Hush, hush… voices carry

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.


  1. says

    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.

    It’s sad for two reasons: first the obvious implication that we’re not ready to actually see lesbian and gay relationships in all their complexity, but second because we still so desperately need to call attention to the all too common pattern of male control over a female partner. Violence and abuse obviously happens in relationships between same-sex partners as well, but it’s primarily a patriarchal thing. My instinct is to suspect that if this were played between a lesbian couple, no one would notice that, and many would find a way to “other” it and decide it didn’t matter to them. Blame it on the “deviants”, that’s what comes of the “lifestyle”.

    And it makes me exceptionally sad to know that we still have to argue about the basic dynamics of intimate partner violence.

  2. says

    Very well said. I would have been pleased to see a video about a gay or lesbian relationship back then, but I wonder if I would have applied to “avoid abuse” message to myself, or somehow just failed to make the connection? I was 12 when it came out, and all my life I’d been spoonfed relationship messages (and meta-messages) in a het context. I doubt it had occurred to me that same-sex romances could have the same power struggles that opposite sex ones do, so I might have gotten caught up in that bit of new info and missed the point.

  3. Josie says


    I love that song so, so ridiculously much. A few years ago, the project director on the site I was helping excavate said he’d heard an early copy of the tape of that song when it was about a lesbian relationship. However, once I learned that, it made me think more about the couple being outed rather than about abuse (I hadn’t seen the video, which probably would’ve stuck pretty strongly), with the implication being that one partner preferred not to disclose her orientation. Which doesn’t take away from the abuse message, IMO, but adds a whole different level that would’ve been amazing to see (and hear).

  4. says

    The more I think about it, Josie, the more it strikes me this song should have been an anthem for closeted lesbians (and others in the queer community) who are tired of being pressured to hide who they are. You’re right – as it is, it sounds like the man is cheating on someone and the mistress doesn’t realize she’s the other woman. But as it was, it was definitely about closeting, and being pressured to stay closeted by someone you love.

    Damn, that really would have been something. :(

  5. sbg says

    Wow. It’s been years since I’ve heard this song. I still love it…and I had no real idea of the story. No, really, I don’t always pay attention to the meaning in songs.

    This one is powerful, from both possible angles.

  6. Rick says

    Jen – excellent commentary on the video. Reading your words while watching it brings the point home. Regardless of the gender issue, this song / video helps the audience reflect on their own relationships and shows them which way NOT to steer it. Keep up the good work.

  7. Man In Room 5 says

    Early live versions of Vocies Carry are floating around the internet so it is still possible to hear the lesbian version. I just downloaded a Til Tuesday concert from 1984 today and was surprised to hear the lesbian version. Until today I had no idea the song was ever changed. I must confess the lesbian version is actually much more emotionally charged and dramatic. I always liked the video version although I never understood why the man didn’t feel the same for the girl other than the fact that he was just a stuck up jerk. Hearing the lesbian version makes the attraction/rejection theme much more understandable.

  8. A Very Bad Girl says

    We’re supposed to want guys to shove us up against walls and screw us, aren’t we?

    God, I know *I* do. LOL

    (I’ll probably get dumped on for that, but I’m just being honest)

  9. JOHN FISHMAN says

    I haven’t been able to find a reference in any of Aimee Mann’s numerous interviews to explain why the song was originally written from a woman to a woman because she has said that the song was about her the end of her relationship with Michael Hausmann, the drummer of the band. even odder, she continued to play and tour with him for a few years after that (playing that song hundreds of times). Perhaps he was too much of a numbskull to realize it was about him? That would be cool on her part. I do think it would’ve been good had the record company not forced her the change the perspective on general gay-friendly principles but the whole dynamic of the song within the band is a little disturbing.

    • says

      I never saw a reference either. Maybe they just thought it was an interesting topic, being stuck in the closet and the damage that can cause. Musicians frequently get ideas from books, movies, etc., and not just their own lives.


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