home are a track.
    - She hardly gave any interviews in the era, less so than ever, and the reason for that has always been that she wants to avoid talking about her private life.
    - Life&Death of Mr Badmouth allegedly is about her relationship with some musician. I have no idea where that rumor comes from.
    - No textual links to books or poems have been found that I am aware of.
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    Alt Universe CliqueMember Spikey's Avatar
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    Dress, by the by, also has a strong comedy... element... going on.
    PJ talks about the first album being mostly "fun and happy" songs to her ("like hair and dress"), while "people read them as angst-ridden, angry songs".;
    around the 5th minute here;
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    Quote Originally Posted by Spikey View Post
    - Life&Death of Mr Badmouth allegedly is about her relationship with some musician. I have no idea where that rumor comes from.
    I think it was Vincent Gallo, and I'm not sure where that originated either. I think just because they were an item in the early 2000s and then... weren't when UHH came out.

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    Quote Originally Posted by halo eighteen View Post
    I think it was Vincent Gallo, and I'm not sure where that originated either. I think just because they were an item in the early 2000s and then... weren't when UHH came out.
    There's also the instrumental "The End" that's dedicated to Gallo, and people were reading into that. But PJ said he simply liked the song a lot and insisted she put it on UHH, hence the dedication. I think she was purposefully leaving some red herrings during the UHH era, and she seemed to be playing with the idea of 'authenticity' when it comes to rock artists, as well as self-references.

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    Sorry it took me so long to get to this! I've been crazy busy at work. I think we fundamentally approach the idea of what is feminist/political differently, because I don't actually care much what PJ's said about her own work when it comes to whether I think it's feminist or political. Impact is as important (more important, imo) than intent, and whether PJ was aware or not - and I believe she was - the fact that she felt confident telling "gender neutral" stories in her own voice is a feminist statement. Women writing their own music, singing their own songs, rocking out, taking the creative reins, is a rejection of gender roles that say women should be passive receptacles for male thought and should limit their interests to romance and caretaking.

    But I think PJ took it further than saying "gender doesn't matter, I do what I want" because she specifically trafficked early on in male imagery, particularly on Rid of Me. That was a conscious decision she made that, while she may not consider it feminist, I think makes the work undeniably about gender.

    "Man-Size" is, to me, one of the clearest examples of feminism in early PJ Harvey lyrics, as it directly ties confidence and power to masculinity. When sung by a woman, that's a remarkable and feminist statement, as it's PJ treading into a taboo territory and claiming a gender role that women are societally barred from. "50ft Queenie" ventures into similar waters. They're power fantasies that put the language of masculine aggression in a female voice, which claims that power for women or at least as not solely the domain of men.

    For a similar take on the same theme, try out Hole's "Be a Man" or Neko Case's "Man". Hole's is more explicitly a critique of the power fantasy ("rape the world just 'cuz I can") while Neko's more explicitly lampshades the irony of a female voice singing a song about her own masculinity ("I'm not an identity crisis, this was planned").

    Other songs on Rid of Me also use ugly, aggressive masculine violence as a key part of their storytelling ("Rub 'Till It Bleeds", "Legs", etc.), and the album art also reflects PJ's complete rejection of a traditionally female role. Instead of pretty and passive, she's direct, menacing and even brutish. Instead of singing gently and pleasantly, she belts and roars. Instead of smooth mainstream sounds her music is angular, discordant, wild and grimy. This is all a big deal for a woman to express, and it's one of the reasons PJ has so few peers who sound like her; this just isn't a place that many women are able to tread. For a woman to be able to put to record that she doesn't give a shit about being pretty or pleasant is huge, earth-shaking and, imo, very in line with 90's feminism.

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    ^I couldn't have said it better!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Perky Compson View Post
    Sorry it took me so long to get to this! I've been crazy busy at work.
    Not to worry, the PJ forum is a very slow thing regardless; sometimes I even forget it exists. Where MTF is a bin full of hysterical crazies, this is sort of like the Unf lounge (if the crazies will keep their lane).

    Quote Originally Posted by Perky Compson View Post
    I think we fundamentally approach the idea of what is feminist/political differently, because I don't actually care much what PJ's said about her own work when it comes to whether I think it's feminist or political. Impact is as important (more important, imo) than intent, and whether PJ was aware or not - and I believe she was - the fact that she felt confident telling "gender neutral" stories in her own voice is a feminist statement.
    No, I think we approach it the same, I just didn't make myself clear. That is either indeed a feminist statement, or the result of past feminism working for the artist. However, aside from impact and intent though, there is the actual content; the sound and lyrics. The sound of these two records was very atypical for that time for a woman to be doing alone, I think, and I also think that it has been one of the more important feminist influences of the early 90s in music in that regard. It is mostly lyrics themselves where I often fail to interpret as, for example, "masculine agression", as you describe it. More on that later, but first let me ask you;


    - Do you interpret these two works as having feminist content because you think a) it is "latent" feminism, so to say, supressed longing for equality that expresses itself in explosive sound or b) a direct result of historical feminism - so to say, PJ was able to this because of what happened in the past? c) netiher of these, - it was intentional and PJ is lying because she doesn't want to be defined so easily
    - Do you think the lyrics themselves don't matter as much as the sound? I must confess I always focus heavily on lyrical content when analyzing songs, I don't regard the soundscape - at all.

