“Cuz if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it”

In reading Angela Davis’s fascinating account of female empowerment through blues in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, I had to wonder…what is the current state of African American, female-driven songs? After doing a little research, which by no means is inclusive or in any way scientific (i.e. these are songs I remember), I came to see some stark parallels and divergences between the female Blues powerhouses of the early twentieth century and the female musical artists of the 1990s-2000s.

For instance, the standards in which female African American artists operate are relatively the same as it was for “Ma,” Bessie, and Billy. There is still a “marketability” and “standard” in which is in heavy consideration when these artists, whether they pen the song or not, create their lyrics. There is also an added pressure of image and where these artists fall into an acceptable degree of White conformability, which this post won’t get into but should nevertheless also be taken into consideration. However, what Davis says about women of the Blues breaking down and creating their own form of gender identity—one that was unabashedly sexual and critical of accepted female spheres—still rings true today. I find that it is no less apparent than within a selection of songs by modern artists Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, and Beyoncé Knowles.

Wait! But, what about Erykah Badu? Missy Elliott? Mary J. Blige? India.Arie? Girl groups T.L.C. and Destiny’s Child? All worthy, all considered, and all fall within the scope of what I’m trying to do here. However, for the sake of brevity and succinctness I am using Hill, Keys, and Knowles songs to frame and expand upon the new decade of female empowerment songs.

Lauryn Hill’s album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was produced in 1998.  One of the most successful songs off the album, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” directly translates Davis’s observation that many Blues songs were in an advice format for other women. [1]  Here, Hill sings about how females need to better respect themselves because, “Girls you know you better watch out/Some guys, some guys are only about/That thing, that thing, that thing,” alluding to (and explicitly in other parts of the song) the sexuality that men and women choose to portray.  She pleads:

“Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again
You know I only say it ’cause I’m truly genuine
Don’t be a hardrock when you’re really a gem
Babygirl, respect is just a minimum” [2]

The lyrics show a communication style that breeds a familiarity and camaraderie, showing that Hill belongs to this “community of women” and therefore is authoritative in her guidance. [3]  The video is even more interesting as it directly compares a 1968 scene of what Hill sings about with a then contemporary 1998 scene.

Other notable mentions in the early 2000’s also follow similar patterns to the Blues songs Davis highlights. Not every blues song was about leaving and being completely independent. As Davis shows, many of the blues songs portray female characters that were mistreated and mislead. However, by “naming issues that pose a threat to the physical or psychological well-being,” the woman gains a measure of control and acts of her own free will. [4]

You can see this aspect in the song “Fallin’” by Alicia Keys (2001). In it, Keys sings about a woman who knows that a man is wrong for her, but the sexual pull, “makes me so confused.” The inner drive to be empowered is overbalanced by the woman’s sexual agency:

“Oh, Oh, I never felt this way
How do you give me so much pleasure,
cause me so much pain,
‘Cause when I think I’m taking more than would a fool
I start fallin’ back in love with you.” [5]

The video presents a picture not inherent within the lyrics—that of a distanced and further complicated relationship because the male is in jail on unknown charges. In the end, the video makes it unclear which way the woman in the song chooses to go. Whichever way shoes goes, however, she is still firmly in control and actively choosing the path in which she will go down—no one, not the man nor society is forcing her to stay.
Beyoncé Knowles, former lead singer for Destiny’s Child, offers my most recent examples of female empowerment within Davis’s scope. Her songs, “Irreplaceable” (2006) and “Single Ladies” (2008), offer examples of how these women refused to be “in sexual and economic subordination of men.” [6]

The song “Irreplaceable” shows a woman claiming her financial independence and throwing out her male partner who has cheated on her with another woman. She revels in her sexuality and shows her authority in choosing her own choice of partner, saying “You must not know ’bout me/I’ll have another you by tomorrow/So don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.” [7]

The video has Beyoncé relishing in throwing her man out of her house—watching him pack up his meager belongings, disrobing him of the jacket and jewelry she bought him, and lounging sexually on the car while she makes him take a cab. The fact that the band she is singing her independence with is made up of all females is a further visual clue that she is part of that community of women.
In her other song, “Single Ladies,” a woman is also asserting her sexuality and her independence, spurning a jealous lover and celebrating her right to choose and live the life she chooses. In the song, Beyoncé sings:

“I couldnt care less what you think
I need no permission, did I mention
Dont pay him any attention
Cuz you had your turn
But now you gonna learn
What it really feels like to miss me.” [8]

The music video has become infamous, as has the phrase that titles this blog post, as it highlights the sheer strength (she even has a cyborg hand!) and open defiance of the thought that she should be anything but clearly in control of her own independence and sexuality.

Do I consider these feminist power ballads? No. Feminism comes with so many personal and equivocal connotations that what is feminist to me wouldn’t necessarily be feminist to somebody else. But, do they empower women? Absolutely. In the same way that you wouldn’t label Rainey’s and Holiday’s songs “feminist,” you cannot label these modern songs as feminist anthems. However, as Davis points out, they all share roots in that beginning forum of feminist thought.

