Re-watching Cagney & Lacey has got me thinking about the 80’s – my formative years – lately. I keep trying to figure out how I got a lot of positive feminist messages even though I was living in a place that was so bigoted you had to be white, male, heterosexual, Republican, Protestant and a native to the area just to get those who fit those qualifications not to pretend they didn’t hear you when you spoke.
Blame pop culture, because packed in among all the crap, we got videos like this: ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”. Trigger warning: implied rape.
The lyrics follow the singer as she tries to figure out why her boyfriend is distant when she tells him she’s falling in love, why he tells her tears are something to hide when she gets upset, why he keeps telling her to keep her voice down. At the end, the quote from him “hush, hush / keep it down now / voices carry” is amended with “she might over hear”. So I always thought the song was simply about a young woman realizing her boyfriend is a married man who “wants me, but only part of the time.”
But whoever wrote the video seems to have paid more attention to lines like “I try so hard not to get upset / because I know all the trouble I’ll get” and “he wants me / if he can keep me in line” because it tells the story of an abusive relationship. It opens with the boyfriend scoffing at the young woman (played of course by lead singer Aimee Mann) whose band is starting to take off. He sneers about both the band and her punk hair style.
Another scene features them in a restaurant. She’s wearing a very chic (as in: not at all punk) dress with a hat to cover her offending hair. That’s still not good enough. He removes from her ear the big dangly jewelry think she’s wearing just on one side, and puts on her a more sedate, traditional pair of earrings he’s bought. She smiles, trying to see it as a gift rather than another attempt to control her. He pats her condescendingly under the chin.
Later, when she’s heading to band practice and he wants to do something else, he tries to take the guitar case out of her hand. She gets back late, and he demands “Why don’t you try doing something for me, for once?” Of course, he sees himself as doing all the work in this relationship – buying her gifts, trying to get her to see what’s the right way to look for a girlfriend of his, tolerating her “little hobby”. She asks, “Like what?” and he presses her up against the wall and starts kissing her forcibly.
Right then, the instrumental bridge ends with Mann singing a loud, “No!” It’s totally 80’s cheese, and yet it manages to be chilling.
But the goosebump scene is the ending, and probably 99% of you know it already: he and she are sitting in Carnegie Hall, dressed opera chic like everyone else in the audience. She has one stray punk braid of hair she hasn’t tucked into her hat, which he flicks pointedly. And suddenly, she just can’t “hush” anymore. She starts singing what’s left of the song, and by the end she stands up, rips her hat off, and just sings out loud without the slightest concern for what anyone thinks.
This video definitely has the potential to teach. We’re supposed to want pretty pressies, aren’t we? We’re supposed to want guys to shove us up against walls and screw us, aren’t we? Women who find themselves in relationships like this are often told by other women you’re so lucky! to have the presents and the, ahem, “passion”, but this video neatly summarizes precisely why they’re not. (“He wants me / if he can keep me in line.”)
Beyond that, I took it as a manifesto against the whole system that tells women (and other disenfranchised groups) to hush and behave, or accept our punishments.
It’s worth noting something I never knew until I just now did the research. Producer Mike Thorne says the original version of this song was sung as if to a woman but the studio didn’t want implications of lesbianism in a pop song. They changed the gender accordingly, and Thorne questions if that was a let-down for gay activism.
While the version of the song and video we have puts across a valuable message for people of all sexual orientations, it’s sadly unsurprising that the message had to be presented through a heterosexual lens for a studio to find the nerve to touch it.