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You Exhibitionist!: PJ Harvey's "Sheela Na Gig" 15 Years Later [Part I]

12 June 2007

I can hardly wait to check out my friend KATE SCHATZ’s forthcoming (33 1/3) book on PJ HARVEY, which focuses on the importance of Harvey’s second album, the STEVE ALBINI produced, Rid Of Me. I was surprised to learn that it was that album which introduced and turned her on to Harvey, because I had always assumed that “Sheela-Na-Gig,” was a bigger hit Stateside than it really was. That song was the galvanizing moment for me, and revisiting it 15 years later, I still feel the freshness and power that I would find to be all too easy to lament the lack of in the most celebrated pop, rock or ‘alternative’ musicians (either male or female) today. Rather than lament, perhaps a little ‘revisionist history’ would be in order—for in contrast to just about every white act to burst on the scene during what THURSTON MOORE once referred to as “the year punk broke,” PJ Harvey has survived the large scale crash of that hope for a wider cultural opening (both musically and politically).

Historical Arguments

It’s been well documented how in 1991-1992, many who had given up hope on mainstream mass-cultural music media were drawn back into the fold by the sonic power and soulful force of NIRVANA’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Harvey, who had just released her first EP (of songs that would later appear on her debut LP, 1992’s Dry), virtually simultaneously with Nevermind, no doubt felt some of that excitement as well. But while many male ‘hair bands’ were trading in their dry-ice machines for flannel, and raping KURT COBAIN’s grunge riffs in an attempt to milk the cash cow of old sounds suddenly sanctioned, however reluctantly, by Top 40 DJ CASEY KASEM and his ilk, and seemed to write and present themselves from a formula (OFFSPRING’s “Self-Esteem,” to name but one example), which helped precipitate the barrenness of the ‘modern rock’ song & style within a few years, with “Sheela-Na-Gig,” Harvey did much more than ride the same wave as Cobain had; she turned it into a tsunami. The sonic similarities Harvey’s song shares with Cobain’s ultimately raised the ante for ‘grunge’ or ‘alternative’ in the best spirit of competitive co-operation—for “Sheela Na Gig” is simultaneously more complex (in both musical structure and lyrical content), more raw, and presents a stronger personality than “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (analogies are of limited value, but if “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is analogous to “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Sheela Na Gig” is more like THE KINKS’s “You Really Got Me” while PEARL JAM and the others would be more like THE DAVE CLARK FIVE or HERMAN’S HERMITS).

Another historical argument, perhaps the more common one, that’s put forth by those who discuss Harvey’s cultural significance, is to lump her in with the ‘women in rock movement’ that was palpably felt, and increasingly hyped, during the early-to-mid 1990s. While it would be absurd to write about “Sheela-Na-Gig,” or Harvey’s later achievements, without bringing up gender (as well as sex), the association of Harvey with the likes of LIZ PHAIR and COURTNEY LOVE’s HOLE , and other women-led acts who emerged around that time has presented as many problems as ignoring the gender difference that distinguishes Harvey not only from Cobain, but from most iconic rock stars throughout the history of this male-dominated industry.

Harvey’s brilliant and passionate artistic achievement and self-presentation (the two are practically indistinguishable), from “Sheela-Na-Gig,” onward, still present fascinating challenges for those who wish to respond to her, whether as a critic, audience or a musician, whether male or female. It’s one thing to try to come to terms with how male critics have responded to her—for instance, in 1993, ROBERT CHRISTGAU wrote in Playboy that “She wants that cock… But when she gets pissed off… she thinks it would be simpler just to posit or grow or strap on or cut off a cock of her own…”—but perhaps an even more profound question is to ask how male musicians responded to her. Very few male musicians dare claim that Harvey’s music has been an influence on their songs, and if they claim it, the music hardly provides an adequate response. As for that slippery word ‘influence,’ Harvey is conveniently more often compared to ‘precursors’ PATTI SMITH or CHRISSIE HYNDE than she is to, say, MICK JAGGER or IGGY POP, or other men who were at least as important for her as she developed her style, but even though Harvey convincingly covered BOB DYLAN’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” for instance, I don’t expect a male to pull off a convincing cover version of “Sheela-Na-Gig” anytime soon.

