Last summer, I helped teach a music history workshop for Girls Rock Camp Houston. At least one of the counselors was a fan–I think actually was wearing a Best Coast t-shirt at one point. As a music instructor to young girls, the band’s appeal makes sense. Coast front woman Bethany Cosentino writes catchy songs that are easy to teach young instrumentalists. “When I’m With You” employs four simple chords–G, E, C, and D. If you have a guitar, I could probably teach you how to play it in ten minutes and I’ve been playing for almost a year. Also, Cosentino’s a belter. If you’re trying to get pre-teen girls comfortable with their singing voices and help them project it to a crowd of strangers, she’s a good model.
Cosentino’s appeal translates beyond the pedagogical. I remember when one of my friends was single, she mentioned that she could relate to a lot of Best Coast songs. Often her songs are about going on dates with people you’re not really into while waiting for a phone call from the person you do like (ex: “The End,” my favorite song on the band’s debut album, Crazy For You). I’ve been with the same person for over seven years, so I never did the bar scene as a single woman. But I certainly think Best Coast songs are cathartic. Imagine bellowing “I hate sleeping alone!” to your empty studio apartment after last call. Feels good, right? It also leaves a lump in your throat.
Cosentino’s booming voice is also an interesting contrast to her stoner persona. I totally believe her conviction when she sings. I was mounting this comparison with a friend recently, who sensed detachment in Cosentino’s delivery that negates the persona I put forth. While her image and hipster following presumes a blasé attitude, her vocals suggest otherwise. I think she means it, the same way that Shangri-Las’ leader Mary Weiss means it when she sings that “nothing in this world can tear us apart” when she promises her boyfriend she’ll break up with an old love on “The Train From Kansas City.” Maybe the bangs, sunglasses, and bong smoke just hide the tears.
But as I’ve said before, I wish Cosentino would write more songs about getting high, having the munchies, and hanging out with her cat, Snacks, who she’s savvily positioned as an Internet personality. While I like singing these songs in my car, I’m always aware of how much boys–particularly boys who don’t reciprocate–inform her lyrics. Part of this is music snobbery. I liked Pocahaunted, her project with Amanda Brown that was heavy on the drone and drugs. But Cosentino possesses pop sensibilities and can write just as effectively in economic, commercial song form.
A bigger part of my weariness speaks to my protectionist feminist impulse toward young girls. Best Coast songs are easy to play. They probably also speak to pubescent romantic angst, and convey it with more brevity than the Twilight series. It’s not surprising the band get invited to play quinceanearas. I’m more comfortable with girls singing and playing along to songs about cats and weed than whining about boys. You know, switch the script. But I sang “Lovefool” to the yearbook photo of my junior high crush throughout eighth grade and I turned out fine. I even discovered that the Cardigans were a lot darker and cooler than their big hit. Maybe I should just have more faith in girls.
This is ultimately my ruling on Swift, who I think shares similarities with Cosentino. Sure, Swift is ultimately more alpha than Cosentino. As Molly Lambert brilliantly surmised, Swift is a Jack Nicholson who is a virgin who can’t drive. And frankly, maybe the reason I prefer Cosentino–apart from kneejerk, shallow indie identification–is because I have deeper empathy for beta females. Yet both women pen songs about unrequited love in blunt, conversational language bolstered by mammoth hooks. Their regard for other women isn’t always great, though Cosentino tends to just compare herself unfavorably toward the girl who’s got her honey. But this isn’t particular to them. Both women are informed in some way by the girl group tradition. As was Black Tambourine, a Slumberland act recently plucked from lo-fi obscurity by a great reissue of their narrow catalog. Their biggest hit proposed throwing a girl off a bridge so the singer could get the guy. Clearly that’s what Swift wanted to do to Camilla Belle.