    Quote Originally Posted by Perky Compson View Post
    Women writing their own music, singing their own songs, rocking out, taking the creative reins, is a rejection of gender roles that say women should be passive receptacles for male thought and should limit their interests to romance and caretaking.
    Funny you should say this, I've got a great story here I'm reminded of. A bit of topic so spoilered.



    Quote Originally Posted by Perky Compson View Post
    But I think PJ took it further than saying "gender doesn't matter, I do what I want" because she specifically trafficked early on in male imagery, particularly on Rid of Me. That was a conscious decision she made that, while she may not consider it feminist, I think makes the work undeniably about gender.

    "Man-Size" is, to me, one of the clearest examples of feminism in early PJ Harvey lyrics, as it directly ties confidence and power to masculinity. When sung by a woman, that's a remarkable and feminist statement, as it's PJ treading into a taboo territory and claiming a gender role that women are societally barred from. "50ft Queenie" ventures into similar waters. They're power fantasies that put the language of masculine aggression in a female voice, which claims that power for women or at least as not solely the domain of men.

    For a similar take on the same theme, try out Hole's "Be a Man" or Neko Case's "Man". Hole's is more explicitly a critique of the power fantasy ("rape the world just 'cuz I can") while Neko's more explicitly lampshades the irony of a female voice singing a song about her own masculinity ("I'm not an identity crisis, this was planned").
    Can you elaborate more on Man-Size? I always regarded "Man" here as "Human"; I thought this was about either a kid or a small person wanting to be grown-up, or bigger. But it might have a meaning other than what I see, my dictionary gives only translations like "formidable", "very large" and "suitable for a man". If you hear man-size by PJ, you interpret man as male?

    Also, up until now I actually thought this was written from a male perspective - if that theoretically the case, is this still feminist in content because it is a woman singing it?

    50FT Queenie - like Dress - I interpret this as a "fun" song for a funny movie when it comes down to the lyrics ~ nothing particularly feminist about it. I do realise of course that the movie is essentially about a giant woman crushing the world, and that the sound does make it a power song; hence, it can have strong feminist connotations.


    Quote Originally Posted by Perky Compson View Post
    Other songs on Rid of Me also use ugly, aggressive masculine violence as a key part of their storytelling ("Rub 'Till It Bleeds", "Legs", etc.), and the album art also reflects PJ's complete rejection of a traditionally female role. Instead of pretty and passive, she's direct, menacing and even brutish. Instead of singing gently and pleasantly, she belts and roars. Instead of smooth mainstream sounds her music is angular, discordant, wild and grimy. This is all a big deal for a woman to express, and it's one of the reasons PJ has so few peers who sound like her; this just isn't a place that many women are able to tread. For a woman to be able to put to record that she doesn't give a shit about being pretty or pleasant is huge, earth-shaking and, imo, very in line with 90's feminism.
    Well said, I agree here on all parts, especially those songs , probably excepting that I interpret the lyrics of Man-Size and 50FTQueenie slightly different. So here you already confirm what I asked earlier - that sound is a great part of it (hadn't read this yet when I typed that). Anyways, nice to read your insights.
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    Only knows desire. Perky Compson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Spikey View Post
    No, I think we approach it the same, I just didn't make myself clear. That is either indeed a feminist statement, or the result of past feminism working for the artist. However, aside from impact and intent though, there is the actual content; the sound and lyrics. The sound of these two records was very atypical for that time for a woman to be doing alone, I think, and I also think that it has been one of the more important feminist influences of the early 90s in music in that regard. It is mostly lyrics themselves where I often fail to interpret as, for example, "masculine agression", as you describe it. More on that later, but first let me ask you;


    - Do you interpret these two works as having feminist content because you think a) it is "latent" feminism, so to say, supressed longing for equality that expresses itself in explosive sound or b) a direct result of historical feminism - so to say, PJ was able to this because of what happened in the past? c) netiher of these, - it was intentional and PJ is lying because she doesn't want to be defined so easily
    - Do you think the lyrics themselves don't matter as much as the sound? I must confess I always focus heavily on lyrical content when analyzing songs, I don't regard the soundscape - at all.
    My vote is all of the above, but not necessarily that PJ is lying so much as that she may not prefer the label. She is doing feminist things, which I believe is intentional in that she meant to talk about men, women and how they relate from a woman's point of view and yearning for equal opportunity of expression, but she may not have interpreted "feminism" in those terms.

