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

5 February 2008

Continued from Part I

When I first heard “Sheela-Na-Gig,” I had never heard that phrase before, or never knew what it was referring or alluding to. It took a few listens before I even knew it was the title of the song. When I discovered it, my first reaction was “oh it’s probably an extension of the noble tradition of nonsense-titles, that were more common in the early days of rock and roll, and ‘girl groups,’ like “Da Do Run Run” or “The Shoop Shoop Song” (though a lot of guys did them too).” And even when I was told that “Sheela Na Gig,” was a pagan (debatably Celtic) ‘goddess of opening’ with an exposed vulva, and that therefore PJ HARVEY’s song has more esoteric and mythic importance than I first thought, it was more a pleasing curiosity that didn’t necessarily enhance, or legitimize, the experience and intensity of the song itself. The song was already more intense than any class in feminism or non-western religions I took (and way better than “I Am a Rock”).

So, even with this knowledge of the ‘deeper’ meaning of “Sheela-Na-Gig,” my original feeling that it was a nonsense phrase was not proven wrong by this new knowledge. Rather, I felt PJ Harvey was equally alluding to the tradition of, say, Brill Building music and Goddess mythology, ‘low’ and ‘high,’ ‘light’ and ‘seriousness,’ and, in effect, going at least as far (and probably further) than fulfilling the prophecy of the ‘rebirth of wonder’ LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI could only wait for, in his mid-1950s hope for “Elvis Presley and Billy Graham to exchange roles seriously.”

By 1992, the 40-year-old debate over rock and roll being “the devil’s music” had largely become directed against rap music (though JELLO BIAFRA, American Punk’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other leftist bands were also subject to the censorious policies of TIPPER GORE’s PMRC in the 1980s, Gore was a little more quiet about it now as her husband was trying to reinvent himself in his run for the vice-presidency). Organizations like the PMRC were too busy going after albums like 2 LIVE CREW’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be, feminist organizations were targeting country singer HOLLY DUNN’s “When I say no, I mean maybe; when I say maybe I mean yes,” and FRANK SINATRA (among others) were still in uproar about SINEAD O’CONNOR ripping a picture of the Pope, while Madonna was dancing in front of crucifixes. There were no seeming groundswell of burning BEATLES’ album covers in the south, and there wasn’t much talk of censoring PJ Harvey. But, ay, there’s the rub! There wasn’t much talk of censoring PJ Harvey: isn’t that itself a form a censorship?

Oh, I didn’t think so at the time, because I discovered the song through a “commercial alternative” radio station. It wasn’t college radio; alternative music had arrived, at least it seemed so at the time, and I didn’t have any problem finding the album in a mainstream record store. And, whatever some of my late 1980s ‘underground’ friends were saying about co-opting and watering down of the art due to the crossover success, “Sheela-Na-Gig” didn’t seem any less powerful than any of the female or male ‘underground’ artists we liked; was it pop or was it punk? I didn’t care, it was both; it transcended, or was more primal than, that reductive distinction anyway.

I guess there’s not much of a point in claiming that “Sheela Na Gig” was a victim of market censorship and that it should’ve been a bigger “hit” than it was, and that there’s a conspiracy (of beards) that was even more afraid of this song than the songs it said it was afraid of on national TV (which just lead more people to buy them)—because this song did turn a lot of people onto her (either regardless of the hype, or because the hype was in the song). Yet the song itself is about censorship, among other things, and heroically embodies a cathartic overcoming of self-censorship, as Harvey goes to an extreme to turn herself inside out and find a creative opening.

Can We Talk About the Song?

