For this year’s Being Human festival Dr Amy Kellam, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, is hosting two events on domestic abuse (see below).
My colleagues and I use films – like ‘Gaslight’ – to explore the UK’s upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill, coercive control, and highlight why legal remedies alone are insufficient for tackling social issues rooted in inequality and the abuse of power (check out the promotional film ‘Ending abuse’).
But what about music? To illustrate some of these issues I am sharing a playlist of songs that engage with domestic abuse.
Film has a profound impact on social perceptions of domestic abuse because what is portrayed is something generally hidden from view. Music too has palpable social impact, both creating and connecting social space. However, our individual experience of what we listen to remains deeply personal and emotive. Rhythm, tone and phrasing provoke sensation and evoke meaning beyond any vocal text.
Take Billie Holliday’s interpretation of ‘My Man.’ I share two versions. The first recording is from 1937. Holiday was 22, and just starting out. ‘My Man’ was a translation of the French song ‘Mon Homme’, popularised in 1920 by the famous revue star Mistinguett. The original revue song speaks of a time when wife beating attracted little controversy. In 1937, Holiday’s unique phrasing introduced a jazz/blues element that gave the song a sense of entrapment and inevitability, despite retaining an upbeat tempo and cheerful feel.
In the 1956 version, recorded live at ABC Studios, the words ‘He isn’t true/He beats me too/What can I do/Oh, my man, I love him so’ are far bleaker. In the closing lines ‘For whatever my man is/I am his forever more’ – her voice conveys a sense of desolation, as if the song emerges from a place in which freedom and autonomy have been removed.
The song predated the domestic violence revolution that challenged the social acceptability of wife beating. But, the removal of freedom and loss of self that Holiday gives voice to remains relevant. Repeatedly, be it through social networks or through engagements with institutions such as the family courts, victims of intimate partner abuse are frequently confronted with the question ‘Why didn’t you leave?’
While numerous cultural, socio-economic and political factors come into play, a key feature of domestic abuse is that victims are subject to the cumulative effect of humiliation, degradation and control – a process which Evan Stark likens to being held hostage. As he will discuss in the festival event, domestic abuse cannot be adequately captured through a model of physical violence.
Many incidents of domestic abuse are insignificant in the context of our criminal justice or healthcare systems. Moreover, individually recorded incidents are seldom effective at protecting victims or preventing ongoing abuse. This is summed up well in Tracy Chapman’s 1988 ‘Behind the wall’; a stark expression of systemic failures that perpetuate abuse that is sung without backing instruments.
Chapman’s song is the closest song on the list to fall within Denishoff’s definition of a protest song. However, unlike many other forms of civil injustice, or collective trauma, domestic abuse victims are significantly isolated by the process of abuse. Nonetheless, like victims of mass disasters and other traumas, survivors have higher rates of mental illness, relationship problems, occupational instability, and substance abuse than the general population.
Macy Gray’s track ‘Still’ (1999) offers a powerful and honest glimpse into this experience: ‘It gets better every time that we get high/Then your crumbs of lovin’/They somehow get me by’.
Confronting the fact that an intimate partner is an abuser, especially if gaslighting has led a victim to doubt their sense of reality, or even their sanity, is not straightforward. Abusers frequently find ways to minimise abuse, blame the victim, and create dependency through isolation. Gray expresses the conflict between the desire to be loved and the reality of partner abuse through an increasingly intense refrain ‘Melt down like a candle burnin’ every time we touch’ and the final plea ‘Can’t I go my severed way?’
In 2010 a collaboration between Rhianna and Eminem covered similar themes from a dual perspective. ‘Love the way you lie (part 1)’ gave emphasis to Eminem’s role as the abuser in a fictionalised account of an abusive relationship. ‘Love the way you lie (part 2)’, voiced the victim’s perspective. Notably both artists are widely known to have experienced abusive relationships Rhianna’s lines, such as ‘I like the way it hurts’, were criticised for encouraging victim-blaming. However, the interplay between the two protagonists portrays complexity. The perspective offered by a coercive control model of abuse is that the song depicts the entrapment and self-doubt that sustained abuse produces.