    I'm also referring to the lyrical content; there is a lot of PJ's lyrical content that uses those themes I referenced. Going through "Man-Size":

    "I'm coming up man-sized skinned alive
    I want to fit I've got to get
    Man-sized I'm heading on
    Handsome got my leather boots on
    Got my girl and she's a wow
    I cast my iron knickers down
    Man-sized no need to shout
    Can you hear can you hear me now
    I'm man-sized
    "

    I do interpret "man" as being male in this song, especially since the words used are associated with men far more than women ("handsome", leather boots, got a hot girlfriend, iron). From a female voice, the idea of taking on a male identity and no longer needing to shout to be heard is to me a condemnation of how women aren't heard and listened to. In order to express herself and be taken seriously, she aligns herself with a male persona.

    "I'll measure time, I'll measure height
    I'll calculate my birthright
    Good lord I'm big, I'm heading on
    "

    Time and height are measured by male association - years marked off by the life and death of Jesus Christ and by months named after Norse Gods and caesars, and the "foot" as a unit of measurement supposedly created by measuring men's shoes as twelve inches in old England. There's a certain delightedness with which she approaches this lyric, a giddiness at all the power as she "calculates her birthright".

    And of course "good lord I'm big" is a double-entendre, not only about being man-sized but also about penis size. She draws on that for "50ft Queenie" too, where she uses lines like "I'm fifty inches long" and "you bend over, Casanova" to imply that she has a dick. No one uses "I'm X inches long" in common parlance unless they're talking about dick size, and if she's a fifty-foot person it stands to reason her dick's pretty big. It's a power fantasy. She's associating the symbol of masculinity - the penis - with control over others, and taking that metaphorical power for herself in spite of her literal lack of male genitalia.

    In the coda of "Man-Size" she sings about "silence my lady head, get girl out of my head, douse hair with gasoline, set it light and set it free" which juxtaposes male power and freedom against female silence and restraint. Setting the feminine on fire and eliminating it sets her free, because otherwise she's just a woman talking gibberish. That's also the point where she recenters it around a female perspective; up until that point, on paper, the song is from a male perspective, but the coda is a reveal that the fantasy is just that: fantasy, a woman singing about what it would be like to be a man.

    "Man-Size" is my favorite of all PJ's songs and thus I have many feelings about it. It's been fantastic to read your thoughts too!

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    Great write-up. I've always appreciated the dark humour in her work (IMO often overlooked), and "Man-Size" is a prime example of some seriously twisted fun from her early output. She's invading the male territory and also making fun of those masculine concepts - i.e. obsession with strength and size. The imagery is absurd - setting your hair on fire, the iron knickers etc. - and combined with that jackhammer-style music makes it just perfect.

    Quote Originally Posted by Perky Compson View Post
    not necessarily that PJ is lying so much as that she may not prefer the label.
    Agree. We're talking about a person who loves to live shrouded in mystery. A person who nowadays flat-out refuses to talk to press. A person who once accidentally revealed to journalist that she had an 'activist phase' when she was in high school, and then clumsily backtracked that she 'didn't remember' the causes (LES-era interview IIRC). A person who studied tapes of Bob Dylan interviews in order to learn how to speak to journalists to reveal as little about herself as possible. I guess she'd rather go live in a cave than have any political label applied to her.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Perky Compson View Post
    My vote is all of the above, but not necessarily that PJ is lying so much as that she may not prefer the label. She is doing feminist things, which I believe is intentional in that she meant to talk about men, women and how they relate from a woman's point of view and yearning for equal opportunity of expression, but she may not have interpreted "feminism" in those terms.

    I'm also referring to the lyrical content; there is a lot of PJ's lyrical content that uses those themes I referenced.

    So finally revisited much of the content of the RoM era, which was very interesting to do with all these new insights.
    RoM is very much an experience record I think, or hard to capture in words anyway.
    The lyrics aren't even written down anywhere so often I'm not sure what I'm hearing.
    Now that I revisited it, I can see both many of the 'puns' and 'power' of the lyrics in a feminist light.
    Some things I noticed;

    Rid of Me;
    The final part of the song has a male voice (Rob Ellis) singing the highly erotic "lick my legs" part.
    For such an obsessive love song, you'd almost expect it to be a woman to sing that; it comes quite unexpected at the end.

