In the sixties/seventies, when feminism flourished in the performance arts, Vienna artist Valie Export impressed me with a video performance that said it all without saying a word. The schmaltzy pop song “I’m Sorry,” blared in Brenda Lee’s girly voice, in a loop, while the artist slapped the rhythm on her naked thigh. “I’m sorry, so sorry/ that I was such a fool…” Slapped it over and over and over again until after ten, fifteen minutes her thigh began turning red, then blue and violet and a sickly greenish yellow, all the colors of a self-inflicted punishment for being a woman-who-did-him-wrong.
This artistic idea just made a comeback in San Francisco where Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy, a three-day “durational music performance” at the Women’s Building, hit home in similar ways. All over the building, 31 women simultaneously performed a pop song like “I’m Sorry” in three-hour loops, but instead of slapping themselves into visible harm they just kept singing their hit to acoustic guitar over and over until you began to hear the messages you’d probably never noticed before. The 31 songs were arranged in the same key so the vocal chaos filling the four floors of the building melted into a haunting harmony, a “tapestry of sonic structures,” as the producer, Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, called it.
Kjartansson is a dedicated feminist who likes to look at the world through “gender glasses” to see what’s going on. As if he were a student of Valie Export, the now seventy-eight year-old radical (who is still performing), Kjartansson pointed out that “the simple repetition of a song gives it a physical presence.”
He brought home a powerful message with his “romantic songs”— like “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)”, which was produced in 1962 by Phil Spector for the girl group The Crystals; or the award-winning 80s hit by Sting, “Every Breath You Take”: “Every move you make/ Every bond you break/Every step you take/I’ll be watching you…” Today this sounds like the textbook abuser’s modus operandi. Alison Krauss’ “When You Say Nothing At All” seems to glorify men’s reluctance to communicate: “…you say it best when you say nothing at all.”
Odessa Chen “He Hit Me”
Other telling examples of the show:
Lil Wayne’s “Bitches Love Me”: “Fuck with me and get bodied/And all she eat is dick/ She's on a strict diet, that's my baby.”
Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman”: ”…she'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleeding/ she brings out the best and the worst you can be…”)
Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”: “You’ll have bad times/And he’ll have good times…”
Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”: “I know you want me/ You’re a good girl/ Can’t let it get past me”); Paulina Rubio’s “Boys Will Be Boys”: “Boys are always playing silly games, games, games/If I fall, then I'm the only one to blame, blame, blame.”
Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” with the poetic refrain, “I want to fuck you like an animal”.
Kendra McKinley “Boys Will Be Boys”
The performance was a launch project for a new San Francisco performance art institution called C Project*, founded by a local art collector and patron of the arts, Carla Emil. C Project plans to use odd spaces like the Women’s Building for entrance-free avant garde shows which they will commission, like this one. As usual in today’s post-feminist, maybe-feminist-again culture, radical actions are toned down by the people in charge. Carla Emil apparently had not bargained for such a politically charged show. Kjartansson pointed out to the press (Artnet News) that the songs were written “with good intentions” and that these love songs are “not mean songs by mean men.” He just wanted to show the “fine threads in our culture that are demeaning to women.” Hmmm. Interestingly, when he first tested out a team
of women and men singing the songs, he quickly sent the men home because it seemed “kind of too violent or something.”
Carla Emil by Peter Prato, NY Times
This kind of soft-peddling of misogyny reminds me of the founder of the #MeToo Movement, Tarana Burke, who right now, one year after the launch, seems to have second thoughts about her radical movement. In an interview for the New York magazine The Cut she pondered, “We are working diligently so that the popular narrative about #MeToo shifts from what it is. … We have to shift the narrative that it’s a gender war, that it’s anti-male, that it’s men against women…”** Wait a moment, who is doing what to whom? Does she also want this to be about “the fine threads in our culture”? To me it has the ring of trying to cool down an anger that may get hotter than intended at first. A rage that may be hard to control once the lid is off, as it once already popped, half a century ago.
Lily Blytheway Hoy - C Project
The thread in our culture is anything but subtle, it’s a massive, ever-present attempt to shut us up, to keep women silent. And both men and women participate in the attempt. I reread in The Guardian an excerpt from author/activist Rebecca Solnit’s feminist book The Mother of All Questions, titled “Silence and powerlessness go hand in hand – women’s voices must be heard.” The motto: “Being unable to tell your story is a living death. The right to speak is a form of wealth that is being redistributed. No wonder powerful men are furious.”*** A good thought and hopefully more than wishful thinking. I can’t help but wonder, however, what it means that women’s voices are constantly cloaked in the mantle of “telling their stories.” Ability to tell a
personal story and the right to speak as a shared form of wealth are two different things (even if they can overlap).
Women’s Building by Peter Prato, NY Times
Everywhere you look, women are right now “telling their stories,” at #MeToo, #TimesUp, #NotOkay etc. Everywhere women are coming together to do so. #NotOkay, for example, received 27 million tweets in response to Trump’s pussy-grabbing video of 2016. Even in Congress, women are speaking up. California Representative Jackie Speier posted her own #MeToo video last fall. Time reported that “Speier is urging current and former Congressional staffers to come forward with their own stories of assault and harassment…” In the congressional hearings for Judge Cavanaugh, one woman was allowed to speak—not that it mattered much to the white men in suits, who didn’t believe her story, period.
Just like the “Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy” reveal, common language use gives away a silent agenda. Stories unfortunately are just that: stories, not necessarily fact or truth. It will make a difference when women rename and reframe what they are doing—when millions testify, take a stand, give public statements and take charge of the narrative, as men do. Fifty-two years ago in Brussels, at the First International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, some two thousand women from over 40 countries came together to do more than tell stories—to bear witness and make a case: “J’accuse!” They were considered “contributors of testimony.”
If you don't get the subtle difference, just imagine a society that worries and wrings its hands over how to make room for men to “tell their stories.”
Cover photo - All Musicians by C Project