This month’s column features a new guest author: Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, Ph.D. is a sociologist and author of the new book Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman: Female Fans and the Music of Tori Amos (Scarecrow Press).
I have spent the better part of the last five years trying to understanding how women use music to heal after experiencing trauma. When I was interviewing women for my book, Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman, one comment stuck in my head from a woman named Madeline. Madeline talked about how she used to be into music by hair-metal bands. She said, “Growing up, all my favorite bands were male artists. Um, maybe it’s just that now I see that their message is from their point of view. And I internalize that and maybe that’s why I made all the shitty choices that I made. I think that maybe the reason that I only listen to female artists is because I just would rather have their messages in my head.” And this comment wasn’t rare. Many women said that they found empowerment/comfort/salvation in music written and performed by another woman.
Now, I am totally aware that women can listen to male bands to feel support and vice versa. However, one thing that I think it missing from conversations about feminism and pop culture is how women use music by feminist musicians as a way to heal after they have experienced trauma. This was the premise of my research for Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman. The women I spoke with selected Tori Amos’s music as their self-care guide. They were very much aware that this help was coming from a feminist performer and, because of that, found her music to sit close to home.
From this study I took away a few helpful tips for connecting feminism with music and healing that I would like to share. In no particular order:
- Find an anthem: I don’t think it gets much better than listening to powerful women belt out songs like it is the last time they will have the opportunity to sing in their lives. Whether it’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Aretha, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, Janelle Monae, Beyonce etc. Feminist musicians approach their songs with an eye toward empowerment, equality and expressing the experiences of women. One of the reasons many of the women I spoke with enjoyed Tori’s song “Spark” was because it addressed her experience with miscarriage. Healing from the loss of a child is hard, but hearing a performer address her emotions can be helpful. So find your feminist anthem. (I have many. Some, like Aretha’s “Respect” and Ani’s song “Alla This” I will gladly cop to. Others are embarrassing but help me get through the day!)
- Create While you Listen: In 2007 I was a grad student at Virginia Tech when my college became the site of the worst school shooting in U.S. history. One activity that got me through was creating art while listening to Tori’s music and trying to use the lyrics to illustrate my feelings. Many of the women I spoke with did the same thing with writing, crafting, singing and dancing. Song lyrics became immortalized through their bodies, art and voices. What is even more important is that this exercise requires you to think about the lyrics you are repeating to yourself. What do they mean? Are they empowering? Of course we all can rattle off songs meant for entertainment. But if there was ever a chance to think about the impact of music on our identities, it is when we are expressing ourselves through art and being vulnerable.
- The Feminist Standpoint: Ok, stick with me. In sociology (my field), the feminist standpoint basically says that women’s stories are often ignored in a culture. So, I would encourage you to take an anthem song and use it to tell your story. Anthems are great backdrops for activism. They can help with speaking out about being raped, having an eating disorder, having a miscarriage etc. And, speaking out is a huge step toward breaking the culture of silence that surrounds these experiences. I, like many of you, have found a new hero in Wendy Davis (the Texas legislator who stood for 11 hours to strike down anti-abortion laws). She used her voice and inspired the band The Bright Light Social Hour to record this song called “Wendy Davis.”
Finding feminism in music (for both female and male artists) is key to changing the ways pop culture stereotypes women. Finding feminism in music to help us heal from trauma is key to finding empowerment in vulnerable moments. What do you listen to?
– Crossposted from Feministing with permission –