Swift and Cosentino’s boyfriends have been factored into interpretations of their music and persona. Again, this isn’t particular to them, as this is how most female entertainers are (mis)understood. Read Sheila Weller‘s book on Carol King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, which detractors could rename How We Felt About James Taylor. Like Carly Simon before them, Swift and Cosentino have a knack for making people wonder who their songs are about. Swift has gotten lots of publicity for speculation around which songs are about John Mayer, Taylor Lautner, or Joe Jonas and when she’ll dish the dirt about Jake Gyllenhaal. The press is interested in casting Cosentino’s on-off relationship with Wavves’ front man (and tour mate) Nathan Williams as this generation’s Sid and Nancy. Both retain some agency through cultivating their persona and marketing by demonstrating fluency with social media.
There’s also a backlash against both women, sometimes perpetuated by other women. I’m part of that number with Swift, though I side with Julie Zeilinger and hope that she’ll adopt feminism. Cosentino has gotten it from folks like Marnie Stern, though I’m more than a little suspicious about how competition is being ginned up by the press. Both are pathologized because of their gender, whether or not the issue is made implicit. Swift, a career woman at heart, gets derided for being ambitious. Cosentino gets mocked for being a cat lady.
So maybe comparing them is a pointless exercise. Maybe they need to stop whining about boys and come together for some huge crossover project. Both have the chops. I hope Swift’s not allergic to cats.
So, after writing about my nostalgia last week, I thought I’d reflect on truly borrowed nostalgia: the music of my mother’s generation. I’m specifically thinking about the emergence of the female singer-songwriter, who came into vogue in the mid-1960s New York-based folk scene and became a cultural juggernaut by the end of the decade and into the mid-1070s with women like Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, for whom Sheila Weller wrote a toothsome, comprehensive biography last year called Girls Like Us.
The women’s sound(s), look(s), and message(s) would help destigmatize (if only for a moment) the feminist movement (if still largely configured to be a straight, middle-class, white woman’s struggle). They also helped pave the way for a revival of female singer-songwriters in the 1990s, helping result in the established careers of Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Björk, as well as the launch of festivals like Lilith Fair (which is rumored to make a return in 2010).
And, though perhaps a stretch, I kept thinking about these three women in relation to Betty Draper, Joan Holloway, and Peggy Olsen on Mad Men, three very different women beginning to weather and confront seismic shifts in gender and sexual politics at the beginning of the 1960s that the three artists featured in this book would at times undo, surrender to, and be blocked by at the end of the decade and into the 1970s.
Having read this book, I wonder if any of the women of Mad Men became fans of these artists. Would any of these women help make Tapestry one of the best-selling albums of all time? Betty and Joan may be a little too old, but I think they’d respectively empathize with Joni’s mother’s need to have a perfect Norwegian beauty for a daughter and Carly’s conflicting feelings about her sex-bomb identity. Peggy seems just the right age to follow these women, as she does accompany a co-worker to see Bob Dylan in season two. Personally, I think she’d be a huge Carole King fan. Two tough Brooklynite professionals with a knack for commercial pop art? Yeah, I think they’d find one another.
The key thing I appreciated about Girls Like Us, which does an exhaustive job documenting these three women’s personal and professional lives, is its committment to dialoging the artists with one another. Often, when attempts of this sort are made, it results in playing women off each other or reducing them to one singular entity (in this case, chick singer-songwriter seems the most apt dismissive). Weller does an admirable job individuating them (further enforced by using a different font for each woman), while at the same time highlighting where they overlap or interact and putting them in a gendered generational context of women and girls coming into their own particular feminist awakenings.
Notably, these women were all self-made. Carole Klein and Canadian-born Roberta Joan Anderson became Carole King and Joni Mitchell, toiling for years in the Brill Building and the coffeehouse circuit before becoming legendary. And Carly Simon, born into the New York elite as the third child of the Simon family (yes, of Simon & Schuster), had to start from scratch after years of following artist boyfriends, watching her sisters get married, and working odd jobs before landing a career. They also established themselves as icons at the same time. 1971 would be the year that King released her second solo album, Tapestry, culminating in one of the few Grammy wins for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year for a female artist. That same year, Mitchell would release Blue, a huge artistic breakthrough. And in 1972, alongside King’s sweep, Simon would win her Grammy for Best New Artist for her self-titled debut.
