I watched the second part of this BBC documentary on catch-up last night, having foolishly missed the first part (although I’ve managed to catch some of that on YouTube). The first part had ended with Siouxsie Sioux and Kate Bush, showing how a new independent spirit and refusal to comply with prescribed roles had informed women in music, after years of being the passive vehicles of ruthless, controlling Svengalis. Part Two continued that thread with Annie Lennox and Alison Moyet.
The section on Lennox was particularly interesting as it reminded viewers of her experimentations with gender roles, from the shaved redhead of the early Eurythmics videos, through to her Elvis at the 1992 Grammys. Nevertheless, you felt the documentary missed a trick: after all, Lennox was continuing the tradition of androgyny that Bowie had begun a decade earlier; and furthermore there was no comparison with Grace Jones’s contemporaneous efforts. Indeed, the Annie-kissing-Annie scene in the video for Who’s That Girl is, as an idea, a direct steal from Jones’s My Jamaican Guy, in which Grace likewise plays herself as a man kissing herself as a woman. There were however bonus points for ignoring most of the Eurythmics’ bland, uninspired post-1984 output – save that is for the delightfully weird, and very rarely heard, 1987 single Beethoven (I Love To Listen To). Meanwhile, the section on Alison Moyet was a reminder of probably one of the most underrated artists in this country. With Yazoo, she like Lennox, used her powerful, soulful voice as a humanising counterpoint to the icy synths – subsequently, she fought to keep her individuality, a struggle compounded by the depressing media focus on her body.
Having concentrated on empowered, individual women, the documentary then suggested a reversion of the trend by moving on to Kylie. Yes, Kylie, an Australian – but as if to silence any dissent, Pete Waterman shouted (Pete Waterman hardly ever just talks) that she was
“more British than Australian”. Kylie’s attempts to break free from the sexless shackles of the Hit Factory and present herself as a sexual, sensual being were derided by Waterman (ever the champion of feminism) for making her look “like a prostitute”. Meanwhile, her indie phase of the mid-nineties (represented here by Confide in Me and Where the Wild Roses Grow) was treated as some sort of blip, a lapse in judgement rectified with her (literally) half-arsed Spinning Around video. Granted, it’s true that that single and the monumental sequel, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, rescued Kylie from several years of poor sales and elevated her to national treasure status. Yet it also felt as though a documentary that had, ten minutes ago, been celebrating independent spirit, had now done a complete U-turn and was criticising her for daring to do what she wanted, rather than just being a disco diva all along.
Quite what Geri Halliwell was doing there, I’m not sure. We were supposed to swallow the notion that it was Halliwell, not Simon Fuller, who was the “brains” behind the whole Girl Power phenomenon spearheaded by the Spice Girls, although archive clips merely served to expose once more the idiocy of the concept. Pushing your face in the camera, throwing yourself all over men and shouting a lot isn’t liberating. It’s just demeaning, for everyone involved. Trying to suggest that the Spice Girls were “punk”, as though putting them on a par with Siouxsie, was just insulting. Siouxsie just needed a look of sneering disdain to get the upper hand on the drunken, lecherous Bill Grundy. And, like Kylie, Geri was criticised for turning her back on the image that made her big in the first place, although given her subsequent train-wreck of a career, there was perhaps some justification in this instance.
The section on Amy Winehouse was poignant, inasmuch as it featured clips from a few years ago of a younger, clean, lucid and articulate Winehouse, back then a highly promising new talent rather than the messed-up tabloid staple she’s subsequently become. Winehouse’s subsequent relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil has done nothing for her health; but on the other hand, if it hadn’t happened then we wouldn’t have got one of the best albums of the decade. The notion of a woman suffering for her art made it feel like things were moving back, back to Marianne, back to Dusty – and then the final piece really did bring the documentary full circle. By ending with Leona Lewis, Queens of British Pop demonstrated that, despite the push for equality instigated by punk, the situation now is really no different from nearly half-a-century ago: Britain’s biggest female pop star is the passive vehicle of a ruthless, controlling Svengali. But whilst Sandie, Dusty and Marianne (and Kylie) all eventually broke free and went on to feted indie collaborations, it’s hard to see either Leona or her Mini-Me Alexandra Burke being allowed to do the same. Better instead would have been some mention of today’s British alt-queens and inheritors of the Kate/Siouxsie mantle: Alison Goldfrapp, Natasha Khan (aka Bat For Lashes) or MIA. They might not shift as many units as those carried along on the Cowell juggernaut, but I suspect they’ll still be around when the wheels finally come off.
Another negative point to make about the documentary was the quality of the talking heads. At the start of this episode, we had the likes of Marc Almond and Dawn French discussing gender politics and the music industry; by the end, things had regressed to Simon Cowell and Nicky Chapman regurgitating their corrosive lies about the democratising power of programmes like The X-Factor (which, like all free-market enterprises, ultimately serves to further the monopoly of one particular entity). Overall though, as a whistle-stop tour of women in pop over the last 50 years it was interesting. But now we’ve had the primer, it would be nice to have a proper series with, say, a whole hour devoted to one artist at a time. Our attention spans can still withstand those demands, you know.