Even though I know that the words can never be entirely abstracted from the voice, and the music that is no mere accompaniment, I’m into the currently unfashionable art form of close readings of a song’s lyrical achievement, especially when the words have as much force as P.J. Harvey’s do. Yes, the first sounds in the song are a swampy-bluesy (double-tracked?) guitar hook, but the first words, once the guitar fades into the background to make way for the song’s vocal thesis, are:

I’ve been trying to show you over and over

On a purely personal level, the “I” is a young woman in her early twenties during the early 1990s. JONI MITCHELL or LAURA NYRO didn’t sonically come out of the gates that way; where CHRISSIE HYNDE’s ‘come-on’ began with the less direct, intimate, though not necessarily more confident, “I got brass in pocket,” Harvey’s careful choice of the word ‘trying’ gets the courtroom drama going in which the defendant (who is Harvey as well as “Sheela Na Gig” herself) could very well be held in contempt for being at least as sexy as the “wardrobe malfunction” commercial (which aired during the 2005 Superbowl).

Now her voice, which in its half-talky-bluesy intimacy, was breathy, seductive, low, and even wet sounding, changes into a lilting high-tone, more similar to KATE BUSH (if not NINA HAGEN). It’s much higher, and dryer, yet manages to avoid being too cloyingly sing-songy, in part because of the band’s rhythmic pick-up, a plunking of chords that could recall “Dancing Barefoot,” and in part because the words are so (disarmingly?) direct:

Look at these, my child-bearing hips
Look at these, my ruby red ruby lips
Look at these, my work-strong arms
You got to see my bottleful of charms
I lay it all at your feet

Singing these phrases, both ‘high’ and ‘low,’ helps balance the song aesthetically and emotionally. Just like Elvis, Harvey starts with the hips. Only then does she move to the lips. A close-up of these lips also appear as the cover image of Dry, the album on which “Sheela-Na-Gig,” first appeared (though they could also be the other ‘lips’). The “work-strong arms,” like the “child-bearing hips,” utilize Beowulf-like kennings to emphasize that the speaker’s desire is not merely ‘sexual’ in a narrow sense, but equally the desire of a working-class gal, a laborer to be used and collaborated with.

The phrase “bottleful of charms” (in which Harvey’s Eliza Doolittle-like accent comes through, as it does when she sings “body bag” in another song) rounds out her quasi-cubist self-cataloguing. The absence of ‘breasts’ in Harvey’s self-mapping may be an implicit rebuke to the ‘breast-centric’ culture, but Harvey’s clearly not singing ‘don’t look at my chest,’ either (it depends how high she wears her guitar). Her mapping of herself not only ‘takes back’ the usurping male lyrical praise conventions, but also challenges the strictly sexualized female body, by slipping at ease between sexual and non-sexual ‘readings.’ As this verse of the song is never repeated (and may structurally be even called an extended intro), it becomes clearer that “Sheela-Na-Gig” is not a strip-tease. If anything, it’s the opposite of a striptease as the song builds to its close that is also its clothes:

You turn around and say, back to me
He said Sheela-Na-Gig, Sheela-Na-Gig. You Exhibitionist!
Sheela-Na-Gig, Sheela-Na-Gig. You Exhibitionist!

As if a stripper got on stage fully naked and there was a mad-rush of men to clothe her, the full “grunge” band (Harvey and her male rhythm section) kicks in exactly as the lyric quotes the male’s response to her playfully putting herself on trial, of being subjected to the male gaze (if not what EXENE CERVENKA would call “the once-over twice”). The music and words explicate each other perfectly here as Harvey dramatizes the confrontation with the censorious male. The listener may not be aware of the meaning of “Sheela-Na-Gig” yet (it may even recall, say, Tommy Roe’s Buddy-Holly-like “Sheila,” “her name drives me insane”), but we certainly understand the word “exhibitionist,” which is snarled more clearly and embodies more of the song’s cathartic ‘pay-off.’

The anger and pain, yet at the same time non-judgmental force, with which she pronounces the word, “ExhiBITIonst,” as if it’s the ultimate put-down, thwarting, or curse word a male could utter, cuts to the core of gender antagonism as deeply as any other song in the history of recorded music. The song may still seem ‘merely personal,’ in the realm of the ‘love-lorn,’ or rejection song, yet Harvey subtly changes the form of address, as the male “you” has now become a mere “he” in this chorus (one could cite MARTIN BUBERif one wanted to). This doesn’t make the song any less personal, but shows how Harvey is working within, and extending, a blues tradition in which songs ostensibly about erotic rejection also can have political (and even religious) significance (for instance, when Muddy Waters sings, “I don’t want to be your slave” in the Willie Dixon-penned “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” the song takes on an added significance once we realize that Waters was the son of the son of a slave).

