Sibylline Sirens and Jejeune Jessies

❉ What sets the sirens of the past – Bobbie, Dusty, Nico, Nyro et al – apart from today’s songbirds?

“…there was something regal about Dusty and Bobbie; Bobbie as The Queen, perhaps, with her grace and forbearance, and Dusty as Princess Margaret, with her temper and tantrums. But dissimilar though they were, they beautifully demonstrated the difference between empowerment and power, especially for women”

I’ve never had any patience with old people who moan about popular music not being as good as it was when they were young. Generally I go with the big wisdom of Little Richard who, when the veracity of his Tutti Frutti lyric ‘A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop’ was called into question, said something like ‘If you can’t understand it, you’re not meant to.’

But as the year ends, the magnificent piece of work that is The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters of Bobbie Gentry (UMC) made me reflect not that music has become indecipherable and decadent – the usual complaint of the aged – but rather that it has become transparent and wholesome.

It’s the difference between Jim Morrison (dead at 27) and Ed Sheeran (27 and I live in hope) – all that sex, sass and swagger replaced by music which crooks its pinky rather than gives the finger, which extrapolates rather than fascinates. And nowhere is this contrast more obvious than in the difference between female chart acts of the past and the present.

It’s common wisdom that contemporary female singers use sex to sell records, often proffered by older female singers whose noses have gone North as their nipples went South. But I don’t have anything against the Rita Oras of this world, stage-school starlets who appear to have ended up in music almost by accident (and are just as memorable selling lipstick as singing) because youthful beauty – like that of male scream idols from David Cassidy to Harry Styles, so it’s not a bit sexist – has always been an essential part of pop music.

No, the songbirds I can’t stand are those who were surely born to be session singers and have somehow ended up in the spotlight. We’ll call them the Jejeune Jessies of today – Jess Glynne (was working as a brand manager when she signed her first contract, mother in A&R) and Jessie Ware (went to the select Alleyn’s School, once amusingly known as Alleyn’s College Of God’s Gift) and Jessie J (Colin’s Performing Arts School, musical theatre in the West End from the age of 11) – versus the Sibylline Sirens of the past; Bobbie, Dusty, Nico, Nyro.

In the greatest book ever written about cinema, From Reverence to Rape, Molly Haskell traces a strange paradox; that at the beginning of the 20th century, when women had risible rights, Hollywood portrayed them as intelligent, charismatic beings who were often superior to men and didn’t even have to be conventionally beautiful to win the sex war. But with the vote, the pill and divorce rights under their belts from the late 50s onwards, Hollywood’s overriding image of women became as the girlfriend or the victim – often both.

Similarly, as women have gained more rights in the 21st century, female singers have become weaker in every way; this of course is a small price to pay for freedom, but it’s interesting. We have girls in thongs yelling about empowerment whereas once we had Dusty in a nightie crooning songs of slavish adoration. But somehow Dusty remains a far more powerful presence dead than healthy, happy Katy Perry, for example – simply through her unquenchable, unforgettable level of talent.

They’re just so nice, these modern missesJess Glynne lives with her parents, and Jessie Ware does a cookery podcast with her mum. Even Jessie J, who seemed pleasingly conceited at the start of her career, has become one of those Nervous Nellies who believes that banging on about mental health issues is a feasible alternative to making good records for a professional singer. Interestingly, all the Jessies are on record as having anxiety – we all know it’s good to talk but just as homosexuality has gone from being the love that dare not speak its name to the love that won’t STFU, anxiety has gone from being taboo to mandatory if you want to drive home the fact that you are A Good Person. But, as the great John Cooper Clarke once put it, ‘Repression is the mother of the metaphor.’ If you spend your life airing your demons, they may well be too played out to enrich you when the time comes to create.

‘Never explain, never complain’ – there was something regal about Dusty and Bobbie; Bobbie as The Queen, perhaps, with her grace and forbearance, and Dusty as Princess Margaret, with her temper and tantrums. But dissimilar though they were, they beautifully demonstrated the difference between empowerment and power, especially for women. Empowerment is a word, like addiction, which we use to dignify things we do for pleasure. But power – not military, or political, or the James Bond Crazed Villain kind, but the personal sort – can come only from accomplishment, from being really good at something, because only then are you not replaceable, and that’s the best power of all. Complaining and explaining all the way to the bank, the Jejeune Jessies will be forgotten when the Sibylline Sirens are being revered by generations yet to come…


❉ Bobbie Gentry – ‘The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters’ was released by UMC on 21 September 2018.

This is a guest post, in return for a charitable donation made towards Shelter Cymru.

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