Is it an imperfect parallel? Of course! Some social progress has been made, the use of the language has become more explicit, and these songs done by African American women have, what I would argue, a far greater cross cultural, racial, class, and gender appeal then Blues singers of the early nineteenth century. For instance, when I speak of the community of women, I speak to the community of women who refuse to “privilege racism over sexism,” which encompasses not just African American women. [9] It doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting we throw out the fact that they were African American women; on the contrary, I believe that it is of utmost importance to consider, as Jones states, “a whole host of factors that work simultaneously.” [10] However, I don’t believe these modern day songs work solely within an African American context, nor do I believe that those songs of Rainey, Smith, or Holiday work only within an African American context.

So, what did I learn from this modern-day quest? That the foundation that these Blues legends made is still firmly in place and is being actively improved upon, but that there is still room to grow. What do you think? Who have I missed in exploring modern African American artists? Do you believe these songs are empowering?

[1] Angela Yvonne Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (Vintage, 1998), 53.

[2] Hill, Lauryn. “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Lyrics. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Columbia Records. 1998. All translations are my own. Any mistakes are unintended.

[3] Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 54.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Keys, Alicia. “Fallin’.” Lyrics. Songs in A Minor. J Records. 2001.

[6] Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 59.

[7] Knowles, Beyoncé. “Irreplaceable.” Lyrics. B’Day. Columbia Records. 2006.

[8] Knowles, Beyoncé. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” I Am… Sasha Fierce. Columbia Records. 2008.

[9] Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 44.

[10] Jacqueline Jones, “Race and Gender in Modern America,” Reviews in American History 26, no. 1 (March 1998): 221.

4 thoughts on ““Cuz if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it”

  1. I think that collaborating with Lady Gaga for “Videophone” and “Telephone” only strengthen the image of Beyonce as an empowering pop culture figure. “Videophone” was originally solely Beyonce but was remixed to feature Lady Gaga, a white woman who constantly defies her own privilege by subverting middle class ideals of sexuality and romance.

    In “Videophone,” Beyonce sings “I got no time for frontin’ / I know just want I want” to assert her own sexual desires to the man who wants to record her image. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGkvXp0vdng )

    In “Telephone,” Lady Gaga’s version featuring Beyonce, Beyonce claims her independence by singing:
    “Boy, the way you blowin’ up my phone won’t make me leave no faster,
    put my coat on faster, leave my girls no faster.” ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVBsypHzF3U )
    The music video for “Telephone” includes Beyonce and Lady Gaga working together to symbolically fight oppression by poisoning Beyonce’s boyfriend, who stole her honey and possibly represents “centuries of patriarchal entitlement to women’s labor.” (http://www.eatmedaily.com/2010/03/zoom-and-pan-lady-gagas-telephone-video/)

    Both women assert their own sexuality and desires through their music. Collaborating on these two songs highlights an example of the female community sung about in blues music.

  2. Also! It’s fun to juxtapose Beyonce, Lauren Hill, and Alicia Keys against the white, heteronormative, sexual purist, middle class, female pop icon of today: Taylor Swift.

    “It’s your freshmen year, and you’re gonna be here for the next four years in this town.
    Hoping one of those senior boys will wink at you and say “You know, I haven’t seen you around before.”

    Not, you know, that you’ll enjoy school, or get good grades, or make new friends.. just that some boy will acknowledge you. Because only a boy will make you “feel like you’re flying.”

  3. I really liked your post. I used to listen to Lauren Hill’s “Doo Wop” all the time. I think the songs you mentioned are definitely empowering to women today. You made a great point that what your particular definition of feminism is not the same as someone else’s definition, and I think that’s really important to stress. From my impression of the readings, and what you’ve said here, it seems that personal type of feminism parallels personal type of music.
    I wanted to share a video (from Youtube) of a clip of the HBO film “Iron Jawed Angels,” a movie that came out in 2004 about the women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century. What’s interesting about this movie about mostly white women is that in a scene portraying one of their biggest marches in Washington, DC, Lauren Hills’ “Everything is Everything” plays in the background. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtUY-wVLdeY

  4. Thank you so much for writing this post. The entire time I was reading Davis’s book I kept hearing Beyonce’s voice in my head. I liked that the book connected the seeds sown by the early female blues singers to the women’s rights movement in the 1960s. I think that the contributions of Rainey, Holiday and Smith have gone much farther in the music world than just R&B as well. Maybe to not such a large extent, but still ever present are the themes of female strength and independence in country and pop music. Carrie Underwood gives “advice” to women in “Cowboy Casanova,” and Katy Perry ‘tames’ her wishy washy man in “Hot N Cold.” These songs may have slightly different formats and perspectives than blues and R&B songs, but I think it is safe to say they have definitely been influenced by the themes first presented by Rainey, Smith and Holiday.

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