Ruminations on a Song

by Cara on April 29, 2009

in feminism, Gratuitous Beatles Blogging, misogyny, patriarchy, pop culture, race and racism

In 1972, John Lennon, with a new and growing interest in women’s liberation, thanks primarily to his relationship with Yoko Ono, wrote and recorded a song called “Woman is the Nigger of the World.”  The phrase, it bears noting, was coined by Yoko Ono in 1969, and John later decided to write a strangely and infuriatingly catchy song around it.

(Lyrics)

It is, I think quite undeniably, John’s biggest attempt at an overt feminist statement in his music.  It is also his most “controversial” song by far (which is saying something), and with damn good reason.

Yesterday, Renee wrote a post about this song and called it out for its use of the word, the way that its use plays the oppression olympics, and the fact that it erases black women entirely.  You should read it. Further, all of these issues were addressed a few months ago in a thread on Racialicious with regards to a video that shows John on the Dick Cavett show, quite literally defending his use of the word by holding up a letter from an Official Black Person that declares it’s okay. 

Seeing as how I keep finding this song floating around, and since I have been asked on several occasions what I (as Feminist Beatles Fan Extraordinaire) think of it, I thought it was time to officially address it.

I want to state first of all that I absolutely, unequivocally agree with Renee’s take.  I also agree with a majority of the sentiments found in the Racialicious thread.  The song, to put it simply, is incredibly fucked. And his defense of it is one of the most ignorant, epic fails ever. I find it embarrassing as a fan and as a person.

In the interest of full disclosure — it’s difficult for me to critique this song, largely because when I see others doing it, they tend to go after John personally, and that automatically gets my hackles up (please note, Renee does not do this — she sticks to a critique of the song and the privilege that Lennon displays in it). And while I, quite clearly, have no difficulty pointing out instances where John was an asshole and calling him an asshole, I consider him and his music to be a big enough a part of my life that I get defensive when I see others doing the same. Especially when they go far enough to make sweeping statements. Silly, perhaps, but true.

On an even more personal level, this song goes against my theory of profound love for John Lennon as a person as well as an artist, and in a very direct way. Ever since I was a teenager, what I loved about him was that I saw him as an example that people can quite radically change. John was a major asshole in his early life, and an incredible misogynist; that he learned to not only the basic decency to respect women, but in fact saw himself as a feminist and spoke openly about male oppression of women is something that I have long appreciated. Of course, since that time I’ve learned enough to know that John wasn’t necessarily the angel in the 70s that he’s often portrayed as (cheating on Yoko, for example). I think that if he had lived and been given the time, he would have continued his growth. But the fact is that he hadn’t yet completed his progressive transformation, despite massive improvements, and that forces one to draw a significantly more complex picture.

None of that, of course, changes the fact that the song is fucked.

With regards to the song itself, I was uncomfortable with it from the moment I first heard of it at about 15 or 16, because, well, it contained the N-word. And I knew very well that you should never, ever use it. Way past that point, once I had done some racism 101, I appropriately came to see that there are far more problems with it than just the usage of the word (which is obviously a huge problem in itself).

There is the appropriation of struggles. There’s the the profound ignorance to and disregard for the hurt that using the word can inflict. There’s the fact that the slur is already used to refer to black women, so you have to wonder exactly which women he’s talking about and therefore come up with unhappy answers. The fact that Yoko Ono coined the phrase doesn’t change this — she may be a woman of color, but she’s not a black woman. There’s the fact that, while it would of course been extremely common in the 50s, John himself used the word as a teenager in a wholly unironic fashion to casually refer to black people — and despite his later commitment to racial equality (working with the Black Panthers, for example), is therefore in the world’s worst position ever, even worse than just your general white person, to “reclaim” it.

And then, to add insult to injury, there’s the fact that the word, which should have never been used in the first place, is seemingly only used for pure shock value. Because it absolutely didn’t have to be used to make the point he was trying to make.

The thing is that if you could dig through the shit in the song, there would be things in there to like from a feminist standpoint. Under different circumstances, I would like his point that even among oppressed groups, women are yet again oppressed. I would like the fact that he holds men directly accountable for enacting oppression (We do X) rather than just rattling off vague instances of oppression with no one committing them. And I would definitely like the fact that he is a man directly speaking to other men, calling out misogyny and demanding that other men end it — because a huge part of what male allies are for, is it not?

But, he chose to make his point about overlapping oppressions by completely ignoring overlapping oppressions and appropriating the image of slavery. He didn’t have to do that. There were other ways he could have expressed the idea — John was, after all, incredibly clever with words — and he didn’t. He chose not to. That only compounds the title line.

And there the title line still is. You can’t erase it. Sadly, you can’t dig through the shit, because the shit is still going to be there. To pretend it’s not is complicity.

And though I genuinely do believe that John’s intentions were good — I do think that he was honestly trying to make a statement about women’s equality and was not actively trying to hurt other oppressed persons in the process — I think (hope) that all of us around here know that when it comes to fucking up that badly, intentions don’t mean shit.

He may have been trying to make a statement about women’s equality, but in the process he did reinforce other types of oppression. He may not have been trying to hurt anyone, but the fact is that he did appropriate language he never should have touched, it was wrong, and he did hurt people. He may have been trying to be progressive, but he did show his immense privilege. He may have been trying to show solidarity with women, but in the end he essentially did further the idea that only some women matter. And his “but I have black friends!” defense on Dick Cavett only went further to show how deeply and completely he did not get it.

