Friday, February 12, 2010

Music: Damned Whores and God's Police / Devil Woman

There has been discussion over the last few years as to the depiction of women in video clips on shows such as Rage, Video Hits and MTV. The criticism is that women are portrayed merely as sex objects belonging to males, or as slutty, and that the images presented are unsuitable for impressionable young females going through formative years. This is especially so in that the young people are watching such shows at increasingly younger ages. Most of Saturday morning free to air programming is taken up with music video shows.

It is not my intention today to enter into that debate. Everyone will have their fixed views on the topic and, as Frank Zappa once said, people will agree with you if they already agree with you, you don’t change people’s minds.

What is interesting is how the depiction of women in popular music has changed. (Or has it? There may be arguments that women are still depicted the same way although appearing superficially to be different).

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, references to women in popular music typified the attitude referred to by Anne Summers as “Damned Whores and God’s Police.” Summers, in her 1975 book by that name, examined the colonisation of women in Australia. It is her thesis that the Judeo-Christian notion that all women could be considered wholly good or wholly evil came to Australia with the First Fleet. However, because of the preponderance of convict women in Australia for the first 50 years, nearly all the women were categorised as whores (“damned whores” as Lieutenant Clark referred to them). Female convicts who obtained their freedom remained so categorised, they did not alter status to the women who were considered pure and virtuous, the God’s police. Wives of the soldiers fell into the latter category.  Summers maintains that these attitudes and imbalance underlies the role of women in Australia to the present, hence the need for activism.
(I recall one writer suggesting that because Lindy Chamberlain failed to cry on national television when Azaria disappeared, and because she presented a strong presence, the public felt that she couldn’t be one of God’s police, which meant that she must by default be in the damned whore category, hence the willingness of the public at the time to condemn her).

The attitude that women fall into either the category of damned whores or God’s police is manifest in much wider society and outlooks than just in Australian history. Popular music of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was particularly fond of portraying women as either saintly or evil.

Examples of damned whores:

Runaround Sue by Dion in 1961:

Here's my story, its sad but true
It's about a girl that I once knew
She took my love then ran around
With every single guy in town.

The 1961 trifecta by Del Shannon with Runaway, So Long Baby and Hats off to Larry:

Hats off to Larry
He broke your heart
Just like you broke mine when you
Said we must part
He told you lies
Now its your turn to cry, cry, cry
Now that Larry said good bye to you

24 Hours from Tulsa in 1963 by Gene Pitney (which features both damned whore, the woman who steals him, and God's police, the girl who is waiting for him):

Oh the jukebox started to play
and nightime turned into day as we were dancing closely
all of a sudden I lost control as I held her charms
and I caressed her, kissed her
told her I'd die before I let her out of my arms
Oh I was only 24 hours from Tulsa
ah only one day away from your arms
I hate to do this to you
but I love somebody new
what can I do
and I can never never never go home again

And others:

I’m Sorry by Brenda Lee
Cathy’s Clown by the Everly Brothers
Are You Lonesome Tonight by Elvis

Examples of God’s police:

I Can’t Stop Loving You by Ray Charles, 1962:

I can't stop loving you
I've made up my mind
To live in memory of the lonesome times
I can't stop wanting you
It's useless to say
So I'll just live my life in dreams of yesterday
Dreams of yesterday
Those happy hours that we once knew
Tho' long ago, they still make me blue
They say that time heals a broken heart
But time has stood still since we've been apart

Kisses Sweeter Than Wine by Jimmie Rodgers in 1957:

Well I asked her to marry and to be my sweet wife
I told her we'd be so happy for the rest of our life
I begged and I pleaded like a natural man
And then, whoops oh lordy, well she gave me her hand
Because she had kisses sweeter than wine
She had, mmm, mmm, kisses sweeter than wine

And others:

Tell Laura I Love Her by Ray Peterson/Ricky Valance
Venus in Blue Jeans by Jimmy Clanton
Oh, Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison
Sheila by Tommy Roe
The most extreme example of the Damned Whores/God’s Police concept in popular music would have to be Devil Woman by Marty Robbins (1955).


I told Mary about us I told her about our great sin
Mary cried and forgave me and Mary took me back again
Said if I wanted my freedom I could be free evermore
But I don't wanna be and I don't wanna see Mary cry anymore

Oh devil woman devil woman let go of me
Devil woman let me be and leave me alone I wanna go home

Mary is waitin' and weepin' down in our shack by the sea
Even after I've hurt her Mary's still in love with me
Devil woman it's over trapped no more by your charms
'Cause I don't wanna stay I wanna get away woman let go of my arm

Oh devil woman devil woman let go of me...

Devil woman you're evil like the dark coral reef
Like the winds that bring high tides you bring sorrow and grief
You made me ashamed to face Mary I barely had the strength to tell
Skies're not so black Mary took me back Mary has broken your spell

Oh devil woman devil woman let go of me...

Running along by the seashore running as fast as I can
Even the seagulls are happy glad I'm coming home again
Never again will I ever cause another tear to fall
Down the beach I see what belongs to me the one I want most of all

Oh devil woman devil woman don't follow me
Devil woman let me be and leave me alone I'm going back home

Some points to note from the lyrics:

- The fault lies not with the male singer but with the “Devil Woman” who has entranced him.

- His partner is willing to forgive him and take him back, apparently repeatedly.

- His partner is called... Mary.  How much God's Police can that be?

- He wants to be free of Devil Woman, not because he loves Mar, but because he doesn’t want to see Mary cry any more.

- Although he says that he wants Mary, and says that despite his “great sin”, presumably unfaithfulness, there is nothing said about him loving Mary.  Love doesn't seem to enter into it.

- He says that “never again will he cause another tear to fall.”  Assurances that cheating / drinking / gambling / abuse / violence etc (pick one or more) will not happen again are as common andr prolific as Tiger Woods girlfriends.

- “Down the beach I see what belongs to me…” And what "belongs" to him?  Mary! How times and attitudes have changed.

- “You made me ashamed to face Mary..”. Not that he was ashamed of what he had done but of revealing it to Mary.

Mary, wake up before it’s too late, get some assertiveness counselling, stand up for yourself, dump him and move on.

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