Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I Am Woman (Helen Reddy)

A. Kelley

My chosen song is I Am Woman, co-written by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton, and performed by Helen Reddy. It was released in 1972.

Video: http://youtube.com/watch?v=aPDcMyPlFvw

Lyrics:

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an' pretend
'Cause I've heard it all before
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to
I can do anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am woman

You can bend but never break me
'Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
'Cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul

Oh, yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to
I can face anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am woman

I am woman watch me grow
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin' arms across the land
But I'm still an embryo
With a long, long way to go
Until I make my brother understand

Oh, yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to
I can face anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am woman

Oh, I am woman
I am invincible
I am strong

I am woman
I am invincible
I am strong
I am woman

I’ve known of this song for quite a while; on history programs and other programs that may touch upon feminism, it’s often used as an all-purpose feminist anthem, although anything past the initial “I am woman, hear me roar” is rarely quoted. I will admit that I was not aware of any of Reddy’s work previous to examining I Am Woman, despite her having a rather prolific discography and being responsible for other 70s songs that I am aware of such as Delta Dawn and You and Me Against the World.

Reddy’s anthem directly and forcefully addresses issues of feminism, women’s rights, and gender equality. It is not particularly specific other than asserting that woman will no longer accept submissiveness—“…I’ve been down there on the floor/No one’s ever gonna keep me down again”, “I am strong/I am invincible/I am woman”, “I am woman, watch me grow/See me standing toe to toe”, et cetera. Despite this, because of the time period in which it was produced, that being the early 1970s, the song was revolutionary and a rallying cry for early second-wave feminists who were just opening their eyes to the ghastly state of women’s rights and beginning to fight for their equal place in society. What is most feminist and pro-gender equality about this song is that it breaks the mold of female passivity—it was likely that, even as late as the 1970s, the majority of women who would be otherwise receptive to feminist doctrine were afraid to speak out, to break the womanly mold of acceptance, quietness, obedience. The idea of a woman “roaring”, even more doing it “in numbers too big to ignore”, would have conjured images of a masculinized woman, being clamorous and asserting strength to achieve goals in the ways men have traditionally sought what they desire. What motivates women to embrace, rather than reject as ‘unnatural”, this assertive image is the sheer strength of the statement “I am woman”; this alone declares that all that follows in the song is woman’s right to act out upon, that there is nothing essentialist chaining woman from attaining her rights and desires; that identity as “woman” in and of itself is a blanket entitlement to be whatever a woman wishes herself to be, and to do whatever is necessary to defeat those who would oppose her. It also gives a realistic depiction of feminism as struggle—I Am Woman admits that the path is long and that there will be suffering involved, “Oh yes, I am wise/But it’s wisdom born of pain”, “You can bend but never break me/Cause it only serves to make me/More determined to achieve my final goal”, “…a long, long way to go/Until I make my brother understand”, et cetera, however, the extremely-powerful motivational aspects of the song, the assertion that identity as woman breaks down all barriers, allows women to embrace combative and warlike attitudes that were before considered the realm of men alone. The song indicates that man’s “no pain, no gain” attitude can be used against himself to break down his patriarchal rule.

I tend to be a much larger fan of older music than the genres and themes we have today, but even in the era around the 1970s when music was more diverse than today’s generic love songs, pro-violence music, and angst-ridden rock, virtually all music tried to steer clear of issues or controversy. Most individuals who are avid music fans consider music to be an escape from reality or a method of momentary alleviation for their problems and emotionally encouraging or uplifting. Individuals, however, are likely far less receptive when music is the opposite of this—political and illustrative of social problems. Even if there were other politically-active musicians in that era, Reddy is the only one whose fame has extended to the present day and, furthermore, issue-based music tends to be relegated to fringe counterculture elements, indicating that the smash success of I Am Woman was a (very welcome) anomaly and not the start of a new trend, unfortunately. There is virtually no mainstream music today that addresses the issues that Reddy addressed. Of course, there are female artists with lyrics depicting lifestyles made possible by the women’s movement of Reddy’s time, but these are generally taken for granted by the artist and not seen as depicting the issue of women’s rights/liberation/etc. The problem today is that some people think that feminism has run its course, some are completely unaware of it, others would just not be interested in seeing issues put to song even though they are aware of it. People have forgotten that it is perfectly okay to wear one’s politics on one’s sleeve and integrate this passion into all aspects of one’s life. Because music becomes popular when enough people see something of their own identities in a song, political and issue-based music must find a way to re-open the eyes of the masses to this fact before they can re-enter what we commonly consider to be popular culture.

Being someone who has always accepted female equality, I think the song is very empowering. Although, in some ways, the very general theme of I Am Woman makes it somewhat less better-equipped to motivate women to deal with the more specific women’s issues of the twenty-first century, in other ways its suggestions for fighting for change in our society and overcoming sexist gender oppression are timeless and core to the feminist spirit. After all, it all starts with being willing to stand up and aggressively, assertively defend one’s rights. “I am woman, hear me roar” is the first cry of the woman newly initiated into feminism, as she suddenly experiences a surge of power and control over her own destiny that she has never previously felt. That statement is the initial spark that has lead to all the great and enormous achievements of the feminist movement, and, in a more literal sense, this very song was the point of ignition for so many women who were suddenly awakened and empowered. It is the acorn from which the mighty oak someday rises.

All radical ideas that were at one time expressed in music have become acceptable when the idea has been repeated in enough songs. The rock and roll of the 1950s motivated the youth culture to resist arcane rules against sexuality; the music of the 1960s encouraged individuals to seek personal freedom, and drug use and alternative lifestyles became socially acceptable. The 1970s’ musical styles lent themselves nicely to feminist and anti-government ideas that motivated individuals to oppose power and fight for change. For better or for worse, 1980s music encouraged individuals to seek money, power, and status in life, and our goals as a nation changed. The music of the 1990s and 2000s has hearkened back to the messages of the 1950s and expanded upon it to bring us the idea that the carnality is deeply defining for humans, and this has once again been embraced by youth and integrated into the culture. If we were to have a decade where feminist ideas were the great recurring theme in music, popular culture would do what it does best and create a generation that defines itself by adherence to the principles espoused in their music, and it is for certain that we would be far closer to dismantling patriarchy for it.

Lastly, the first thought that comes to mind that I would wish to express to Reddy regarding her work, her music, and her political ideas is simply Thank You. Your little tune had more impact on our world than I imagine that you or any of us could have ever dreamed, and we who have a stake in the end of patriarchy are eternally thankful. Although I’m sure you had much more to say, you made the wise decision of tailoring a song toward newcomers to the movement rather than those already well-acquainted, and you soon did see numbers too big to ignore rising up. Your central idea—the long-oppressed woman burning with aggression, undaunted by the threat of pain and struggle, ready to fight en masse and march upon patriarchy and roar the truth of your equality to them until they concede—is a beautiful one, and one that changed history.

A. Kelley

1 comment:

Women's Studies 200 Class said...

I was so glad to see someone did this song! I love "I Am Woman" by Helen Reddy. I remember that song well. I sang it with gusto when it first came out. I totally identified with that song even though I was just a young early teenager. I felt the words, the strength and hope she gave me let alone thousands of other women. The lyrics are great and the music is classic. Any time I hear it, which is not often anymore, I sing it loud and clear and if a man is present, I sing it directly to him...with a smile so I don't threaten or seem mean and vindictive like many feminists are viewed.
Good job Alan.

Kim Seder