I've written before about how difficult it can be to be a woman in musical spheres. Whether it's being expected to occupy certain pigeon-holes as performers, or having our fandom written off as mindless crushing, or just being bloody invisible, it can pretty difficult to be a woman dealing with popular music.
It's not a stretch to say that my own particular brand of feminism has become increasingly radical these days – I would now self-identify as a 'radical feminist', or more usually as a left-wing loon. Funny thing: the more I read and the more I experience, the less tolerant of the rape culture bullshit I become.
This leaves me with a few problems, because misogyny is so very much part of society and culture, and it's everywhere in movies and music I've loved. I mean, I've never had any time for the really obvious shit (Hi there, Judd Apatow!) but the more subtle stuff... the things I used to be able to ignore, or hand-wave away are becoming ever harder to just mentally discredit.
I wonder if I'm the only kid who read Sweet Valley High and self-edited it so much? I like to think that I never really signed up to the rape culture, but instead chose to twist its badness to something new which I could accept. I don't know that that's really true except on a personal level – the arseholes who collect the money don't care about 'how' I read their books or movies, do they? While it's more than fine for me to have ignored this and that, it doesn't help in the wider context of everyone else – those who suffer from it as well as those who profit from it.
I used to edit films too – the fast-forward button on our old VHS player used to get a mashing during Grease. I don't think I've seen the whole of 'Hopelessly Devoted To You' since the very first time I saw it on TV, and Grease 2 suffered pretty much the same fate for that paean to coercion, 'Let's Do It For Our Country'. Plenty of other movies were truncated in this manner when something came up that I either found uncomfortable viewing, or just didn't like.
Anyway, back to the actual subject. I've been a fan of Dean Martin for a long old time now... I remember the only thing that got me through the quiet hell that was the school trip to Eastern Europe was Dino on my walkman. I have loved his music deeply and affectionately for a long time. Before even Jim Morrison, there was, for me, Dean Martin's voice.
I had a particular CD which I loved best, because it included 'Ain't That A Kick In The Head?'. I lost the CD itself ages ago – I'm talking years ago – and always intended to search through the rest of the CD boxes for it. I half-thought it was at my mum and dad's house and I always meant to find it but never quite did. Some favourite CD huh? Well, I had most of the songs on other CDs and I got by. Then a while ago, I took it into mind to look for it (again). I didn't bother, and decided to just put some of my other CDs onto my computer. The Almost Famous and Virgin Suicides soundtracks, Queen's Greatest Hits II and entirely randomly picked off a shelf, the Some Like It Hot soundtrack. In the box of the latter, I found the CD I had been meaning to look for for years. I don't know how it got there – I have listened to Some Like It Hot only a couple of times since it was given to me. I mean, if I want Some Like It Hot I'll watch the film, right?
I couldn't believe it! I was so utterly happy about this one stupid disc. In the end, there were only about six songs I hadn't pulled off other CDs, but one of them was 'Ain't That A Kick In The Head?'. Ever since Robbie Williams, and then Westlife, butchered the song, I've never quite enjoyed it so much... but it's Dean so I still loved it. I shoved the CD into my stereo and hit PLAY before I slid into a hot bubble batch to soothe my aching muscles (I've just started yoga dontcha know?).
And I was... disappointed. Not by Dean's voice, because that can never fall in my estimation, but by some of the songs. Not all of them, but some. Actually, 'disappointed' doesn't tell the whole story.
There's a song called 'Baby, It's Cold Outside', which if you actually listen to the words, is about coercion and date-rape. Seriously, listen to it. The first time I heard it was by Dean and an unknown woman singer (let that tell its own story) and I misheard some of the lyrics, which made it rather less dreadful. I heard 'Say, lend me a comb' as 'So lend me a coat' which in context, gave the woman much more power. In my previous, youthful naivete, I thought 'so what's in this drink?' meant that he'd just mixed the martinis a little stronger than expected. I read the song, when presented by Dean, as the woman not wanting to leave but being expected to by society's strictures. See, editing at all times, even when I didn't realise it.
