Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Evil Devil Witchy Women and Their Evil Ways: An Odd Musical Trend of the Early Seventies

Back in the 1970s, there was a preponderance of songs depicting woman as evil, as deliverers of sin and temptation. I listened to the radio a lot back then and even as a little boy I noticed this trend. Some examples:

Witchy Woman - The Eagles
Reached #9 on the U.S. charts in 1972
Sample lyric: "She's been sleeping in the devil's bed."

I have no complaints about the Eagles. I think they were unfairly treated in The Big Lebowski. Still, this terrible song may have started an unfortunate trend.

Evil Woman
- Electric Light Orchestra

Reached #10 in 1975
"You destroyed all the virtues that the lord gave you."

Unlike most of E.L.O.'s later songs, packed with lyrical economy and benign subject matter, this song was filled with long clumsy lines about why this particular woman was so evil. Catchy though.

Devil Woman - Cliff Richard
Reached #6 in 1976
"She's just a devil woman with evil on her mind / Beware the devil woman, she's gonna get you from behind."

You never hear this song anymore but god I heard it everywhere for a few months back in the bicentennial year. The fact that the song is so lyrically awful quells some of the evil-she-devilness.

She's Always A Woman - Billy Joel
Reached #17 in 1977
"She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes / She can ruin your faith with her casual lies / And she only reveals what she wants you to see / She hides like a child but she's always a woman to me."

This song, arguably one of the greatest songs ever put to music, has a seemingly innocuous title. But of all the songs on this list, it has the most spiteful, hateful lyrics. Now, Mr. William Joel had his problems with the ladies (Big Shot, You May Be Right, and the don't-go-changing whininess that is Just the Way You Are) but this song was the most extreme example of his discomfort with the "casual" killing ways of those childish people called women.

In the same era, both Black Sabbath (1970) and the Doobie Brothers (1973) released completely different songs called Evil Woman. Ringo Starr released a completely different Devil Woman in 1974 ("You're like the devil with horns in your head / The only way I'll get you is to get you in bed"). In the same year, Kevin Coyne recorded Witch whose lyrics just might have epitomized the trend. Also, in 1974 (most evil year for women ever?), Ricky Nelson released something called Evil Woman Child in which the soon-to-die-in-fiery-plane-crash former child star simply couldn't resist the lure of the lady: "Wicked lady, soft and shady girl, I'm all on fire / Sweet temptation got my soul and filled me with desire."

There are songs of this era that come close to making the list but aren't quite spiteful enough (Rich Girl by Hall and Oates; much of the Rolling Stones' output). Also, there are some older songs that fit the same pattern. From the '60's and earlier, there's Evil Ways by Santana, Devil with the Blue Dress by Mitch Ryder, Devil Got My Woman by Skip James, and a surprisingly high number of late 60s San Francisco-centered psychedelia.

But there haven't been many examples of this type of song recently. Now, there's always been plenty of misogyny in music - the occasional hip-hop song, that one song by The Prodigy, the bridge in Sublime's Summer Time, several passive-aggressive emo songs, and most Britpop hits circa 1994-1996. But that persistent image of woman-as-evil, woman-as-the-devil-who-has-brought-man-into-sin pretty much disappeared in the late seventies.

I'm not sure why it disappeared. I'm more curious about why it happened in the first place. Why, in the years roughly spanning from 1970 to 1976, were women seen as satanic evildoers that meant nothing but harm?

One theory is that it was all a reaction to the women's movement. Some male songwriters of this era were confused by the drive for equal rights for all. At the same time, the men saw a world (in the seventies) torn by dischord, rioting, Manson/Altamont/Watergate, and the rest. The ideals of the sixties had turned into something far darker. Someone had to take the blame and those newly-pining-for-equality females were a convenient target.

Another theory is that the "woman" in these songs is simply a substitute for drugs. Ostensibly, known freebaser Ricky Nelson couldn't sing of the "sweet temptation" of cocaine, so he substituted the phrase "evil woman child." But I think this explanation is more an exception than the rule.

Interestingly, following the era I speak about above, there was a meteoric rise in sappy sentimental songs praising woman as god-sent angels capable of only good. So, another question would be: what exactly changed in the middle of 1978, causing male American and British songwriters to suddenly place females on impossible-to-reach pedestals? Some examples:

You're In My Heart - Rod Stewart
Reached #4 in 1977
"My love for you is immeasurable, my respect for you immense / You’re ageless, timeless, lace and fineness, you're beauty and elegance."

This song is a mixed bag. Some of the lines are clearly written about his love for soccer/football. Others are written to reflect his admiration for hotel maids in particular. But enough lines are written about his general worshipful love for women that I'm including it here.

Wonderful Tonight
- Eric Clapton
Reached #16 in 1978
"I feel wonderful because I see the love light in your eyes."

Clearly the worst song ever written (really - this is the same guy who did Layla?), I have nothing to add here; rely on your own memories for the pedestal on which Eric put Woman.

- John Lennon
Reached #1 in 1981

I will not speak ill of the dead. I will not speak ill of the tragically murdered. I will not speak flippantly of how truly awful this song is. Moving on...

Lady In Red
- Chris DeBurgh
Reached #3 in 1986
"I've never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight."

Yes it comes far later than the others but it bears special mention for its over-the-topness.

Finally, the exception to the rule from the later years is Maneater by Hall and Oates, which reached #1 in the U.S. in 1983: "She's deadly man, she could really rip your world apart / Mind over matter / Ooh the beauty is there but a beast is in her heart." But H&O are trendsetters, not trend followers. They exist in a separate plane of being. Besides, my guess is that Hall wrote the song back in 1975 but Oates held the song back from seeing the light of day. Oates believed that the duo should project a more positive, sunny, flowery vibe to the public (see <----). By '83, the bills for the drugs and the hair transplants got too high so they finally released Maneater. And yes that was all an excuse for me to post the Oates picture.


Anonymous said...

'[I] had a rough night, and I hate the f***ing Eagles, man'

The Dude knows

Chris W. said...

Not just songs, either. The novel The Exorcist, featuring a demonically possessed girl, came out in 1971, and the movie version came out in '73. Stephen King's Carrie came out in '74, with a film version in '76. It would be interesting to know what started it.

Although ultimately, I suppose it started with the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, where the woman got all the blame for "original sin".

Anonymous said...

Or it's just men expressing their feelings about being hurt by a woman. I bet there is more than one man in the world that hooked up with a woman who had issues.

Anonymous said...

ELO's "evil woman" is a song about a man ending his relationship with an uncaring partner that took advantage of him emotionally. I don't reckon that's particularly misogynistic