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The Power of Honest, Raw Female Songwriters

Emily Bruce


Last month, I went to see one of my favourite bands from my teenage years, Garbage, play their self-titled debut album in its entirety to celebrate its 20th anniversary. That album was one I played on repeat when I was 13; it was incredibly important to me, and shaped me as a person. Shirley Manson, the band’s lead singer, will forever be my hero — I’ve always admired women who do what they want, and don’t care what people think, and Shirley M is the ultimate “I Don’t Give A Fuck” role model.

I hadn’t listened to the album in a long time, but being at the (fantastic) gig and listening to the raw honesty in Shirley’s lyrics made me think about how groundbreaking it is, as a woman, to talk about men, anger and heartbreak in the way she does. Take Vow (“I came to cut you up, I came to knock you down, I came around to tear your little world apart / and break your soul apart”) and As Heaven Is Wide (“choke on guilt, that’s far too good for you, say one word I’ll laugh and bury you”), for example. Two decades ago to hear a woman saying things like this, with no shame, was a big deal — and it still is. She’s not calmed down over the years, either; on Garbage’s latest album opener she howls with disdain: “Oh men like you keep me up at night, you want your woman at home and your bit on the side.” This is uncomfortable, honest, feminist rage — and we need more of it.

Before the show, the soundtrack playing included Liz Phair — her Exile in Guyville album is a prime example of this feminist rage also; the title itself says it all (a take on the Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet), with Phair opening the record by calling a man out: “I bet you fall in bed too easily with the beautiful girls who are shyly brave / and you sell yourself as a man to save”.

I have always been drawn to angry women unafraid to bare their souls and call men on their shit. Tori Amos is another favourite of mine — one of the best lines in songwriting for me is the bridge of Precious Things: “I wanna smash the faces of those beautiful boys, those Christian boys / So you can make me come, that doesn’t make you Jesus.” YAS TORI! (see also: Boys For Pele). Let’s not forget Fiona Apple (“when I think of it, my fingers turn to fists”), PJ Harvey (“I’m gonna twist your head off”), and, of course, Alanis (“every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back I hope you feel it”), too. More recently, of course, there’s Taylor Swift.

To some, these artist’s lyrics may seem over the top, but find me a girl that can’t relate to them and I’ll find you a liar. It’s groundbreaking that these songwriters are not afraid to be honest about their emotions in the wake of a relationship breakdown; because all too often, women are pressured to handle these situations with calm, to not be seen as a “bunny boiling ex”. Tellingly, all of these female artists are shoved into this bracket you are supposed to be ashamed to like, for they are “crazy”, “whiny” and “too emotional”. Yet when a man writes a record about heartbreak and women troubles, he’s lauded as genius (see: Bon Iver, Bob Dylan, Beck and co). Ah, lovely sexism rearing its wonderful head again.

It shouldn’t be subversive for female artists to say this stuff, but unfortunately it is. And I’m so glad these women made music I listened to when I was younger, that got me through hard times with men (and still does — I turn to them any time I experience heartbreak), for they made me feel okay, like I could get through this, because they had experienced the same anger, sadness and confusion as me and come out the other side. They made me feel like it was okay to call men on their crap and stand up for myself rather than sitting back and taking it. So Shirl and co: I salute you. You have truly shaped the fiery feminist I have become (and many others too, I’m sure). Never stop telling it like it is.