Anyway, that's not what the song is about. The Dudebro is pressuring The Woman to stay so he can shag her. She wants to go home. He probably put something in her drink... and there you go: coercion and date rape. A friend of mine thought I was overreacting until she went and read the lyrics through. It's amazing what a light and breezy horns section can do, isn't it?
For me, because I only ever really heard Dino's version, it wasn't so bad back in the day, because who wouldn't want to stay with a voice like that? (I make no comment upon the man himself, having never met him and having to base a lot of my knowledge of his personality and behaviour on things best described as myth-building.) This editing lark of mine has let me hand-wave a lot, and because of the world in which Dean Martin was working, a lot of it is tied up in the songs he sang.
Now, there are likely people who think Tin Pan Alley and the more general outpouring of popular music in America was one of the great cultural achievements of the 20th Century, but I hate to break it to you: The 80-20 Ratio still applies. Yeah, there were some great songwriters and wonderful songs, but there's also a lot of arsewater masquerading as 'good clean fun'. For instance, 'Powder Your Face With Sunshine' is an awful song which is rendered tolerable only by Dino's warm rendition.
While we're at it: 'Everybody Loves Somebody'. How I have always detested this piece of rancid, saccharine shit! Did I read somewhere that Dino actually hated it too? I hope so. Not only is it just an awful song, the sentiment is toss: We don't all get to love someone (see also: 'Somewhere There's A Someone') and there ain't nothing wrong with that. The Great Unloved such as myself are not sub-humans, nor failures as humans. I could fall in deepest love tomorrow and still think this song is hateful. I hadn't heard it for such a long old time that I'd forgotten how much I hated it.
Also included on the disc is 'The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane'... where the joke is that through the whole song the implication is that a whore has moved into town... but it turns out he's singing about a nine-day-old baby girl. Who thought that could possibly be sweet or funny? Seriously, was the Tin Pan Alley Reality Checker off sick that day? Would you write a song like that about a baby boy? Unlikely. Once again, I edited and just skipped the track when I would listen to the CD... although I've clearly heard it often enough to know most of the words...
It has not escaped my attention that Dean Martin has been painted as the Crown Prince of Dudebros. While I sit listening to him on my iPod thinking 'what a voice!', how many Apprentice Dudebros are looking to Dean as an example of all that is Cool (Drink, Girls, Sharp Suits, Nice Hats)? How many people talk of Dean just as 'the King of Cool' and not much else?
Perhaps I should be asking if it's even possible to be a Dean Martin fan and a radical feminist at the same time? Course it is. Dean Martin, as far as I'm aware, was not a bad guy. A man very much of his time. A codifier of the Myth of His Time, in fact. But that's not down to the music, and a lot of what has been written and said about him is myth-building.
I get the feeling I'm making excuses. I don't mean to, but it's really not a great feeling to listen to music you once loved – LOVED! - and realise that it's actually saying the absolute opposite of what you think. It's one thing to listen to a parade of 'when my baby she left me' blues songs, because quite often they're not painting an entire gender as Slut Bitches (although plenty do), when I don't truly, deeply love them. I can sit here and tell you that a lot of heavy metal is despicable without blinking, because I don't love it. It's easy to turn against that which you didn't like anyway. To have to reconsider stuff you do love... it hurts when you loved it as much as I do.
Hell, Thin Lizzy keep getting accused of misogyny, but I still can't hear it. Perhaps my deep love for Lizzy keeps me blind, but I have been looking for it. Are they misogynists for having Hot Gossip in their videos, or is it just because 'Killer on the Loose' was released at the same time as the Yorkshire Ripper was terrifying everyone? Is it Philo's depictions of a certain sort of world? Is it his groupie-shagging reputation? How much is the music, how much is their Bad Reputation (this is actually the name of a Thin Lizzy song. It's good)? I don't know, maybe I really am still just hand-waving and editing.