Awareness that coercive control is fundamental component of domestic abuse is growing. The Domestic Abuse Bill, currently before the House of Lords, will for the first time create a statutory definition of domestic abuse that includes coercive and controlling behaviour. The Sugarcubes ‘Leash Called Love’ illustrates the difficulty that victims face in identifying the nature of coercive control, with the song moving back and forth between male and female protagonists, where the victim’s apprehension of her predicament is undermined through gaslighting.
The upbeat tempo of ‘Leash called love’ is at odds with the lyrics but in keeping with the insidious nature of gaslighting, and the cognitive dissonance to which it gives rise. The same cannot be said about the blues classic ‘Boom, boom! out goes the light’, first recorded by Little Walter in 1957, who opens with the lines ‘No kiddin’, I’m ready to fight/I’ve been lookin’ for my baby all night/If I get her in my sight/Boom boom, out go the lights’.
Blues artist Little Walter was renowned for his penchant for violence, which ultimately led to his death in 1968, aged 37. But the toe tapping rhythm and catchy chorus of ‘Boom boom, out goes the light’ are irresistibly celebratory. It remains popular: a live version by Paul Jones performing with The Blues Band in 1980 includes the audience singing the chorus lines.
On the other hand, The Prodigy’s 1997 dance track ‘Smack my bitch up’ was considered so offensive that it was subject to a ban and gave rise to an Early Day Motion in parliament signed by 41 MP’s. The song’s vocals consisted of a single phrase ‘Change my pitch up/Smack my bitch up’ (sampled from someone else’s record) and was accompanied by an explicit video that used a first-person video technique to depict a character on a drink and drug-fuelled night out, committing acts of random violence. The video obscured the gender of the protagonist until the end scene, where it was revealed to be a woman.
The band denied mysogyny, claiming it to be a song about ‘doing anything intensely‘. Members’ remarks included ‘We’re not trying to put messages in about “it’s cool to beat up women”, because that’s just pathetic.’ Notably, in the lyrics of the number one single from the same album, ‘Firestarter’, the singer Keith Flint referred to himself as ‘the bitch you hated’.
Both tracks follow in the footsteps of the band’s previous album, Music for the Jilted Generation, which critqued draconian government measures, such as the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. ‘Smack my bitch up’ therefore raises the issues of the relevancy of cultural (mis)interpretation, and when and if censorship is reasonable.
If viewing the track ‘Smack my bitch up’ within the context of the sub-culture of the rave scene that it was part of, then arguably the meaning of the song carried a very different connotation than it might have in a different time and place. Either way, while ‘Boom, boom out goes the lights’ gets a free pass, in 2010 ‘Smack my bitch up’ was voted as the most controversial song of all-time in a survey conducted by the British music copyright collective, PRS for Music.
Three songs on the playlist take a different approach, recounting stories where victims have fought back and used violence against their abuser. Ma Rainey’s 1924 song ‘Cell bound blues’, recounts the story of a woman imprisoned for killing her abuser. It is significant that the lyrics suggest that her ‘blues’ are caused not by remorse, but from how the murder was portrayed, ‘The paper came out and told the news/That’s why I said I got the cell bound blues/Hey, hey, jailer, I got the cell bound blues.’
Equally lacking in remorse is Sonic Youth’s 1992 song ‘Shoot’, where a victim shoots her abuser and flees. ‘Gunpowder & lead’ by Miranda Lambert (2007), extends this theme by relating the story of a woman sitting on her porch with a shotgun waiting for her abusive partner to be released from jail. These songs remind us that while much has been achieved in the past few decades, victim support measures in the US have reduced the homicide rate of male abusers more than they have succeeded in reducing the fatality rate of victims.
But there is hope. Social change is possible. Which brings me to the final song on my playlist, a tribute to survivors: Christina Aguilera’s autobiographical ‘I’m OK’ (2002).
‘Gaslight: domestic abuse under the lens’ (19 November, 7–9.30pm). This includes a discussion and a screening of the 1944 film ‘Gaslight’ which remains one of cinema’s most compelling portrayals of psychological domestic abuse.
Dr Amy Kellam is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS), School of Advanced Study, University of London. The broad focus of her work is access to justice. She has published research on domestic abuse during the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown and has been awarded a grant to make a short film on this issue as part of Being Human 2020, the UK-wide humanities festival. She is also engaged in research on access to justice in the context of administrative dispute resolution and disability welfare.