One unfortunate commonality all three women share is a need to make men happy, almost always the wrong man or the undeserving man. This is a lesson I saw many of my mother’s generation learn the hard way, and fear it will continue to play out with other women and girls, but hope we’ll learn from history. For Carole, this meant four marriages — first to her Brill Building lyricist Gerry Goffin (who would father singer Earl-Jean McCrae’s daughter Dawn while still married to King), then to bassist Charles Larkey, then to two chauvinist mountain men named Rick. For Joni, this meant marrying a man named Chuck Mitchell who (in her account) forced her to give up an infant daughter (her pregnancy, and giving up a daughter, would haunt Mitchell for years until she was reuinted with Kilauren in the late 1990s). For Carly, this meant using her sexual wiles to snare a man at all costs, a lesson she learned from her mother Andrea, before casting her lot with a man that would remain a drug addict for the majority of their marriage before unceremoniously dumping her.
Both Carole and Carly suffered considerable heartache, though Joni, perhaps a typical only child, often would cut and run, preferring solitude and creative freedom to being tied down, a lesson she learned by following Crosby, Stills, and Nash while living with Graham Nash. The woman who wrote “Woodstock” would not be cast as another man’s groupie.
As Carly’s man was James Taylor, it seems important to point out that all three of these women had some connection with Sweet Baby James. As James (along with almost all male rock stars of the era) was in awe of Carole King’s legacy as a Brill Building composer, he often covered her work extensively, most notably “You’ve Got a Friend.”
King nursed an unrequited crush, though her songwriter Toni Stern wrote “It’s Too Late” after the end of her affair with Taylor.
Joni dated James for a while. It ended, but at least she and Carly became friendly later in life.
And Carly presumably expedited the matrimonial process by writing “You’re So Vain” and getting one of her rumored paramours, Mick Jagger, to contribute back-up vocals. Taylor proposed shortly thereafter, creating the first rock star marriage. However, he would often get sidelined by his ongoing battle with heroin, as well as his wife’s meteoric rise to pop stardom. She would often worry herself sick and modify her behavior for Taylor, a symptom Weller believes is linked to wanting to please her disengaged father.
Yet, I don’t want to suggest these women are patriarchy’s tragic casualties. I certainly don’t think they would. Carole continued a long professional partnership with Goffin, and also accepted Dawn, Goffin’s daughter with McRae, as one of her own children, something her biological children did as well. In addition, she became very politically active, lobbying hard for environmental issues, particularly working to preserve Idaho’s wildlife after falling in love with its woodlands.
Joni kept pushing herself further artistically, regardless of whether or not she was met with critical acclaim. She most notably began incorporating jazz elements into her music, hiring reputable session musicians and expanding her sonic and lyrical styles (though also began playing with race and lauding “natural” blackness, which Weller takes to task, specifically when talking about Mitchell’s black alter ego Art Nouveau, which she poses as in blackface for the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter).
And Carly was most prominent in the mainstreaming of feminism (though not without its own issues — in the 1970s, feminism was often a Seven Sisters game and Simon, a Sarah Lawrence dropout born from a wealthy family, fit right in). She also promoted the celebration of female sexual agency and autonomy, complicating the widely-held belief that all second wavers were man-haters waging a war on sex. She also had a liberated attitude toward sex, which Weller supports with conjectures that “You’re So Vain” is actually about multiple men. In addition, Simon has alluded to having an open marriage and being bisexual, as well as being an advocate for LGBT rights.
In short, these women mattered. They shaped the perspectives and actions of millions of women and girls of my mother’s generation. They proved that female artists could garner a huge mainstream audience (a lesson that needed to be reminded to A&R folks, concert promoters, and radio programmers in the 1990s, resulting in countercultural movements like riot grrrl and mainstream enterprises like Lilith Fair). And they continue to influence female recording artists and their listeners. And, most importantly, they continue to work, just as their male counterparts do, regardless of whether or not they are deemed culturally relevant. Let their voices be heard.