Different Drum, Different Context
A few years ago I picked up the lovely album Under the Covers Vol. 1, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs’ damned fine collection of ’60s covers. If I had a criticism of the album or its ’70s-oriented followup (and apparently I do), it would be that Hoffs and Sweet tend to stick too closely to the original arrangements, which begs the question, “Why do I want your version?”
(For the life of me, I can’t get YouTube to embed here. Click the pic to go to the video.)
(The answer tends to be that Susanna Hoff’s voice is the exact sound of tender, half-healed heartbreak. At the age of fifteen, hearing her sing for the first time, I was already nostalgic for the crush I would have on her and the memory of it years later. I’m weird like that.)
The standout song on the album, hands down, is the cover of “Different Drum.” I recognized the song the first time I played it, and could have sung along with most of the lyrics, but I couldn’t have told you the name of the original artists if it were the password to get out of Hell. Weirdly, I remembered it having been sung by a man. And that’s what struck me about Hoffs singing it—the way she reversed the gender roles.
In fact, the song was a big hit for the Stone Poneys, whose lead singer, Linda Ronstadt, is widely known to be, and very much sound like, a woman. How the song gained a Y chromosome in my memory is a mystery. But my error is not fatal—the song was written by Monkee master Michael Nesmith (a dude, which I’m betting could be proven in court), and he wrote it for a male singer (meaning the lyrics talked about “a girl who wants” rather than the “boy” Linda and Susanna croon to).
So, here’s the thing: The song comes across to me as horribly condescending, cavalier and sexist … if sung by a man to a woman. He has obviously toyed with her affections, slept with her, either led her on or paid no attention to her growing feelings, and he’s dumping her with a shrug. “I’m not sayin’ you ain’t pretty”? “I’m just not in the market”? What a complete bastard. (I do not pretend to know Nesmith’s intentions with the song, or frame of mind back in the late 60s when he wrote it.) Yet when Susanna sings it … I nod my head. I understand how she feels. These things happen. It’s almost cute.
Why do I feel this way? Let me detail my sexist assumptions, not about how I view the world and men and women, but about how I think our culture, at large, does (and did, particularly, 40-plus years ago when the song was written). Many of these are factually true, or well-known assumptions, and for me, they completely color how I approach this story of one person breaking another’s heart:
- Boys will say anything to get laid.
- Girls tend to give their hearts with their bodies.
- Men victimize women more often than the reverse.
- Women tend to have less physical, cultural and economic power.
- Our culture puts a higher value on a woman’s “virtue,” so she loses something when she’s used for sex. Whereas a guy just has a good time and moves on.
- (I mean, how bad can you feel for a guy if his biggest problem is that Susanna Hoffs used him for sex?)
- Women are therefore traditionally more hesitant to give free reign to their sexuality, as Hoffs’ character is doing here.
- By “acting like a man,” then, she is sort of … fighting the power. Oppressing the oppressor. Turning the tables. You go, girl!
- Women generally don’t call men “pretty.” That adds a note of silliness or irony to that potentially patronizing line.
- Count that parenthetical reference to Hoffs’ beauty as another sexist assumption: As if it’s okay to have your heart broken by a gorgeous woman? What’s wrong with me?
It’s a matter of cultural currency. The lesson that this performance really brought to the surface for me was that cultural roles and stereotypes really matter. I could write a story about a sexually adventurous woman and a shy, in-it-for-love man, or the reverse, but how I’d handle the cavalier-woman version would probably have significant differences from how I’d do the slutty-man version—because if you just reverse the pronouns, the same situations or dialogue will have different weight.
Maybe that shouldn’t be the case. But I think it’s inescapable.
I have had this in mind for awhile—I bought the album three years ago—but it came up in the past week or so in comics, where so many of the women are wild, dangerous, deadly, sexual, and so many of the writers are men. Comics writer Laura Hudson wrote a brilliant response to the new “super sexy” Catwoman comic (and another DC relaunch) that just came out. Generated 2100 comments in five days, nearly all of them making me despair (further) of my gender. Hudson’s topic is a little off from mine, but the way she talks about the difference between portraying a woman’s sexuality in an empowering way versus as a degrading (my word) fantasy for male pleasure feels relevant to this.
But I digress. It’s a note to myself as a writer, I’m saying, that cultural context really matters, and you enter your story with a set of personal assumptions and cultural signifiers. It’s something to watch out even more for as you write people whose gender, race, religion or sexual orientation don’t match your own. It’s something that can require research, as well as just … a sense for nuance.
Does this whole ramble boil down to: 1. Men and women are different, and B. Everyone knows it? Not entirely revelatory, to you or to me. But maybe the road to my destination was interesting.
For more on the key issue of songs made great by flipping the gender and giving them to Susanna Hoffs, refer to her and Sweet’s fantastic cover of Maggie May. Proposition: Susanna Hoff’s voice is the exact female equivalent of Rod Stewart’s voice. Discuss.
Thanks for readin’ …
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