In Harvey’s “Sheela-Na-Gig,” the connotations of the word “exhibitionist” become more obscene than any rapper’s use of the word “hoe” or “skeezer” (see BELL HOOK’s 1994 essay, Sexism & Misogyny: Who Takes the Rap? for a brilliant critique of the white media’s attempts to single out hip-hop as especially misogynistic), and certainly comes closer to the root of the issue than any Tipper Gore PMRC attempt to crack down on ‘offensive’ words.

She dramatizes the sting of “exhiBITionist” (more ‘bish’ than ‘bitch’ but close), and this could give the word a more positive connotation (in a way similar to MILES DAVIS’ turn on JACK JOHNSON’s “I’m black, they never let me forget it; I’m black alright; I’ll never let them forget it.”), or at the very least neutralize its sting. Harvey is not censoring this male at all; she’s not even asking him not to censor (or censure) her; she’s just outta here!

The Academic Debate over the Historical “Sheelagh na Gig”

If brief summaries of academic debates into the cultural history of the phrase “sheela na-gig” don’t interest you, feel free to skip to the next section.

JAMES JERMAN and ANTHONY WEIR, in their book Images of Lust, claim that the carvings now generally called “Sheela-Na-Gigs” first appeared in the Catholicized nations of France and Spain in the 11th Century. The geographical origin they, along with EAMON KELLY and others, hypothesize, is used to support their interpretation that these female figures were used to represent female lust as both hideous and sinfully corrupting. Their theories are based on a spurious aesthetic assumption that the carvings were intended to look ‘hideous,’ which is debatable at best. Nor is there any absolute proof to support the assumption that their location on churches must necessarily be read as supporting a Christian world view in which female desire or exhibitionism is deemed sinful.

For all their research, Jerman and Weir rely too unquestioningly on the historical fallacy that the past was less complex, more monolithic, than the present. Perhaps this latter fallacy is unavoidable if one wants takes any kind of historical approach (ANNE CARSON’s Eros: The Bittersweeet also fails to avoid it), but it does raise the question: Do the propagandistic implications arise from the research or is the research used to support a pre-existing agenda or hunch about human nature? How much persuasive weight should be given to the notion of historical origins?

Even if the original intent can be proven, which in the case of the Sheela-na-Gigs is as impossible to determine as the veracity of Biblical or ‘scientific’ myths of ‘creation’ and ‘fall,’ the description can all too easily take on a normative function. Such feminist or matriarchal ‘rewrites’ of these patriarchal myths (which are very likely ‘rewrites’ themselves) show that there’s always been more than one side to the story. It may be equally impossible to prove JOANNE MCMAHON and JACK ROBERTS’s argument that ‘the carvings are remnants of pre-Christian (Celtic) fertility or Mother Goddess religion” or that the carvings have other functions such as helping women overcome their fear of aging (since the figures are often represented as old, as ‘hags’ in a non-pejorative sense), or even helping both women and men confront their fear of the naked female body, but the claim that such theories are thereby less legitimate in discussing culture wars, either in contemporary society or in 11th Century Europe, is irresponsible to say the least.

Harvey dramatizes this debate in the song with much more verbal economy and even a ‘negative capability’ that presents both sides of this centuries-old argument—for while she clearly speaks as a woman and implicitly challenges the men who would call her ‘hideous and sinful,’ in a way her song could be used to support Jerman and Weir’s claim of the original historical intent of the carvings and the negative baggage that became associated with the phrase “Sheela Na Gig.” Yet Harvey has better things to do than merely debate whether men, or women, started this gender battle. In the song the man starts it, by calling her “Sheela Na Gig” as a swear-word, and that’s ultimately the truer history, as Harvey, like any mythmaker or folksinger, knows that one cannot totally identify with an icon (whether Sheela Na Gig or The Christ) without starting from the self.