By RJ Thomson
Feminism often finds its greatest expression in music. I state this often overlooked truth to open the first of a series of occasional posts about ‘classic’ women’s pop songs, written for the Mohini Myth blog. Most of the songs will be songs I love, the rest will be songs I find remarkable for some other reason.
There is no plan for the survey, other than to suggest interesting interpretations of songs, that might make you hear these songs freshly, hopefully want to listen to them again, or maybe even give you interesting thoughts about other things besides music. For sure, these posts will take it as a given that pop songs – as everything else – are part of a connected universal system that is open to our consideration in part and as a whole.
The feminist position that emerges through this process is unlikely to be made explicit too often. What can be said from the outset is that this ongoing evaluation of the position of classic pop songs sung by women will take it as a given that they exist as part of the wider system of politics, social norms, music-making and culture in general. This position in itself has a feminist dimension, not least because most misogynist arguments involve, on some level, a refusal to see, and to take responsibility for, the way in which things connect.
I will be taking a somewhat scholarly tone, offering the kind of analysis that would never really be possible from a first listen. I flag this up now partly as a warning, and partly to note that this represents no less passionate a response from me the writer: it’s just that I happen to have chosen songs you can listen to again and again and again.
Thanks for reading!
You Got the Love, The Source featuring Candi Staton (Eren’s Bootleg mix / original mix, 1991)
Intro… three high-pitched bleeps cascade in quick sequence like some science fiction computing code, rising and falling surrounded by stark silence. The tone is soft enough to make you want to hear more, but their repetition, ascending and descending, goes on for long-enough that you might just start to recall an emergency alert. Has something gone wrong?
Then the bassline comes in, low as a cold floor and indisputably ‘mean’. Before you notice how irresistibly exciting it is (oh yes, the appeal of ‘the dark’ is a key part of You Got the Love’s magic…) you clock the extreme contrast between these sonic opposites: this will be a track of extreme highs and lows, for sure.
But before the bass hook has repeated even once, Candi’s vocal comes in. We’ll come back to a consideration of THAT voice, and simply note for now that the lyrics confirm the atmosphere of the introduction:
There again are those extremes of low and high, of desperation and exaltation, stability and abandon.
To hammer the increasingly evident point still further (I can go on like this for hours): what this track gets so right is the balance of opposing elements. Credit must go to producer John Truelove of ‘The Source’ for his instincts on this, not least because these oppositions exist in both the content and the form of the song. There’s the machine sounds of the backing track and the maximum soul of the vocal; there’s the repetition of sonic effects set alongside a grasp for transcendence; the sections that have been wholly sampled from other tracks (the shoulders of giants) and the deeply personal (yet universal) quality of the lyrics. History and future. The infinite and the individual. Personal suffering. And one hell of a party.
At the centre of all this is Candi herself. The vocal is a simultaneous plea and celebration, sung in traditional gospel soul mode by a woman blessed with a sweet yet powerful voice, who suffered greatly (to a large extent at the hand of her husband) and found strength in a strong faith in a Christian god. But where in the actual original version (it was a minor release for Staton in the 80s) this message dominated, it takes on new possibilities in the sparse landscape of the Source’s electronic setting: it could be a straight love song; it could (like so many classics of the rave era) be a paean to the drug ecstasy, or simply to the sustaining power of music.
More than anything, it is the contrast between Candi’s personal pain – so evident throughout despite the euphoria – and the machine-like backing, that makes this a feminist as well as just a woman’s song. Not only is there loneliness, but there is a sense of desperation in the face of the implacable, a system, something repetitive and not un-threatening. To be quite clear, there is nothing explicit in this meaning; my interpretation is intentionally loose. But You Got the Love presents a sense of a woman’s oppression that feels acute and true.
Typically for a great song, the whole is greater than the parts that make it up. There might be a sweet voice, a rock solid beat and a collection of memorable hooks, but it’s the combination of perfect poise (of the musical elements) with intriguing ambiguity (of its meaning) that make it three and a half minutes of genius.
Some pop songs aren’t worth writing a word about. Some are worth exploring for years. You Got the Love combines impeccable, timeless balance of its electronic elements with a deep human pain and a euphoric human hope. Pulled together right at the end of popular music’s most creative period (dating back to the 50s, ending in the early 90s), and as part of one of the last truly original phases of that period (rave), this record is almost certainly the greatest pop song of all time.
Another way to look at it (why not?). If a committee of William Blake, John Coltrane and Kathy Acker were asked to imagine the magical music of the future (for a Bill and Ted movie, say), this is what it would sound like. And there’d be dancing in the street.
* The first thing to establish is the version of the song you’re listening to: there have been a number of different releases of the track. The first thing you hear should be a repeating high-pitched ‘beep beep beep’ sound (you’ll know it when you hear it). This 1991 version (here is my preferred link – there are other versions even of this ‘version’ though!) was originally called ‘Eren’s Bootleg mix’, though is now often inaccurately referred to as the ‘original mix’. Nothing makes a nerd angry more than false labelling…
† A note on other versions; they’re not ALL bad. There are in fact three separate recordings all made by producer John Truelove – ‘The Source’. The first remix he put together (1986) is fun if a little cluttered. Then there is the 1991 version being discussed in this post. If you’re listening to a version with synths like strings behind the vocal, you’ve got a later 1997 edit (also by Truelove, having changed his alias to ‘Now Voyager’). With none of the precision I’m here to celebrate, it is a merely passable remix that, given the strength of the ‘source’ material, can only be said to be underwhelming. It was, appropriately enough, used to end the last episode of the TV series Sex and the City. Alternatively, the major recent hit for Florence and the Machine is a strong cover version:
the ever-so white Florence gives a touch of tenderness to the lung-tastic vocal part, and her producer Charlie Hugall has the sense to realise that this power, combined with his wall-of-sound backing, would be claustrophobic to the point of overwhelming, unless he makes the whole thing sound at least a little bit far away– a metaphorical trick that’s equally fitting to the subject of the lyrics.
RJ Thomson is a writer and arts producer based in Edinburgh.
Image credits: Amazon, EIL, allmusic.com, COLS Decals