    50FtQueenie
    The more obvious parts of the lyrics as such, not relating them to the movie, make them a song about a woman taking power.
    "I'm one big queen, no one can stop me". There is a pun here, as she takes over the ultimate male role with "hey I'm the king of the world"

    Driving
    Not on the album but written in the same era; "tell him I'm driving" is an interesting line, I always interpret this as a woman driving a car; something that in the past
    was associated mostly with men. Another one would be Mbike, of course.
    Driving also hints at the patriarchy with a "100 different bibles by my side". The bible and Abraham in particular is on the album in Highway '61 Revisited.
    The climax in that song I think is the only verse involving females, and then ends with a man making war.

    Snake
    The perspective of Eve, like, finally. The delivery of this song is everything in terms of power.

    Daddy;
    This I think is a beautiful song, which shows the love between a father and child. "Your baby is weak and calling out your name". I don't know.
    It seems like it attributes everything we traditionally associate with a mother figure to "Daddy", which is kind of beautiful.

    Reeling
    Extreme thoughts of power in relationships between men and women;
    "Have Robert DeNiro sit on my face"
    "Call on my man Romeo come and climb my braids" which combines Rapunzl and Romeo / Juliet, but the woman is clearly in control.
    and then saying "Even Aphrodite, she's got nothing on me"
    "Take me to the moon" is also interesting I think, because
    => no woman has walked on the moon yet, and
    => space venturing is also traditionally male, vehicles, Yuri-G

    Naked Cousin
    Was written in the same time as RoM I think, as it was performed as early as Peel Session '93, and addresses the likenesss of boys and girls when they are small

    Claudine, the inflatable one
    Objectification of love. Don't know for sure if this is even from that era. But I always have it lumped in together in my RoM playlist.


    (sidenote; I still wouldn't call RoM a political record - because I personally only give that label to records criticizing contemporary politics)





    Quote Originally Posted by Perky Compson View Post
    Going through "Man-Size":

    "I'm coming up man-sized skinned alive
    I want to fit I've got to get
    Man-sized I'm heading on
    Handsome got my leather boots on
    Got my girl and she's a wow
    I cast my iron knickers down
    Man-sized no need to shout
    Can you hear can you hear me now
    I'm man-sized
    "

    I do interpret "man" as being male in this song, especially since the words used are associated with men far more than women ("handsome", leather boots, got a hot girlfriend, iron). From a female voice, the idea of taking on a male identity and no longer needing to shout to be heard is to me a condemnation of how women aren't heard and listened to. In order to express herself and be taken seriously, she aligns herself with a male persona.

    "I'll measure time, I'll measure height
    I'll calculate my birthright
    Good lord I'm big, I'm heading on
    "

    Time and height are measured by male association - years marked off by the life and death of Jesus Christ and by months named after Norse Gods and caesars, and the "foot" as a unit of measurement supposedly created by measuring men's shoes as twelve inches in old England. There's a certain delightedness with which she approaches this lyric, a giddiness at all the power as she "calculates her birthright".

    And of course "good lord I'm big" is a double-entendre, not only about being man-sized but also about penis size. She draws on that for "50ft Queenie" too, where she uses lines like "I'm fifty inches long" and "you bend over, Casanova" to imply that she has a dick. No one uses "I'm X inches long" in common parlance unless they're talking about dick size, and if she's a fifty-foot person it stands to reason her dick's pretty big. It's a power fantasy. She's associating the symbol of masculinity - the penis - with control over others, and taking that metaphorical power for herself in spite of her literal lack of male genitalia.

    In the coda of "Man-Size" she sings about "silence my lady head, get girl out of my head, douse hair with gasoline, set it light and set it free" which juxtaposes male power and freedom against female silence and restraint. Setting the feminine on fire and eliminating it sets her free, because otherwise she's just a woman talking gibberish. That's also the point where she recenters it around a female perspective; up until that point, on paper, the song is from a male perspective, but the coda is a reveal that the fantasy is just that: fantasy, a woman singing about what it would be like to be a man.

    "Man-Size" is my favorite of all PJ's songs and thus I have many feelings about it. It's been fantastic to read your thoughts too!
    This is one of my favorite songs ever; the lyrics sound almost patronizing now that I revisit it, but not so since it is a woman singing and the way it is delivered, it turns everything upside down.
    Also interesting... at a given moment in the song I hear... alarm bells? Or something. Don't how others see this sound.
    It sounds just like a traffic light that warns you for trains over here; again vehicles associated with males.
    Still interpret it as mostly a song about physical growth; calculating how tall you should be at a certain age - a doctor saying you're too small for your age, that sort of thing. But I can more easily see the many ways in which it can be interpreted and used.
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