If I decide that I won't listen to another song by anyone which demeans women, I'm going to need a smaller iPod. Do I accept it, knowing that most of the music I listen to is very old, of its time? Do I just excise the really bad examples from my life, like 'The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane' and 'Not Enough Indians'? What response is really the best? To just ignore is no longer acceptable, this I know.
I can be a Dean Martin fan, but it doesn't mean that I can just accept every song as it is. Some of them are beyond the pale and can't be excused by the context of their time. There's a reason I haven't sought out too much of The Dean Martin Show. Anything based so much on dolly-birds can't be much good... and for all the excuse-making about how he wasn't a bad guy, I have to simply accept the fact that a lot of people have got away with a lot by being a not-bad guy. I'm going to have to square myself to this fact. I'm sure I'll manage: I can still watch Errol Flynn films without cringing, although that was an effort and a half.
In a way, I'm being a little harsh: some of the music is truly great. Dean Martin songs were the first thing to really open my eyes to the different facets of love: joyful love, broken-hearted love, sad love, ended love, new love, affectionate love, bittersweet love, and so on. Except now I have to recognise and add coercive 'love', and stalking=love and possessive 'love' and those things too.
Being a Radical Feminist doesn't mean rejecting love. To me, it means calling 'bullshit' on misogyny disguised or packaged as love. In other words: stalking =/= love, oppression =/= love. I will always, always love the Hoagy Carmichael song 'Two Sleepy People' because unlike 'Baby, It's Cold Outside', it's that kind of we-really-maybe-shouldn't-but-hey thing but the two subjects are equal partners, to the extent that I even know the woman singer's name when performed by Dean (Line Renaud). I can also recommend Julie London's version. 'Sway' is not about the objectification of a woman, unlike say, the infantilising 'Pretty Baby' or the just plain hideous 'Not Enough Indians' which manages to combine Good Ol' Fashioned Racism with the notion that the Dudebro has to be in charge in order to have a happy relationship. You know what? There are performers with much worse discographies than Dean.
This does matter, by the way. It's the little injustices that make the big injustices possible. It's the little things that add up to a culture which allows (nay, encourages) women to be treated as one homogeneous group of sexual and/or domestic objects. If music is this important to me (and it is), then it stands to reason that it is as important to people who don't see a problem with painting women as an entire group of sluts/bitches/servants/irrational harpies/passive childlike creatures in need of manly control. This matters to me personally, and it matters on a larger scale, although no doubt if anyone reads this beyond my usual f-list, there will be people shrugging it off as meaningless, or flaming me for being *insert derogatory term here*.
Maybe the true test of a song is this: can it be sung by a woman instead of a man without totally changing the meaning? If so, then I reckon there's a fair chance it's based on a notion of love as equality rather than love as something men can choose to bestow upon some little woman as they see fit, whether she wants it or not.
I really, really love the song 'You Belong To Me' which has been performed by countless singers of both/any/all genders, but my favourite is of course, Dean. On the face of it, it's about possession. What it's really about, is loving someone enough to let them go off on adventures around the world if they want or need to, and being brave enough to believe they'll come back. It's easy: “Do what you need to, but please remember that I love you.” I love that song. Anyone can sing it, and pretty much everyone has, for better or worse.
What a relief it is to realise that at least one of my favourite songs passes the test. So does 'Ain't That A Kick In The Head?', although there's really another issue of the violent image conjured by the title. Like I say, it's not all bad news but... the more aware I become of anti-women tropes and the rape culture and all the stuff woven into society to keep me and my gender third-class citizens, the harder it is to find things that pass. That's rape culture for you: it's bloody everywhere.
I've been in love with Dean Martin songs for a very, very long time. This is not easy and it's not fun, but that's not my fault. Better it be uncomfortable than I just ignore it all. I'll get there one day, wherever 'there' actually is, and I'll be able to listen to Dino without feeling uncomfortable – but I know the play list will be much shorter.
My final words are directed to the people who wrote 'You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You': I refer you to the reply given in the case of Arkell v. Pressdram.