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[Guest Post] “This Is Love”: PJ Harvey, Pop Music, and Female Sexual Desire

2012 September 13

Here’s a guest post from author Delilah Des Anges. If you have a guest post brewing in your brain, you know what to do: pitch us at [email protected].

In terms of consumption and emotional language, the pop song occupies a similar status to the sonnet. Well, not exactly, but certainly for the purpose of romance or desire, pop lyrics are an absolute boon for the tongue-tied (a group which includes “most of the English population”). They’re used to express whatever happens to be lurking unformed in the minds of the listener, and as a point of identification when the lurking stuff has been given a concrete identity.

Reams have been written about the depiction of women in pop music by male songwriters and the presentation of women by the music industry, but recently I was having a wee listen to PJ Harvey (while drunk in someone’s living room in Portsmouth on a Saturday night, because I am very cool) and it occurred to me that I’d not seen as much on the subject of how female desire’s presented in pop songs BY WOMEN.

This thought came up because This Is Love felt like an anomaly: it presented desire as active on the part of the female narrator. PJ Harvey’s persona for the song has sexual agency, and longings that do not centre around waiting for someone else to make a move. She uses the phrase “I want” and backs it up with action: “to chase you round the table, wanna touch your head”, and in that “wanna touch your” she rather casually and without fuss flips the entire common model of heterosexual desire on its head by pointing out that women also want to touch, as well as being touched.

It shouldn’t sound unusual, and yet at the time of listening it was borderline revolutionary, at least to me. There are other lines from the song which imply action: “I can’t believe that the axis turns on suffering when you taste so good”; suggestive of all kinds of sexual acts, instigated by and controlled by the narrator, but nothing else is quite as direct as that seemingly harmless “wanna touch your head”.

This Is Love is not unique, but on examination it becomes harder to find other songs which inhabit the same active, instigating desire.

I Just Wanna Make Love To You does, but even the Divinyls’ famously salacious anthem to female masturbation and banned song I Touch Myself is self-contained sexuality; the desire is there, but it is self-directed. The narrator says nothing of what she wants to do to the object of the song, only what the thought of him makes her do to herself!

Interestingly, when the object of desire is no longer male, the desire becomes more active in its expression: contentious and open to a variety of interpretations, Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl does at least carry the flow of action from the narrator to her object of desire: Katy KISSED a girl, rather than being kissed BY a girl, as so many heroines of pop songs are kissed BY a boy rather than kissing him.

In a song of the same name, Jill Sobule’s narrator makes the same distinction: Jill KISSES Jenny, the narrator as the actor rather than the acted-upon.

This is a small sample to draw a conclusion from, but it is intriguing that female desire is more acceptable as active, instigating, and potentially dominant when the object of the woman’s desire is also female. The repurposing of songs originally intended for male singers often underscores this, as in Patti Smith’s cover of Gloria.

There are songs with male narrators in which the instigation of action is undertaken by the female half of the heterosexual proto-couple (usually because the narrator is far too shy or lacking in confidence, rather than because of any societal prohibition on his asking her out): the main contender in this category is Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus. A casual glance over popular music seems to reveal far more male references to female desire (“she wants me”) than female references to female desire (“I want him”).

PJ Harvey is not, of course, the first or only female artist to sing about desire. Ani Difranco has filled several albums with heartfelt songs cataloging the effects of desire on the psyche: primarily in the aftermath. Ani writes about regret or lack thereof, but rarely if at all about the white-hot moment of simple wanting.

By now there’s a good chance you’re wondering how anyone could skip over Bikini Kill on this subject: they have a song entitled I Like Fucking – surely this must qualify for a candid and unabashed demonstration of naked female desire?

Well, yes and no. Riot Grrrl has an agenda which is unshy of communicating, and sexuality is, as all other aspects of feminine experience, politicised. The song itself discusses internal obstacles to feeling and acting upon desire, the ubquity of rape, and the “radical possibilities of pleasure”, which while a notable feminist sentiment on the reclamation of sexuality, is a far cry from Harvey’s “I just want to sit here and watch you undress”. Politicised recognition of the rightness of female desire and its value is highly important, but isn’t quite the same thing as an unselfconscious expression of that desire.

Someone else who believes in the radical possibilities of pleasure, even if she doesn’t phrase it that way, is Rihanna. In Shut Up And Drive, she creates a shallow but effective metaphor in which she is a car to be driven: it is potent, referencing power and femininity, but ultimately it is – no matter how transparent and brazen – a metaphor and rerouting of desire through the stalking-horse of car culture, rather than the bald, outright statement of This Is Love.

I could go on, but I’m sure the general idea is clear. That was my little radio revolution, thanks to Polly Harvey, and with any luck I’ve given you something to think about too.

  • Delilah Des Anges is given to unnecessarily close examination of song lyrics, but excuses it by writing poems. She also writes novels, for which she has rather less excuse.
3 Responses leave one →
  1. Sarah J permalink*
    September 17, 2012

    Great post and fascinating topic. I warmed to PJ Harvey partly *because* of her healthy attitude to sex and the fact she bothered to write a song taking a pop at sexual shame and misogyny (Sheela-Na-Gig lyrics here in case anyone doesn’t know them

    There’s also a tradition of overtly sexual lyrics from female subject blues songs, in particular by Bessie Smith. Have a look at ‘I’m Wild About That Thing’ (video here but also ‘Kitchen Man’ and ‘I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl’. I remember reading an argument somewhere that these songs have only become well known relatively recently because they tended not to get added to compilations and collections of Smith’s work because they were deemed to be embarrassingly raunchy and didn’t fit with the tragic persona demanded of many women blues singers and epitomised by Billie Holiday.

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