This isn’t necessarily because every male musician is trying to sweep “Sheela-Na-Gig,” under the rug, or erase it from history, deny its status as a classic. The song humbles and inspires me, and makes me feel I can’t respond to it (say with an ‘answer song’) until I try to make some sense of why it’s so powerful in analytical (and hopefully not too tedious) prose. Maybe the fact that very few celebrated male artists since “Sheela-Na-Gig” have dared to explore their misogyny or gynophobia with as much sincerity and passion, as such previous musicians from Dylan, JOHN LENNON, LEONARD COHEN, LOU REED, VIOLENT FEMMES, GORDON GANO, early ELVIS COSTELLO, JOE JACKSON and GRAHAM PARKER (perhaps BILL CALLAHAN comes close, or to a lesser extent CONOR OBERST or WILL OLDHAM) attest to the ‘lesson’ learned from Harvey (or the prominence of other women in rock from this period).

I certainly don’t want to claim that the truest lesson to be learned from “Sheela-Na-Gig,” is that male musicians should feel freer to express more misogynistic attitudes in their songs, but I’m reminded of a poetry reading by celebrated feminist poet and cultural critic ADRIENNE RICH I attended shortly after the death of ROBERT CREELEY. Rich, who like Creeley, first began publishing books in the 1950s, read one of Creeley’s early poems which some have taken as misogynistic, and went on to lament how so few younger male poets today are willing to take that risk, adding that that was not what she, or other female (or even feminist) poets were hoping to achieve as they struggled to be heard, to be read, to be published, in the (at the time) male-dominated literary industry. A similar ‘sensitive’ or ‘politically correct’ fear of being perceived as sexist has similarly served the function of creating a more superficial male music (even in the ‘indie’ and ‘alternative’ subgenres).

Perhaps RADIOHEAD’s “Creep,” could be seen, in historical terms, as the most paradigmatic response a male could utter to the challenge “Sheela-Na-Gig” posed to male musicians. The rise of shoegaze, and emo, with inward-turning (often self-loathing) lyrics now muttered, now buried beneath layers of sonic overproduction, of bands called MODEST MOUSE (to go, of course, with CAT POWER) in historical terms, be a response to Harvey. Other possible responses include the number of all-male bands in the last 15 years with names that could lead one to believe they are female acts (from GIRLS AGAINST BOYS to BARENAKED LADIES to name but two). Both such responses refuse, or shy away, from the complexities of intimacy just as the male in “Sheela-Na-Gig” does. If rock critic MANJUA MARTIN is right, that men even “feared [Liz] Phair’s self-assuredness” as well as eroticized it, then this fear may very well have been amplified when encountering the even more self-assured, more in your-face “cathartic and obscure” PJ Harvey.

While the verdicts are, thankfully, still not in on Harvey from women critics or writers either, Courtney Love’s defense of Harvey is still worth considering. “A good song’s a good song. That’s [sic] my politics. Please don’t slice PJ in half—her assimilationist compromise has done more for us than 30 Grrrls banging on a pot and spoon. I’m not trying to hurt other women. I’m just pissed that they pick on PJ” (from LUCY O’BRIEN,’s 1995 book She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop, and Soul). Though Love means to defend Harvey, the phrase “assimilationist compromise” still has some negative connotations, and is certainly not what I hear in “Sheena-Na-Gig.” Harvey herself, when asked about the Riot Grrrls, commented. “I saw HUGGY BEAR once and they were inviting people to have debates about feminism between every song. I just thought, ‘What is all this fuss about?’ Why are we trying to separate men and women so much? We’re pretty much the same really. I feel very similar to a lot of men—I don’t feel particularly different to them. What’s the problem?”

Personally, I do feel the contemporary local music scenes that we have in 2007 (to say nothing of the mass-cultural music industry) could definitely benefit from more debates about feminism, or politics, or spirituality, etc., that more interactive verbal performance art could potentially help further a more all-encompassing visceral experience, in which what one has to say matters as much as how cool one’s music sounds, or how one looks, which is all too common today, but it’s not necessary once one has created art as intensely profound (and rare) as “Sheela-Na-Gig.” Harvey’s song also invites people to debate; we could even debate whether the song itself is itself making a fuss of cultural significance, or whether “it’s only rock and roll but I like it.” “Sheela Na Gig” ends up speaking from a place that is both “similar to a lot of men” but simultaneously radically different. This is not a “compromise” (whether called “assimilationalist” or “androgynous”) as much as it’s a profound awareness of the primal paradox of gender difference and sameness (unless one just wishes to criticizes Harvey for not being a lesbian). Regardless of whether one calls PJ Harvey a “feminist,” Harvey’s song goes beyond the central battle cry of 1970s’ feminism (“the personal is the political”); in “Sheela-Na-Gig,” the personal is the political is the religious… oh yeah, and it rocks.

Parts II and III to follow


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