In short, it may be sad to think that John’s biggest musical feminist statement is also his biggest, most offensive musical fuck up. But it is. Oh, how it is.

And in the end, while it is in fact, as Renee argues, reflective of feminism as practiced in many ways, I would argue that the song itself isn’t actually feminist. Because reinforcing isms isn’t actually feminist. Not as I understand it, anyway. Like with the song, some people merely seem to be under the incredibly false impression that it is.

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{ 12 comments }

1 Renee April 29, 2009 at 4:02 pm

In short, it may be sad to think that John’s biggest musical feminist statement is also his biggest, most offensive musical fuck up. But it is. Oh, how it is.

There is absolutely no redeeming this song. I find it hard to reconcile it with the same man that wrote imagine. How could someone who wrote so passionately about inequality turn around perpetuate in this way? I suppose this is an example of just how complex one human being can be.

2 Cara April 29, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Yeah, I agree. The more you learn about him, the more complex he gets, too. Often in infuriating ways such as this. And a lot of it is really difficult to reconcile.

I think it comes down to the difference between professing an ideal, which is what Imagine is, and doing what it takes to help us get to a place like that. John was good at showing up to marches, holding or attending events, speaking out to the media, etc., which is one way of acting, and an important way. But it seems that he often failed to do the equally important and much more difficult work of personal examination. He had that complex that so many progressives have — “I believe in X, so I can’t possibly be racist/sexist/homophobic/etc!” As you can see in the Dick Cavett interview, he just won’t even entertain the idea. He’s just convinced that since he thinks he was trying to do something good, no one reasonable would possibly see anything wrong with it. Which is, of course, another mark of privilege.

In short, my take on John is that he understood the existence of inequality and really, really wanted it to end. But I don’t think he understood his own privilege and the concept of examining, confronting and working to dismantle that privilege as a necessary part of ending inequality. And therefore I don’t think he understood that it doesn’t fucking matter whether or not you meant to be racist, what matters it that you were and you exercised your privilege over other people.

Hardly a unique problem, of course, but always an infuriating one.

3 Cara April 29, 2009 at 4:36 pm

To clarify, I meant that I agree on both points (that the song is irredeemable, and that it is a clear example of how John was in many ways a walking contradiction).

4 whatsername April 29, 2009 at 6:24 pm

But I don’t think he understood his own privilege

Yah, I think that hits the nail on the head right there.

5 jovan byars April 29, 2009 at 9:38 pm

I’m really glad that song is not on the 1997 compilation Lennon Legend.

6 Meowser April 29, 2009 at 11:54 pm

I tried posting some of these thoughts on Renee’s blog yesterday, but for some reason my browser won’t allow me to post there (it’s not a matter of being modded, it just doesn’t recognize the “submit comment” button there).

But anyway, as someone who was actually alive and starting to pay attention to who was singing what when this song came out, and spent most of her teens neck-deep in music criticism, I can tell you that a big part of the reason JL didn’t get much shit for this number at the time was that when it came out, pro-femnist songs in rock, pop, and r&b almost didn’t exist; you could practically count them on one hand. (Sippie Wallace’s slut-shaming “Women Be Wise,” which was recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1971, was considered a “feminist” song then — yikes. But that’s how novel a woman simply playing an electric guitar was then.)

And there wasn’t a single pro-feminist song by a male singer, not one ever. There were a few anti-feminist numbers to be sure, like Stevie Wonder’s hideous “Superwoman” (love Stevie, but I’m sure even he wants to put a bag on his head when he thinks of that one now). Lennon’s was the first, and it got some attention for its novelty value. But as I recall, most critics didn’t think it was very good, and the album it was on sold poorly, especially for an ex-Beatle offering in 1972. Possibly if Some Time in New York City had been more popular or critically acclaimed he would have caught more shit for it, but it had novelty value at best even then.

Even the Village Voice, a publication which published a great deal of criticism of racism as well as sexism and homophobia in music (and had quite a few black writers on staff) didn’t have a whole lot to say about it, or about Patti Smith’s similarly themed “Rock and Roll Nigger” in 1978 (in which Smith said Jimi Hendrix, Jesus Christ, Jackson Pollack and herself were all “niggers” — i.e. outsiders). Mostly the reaction to those numbers then was more like, “oh, puh-lease, give me a break,” than “How dare they?”

Not saying that was right. Just that that’s how they were able to skate by with it.

I think more songwriters are aware now that people can have very different responses to hot-button words than what they intended. I know even Randy Newman has had second thoughts about the “keeping the niggers down” part of “Rednecks,” even though it was meant as satire; in Joe Smith’s On the Record, he said a young black man had told him about being in an audience where the white people were all standing up and cheering that line as though it was delivered straight, and how uneasy it made him felt, and Newman said it really gave him pause.

7 Jet April 29, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Thanks for posting this. I saw the video linked in the discussions last year, and I haven’t been able to get its mindboggling awfulness out of my head since.

8 Meowser April 30, 2009 at 7:52 pm

And another thing I thought of: the deflection of JL to it-was-all-Yoko’s-idea might have offered him some protection then. Not because people thought the world of Yoko, but rather the opposite; she had definite pariah status then (even more than today), so a lot of people probably shrugged it off as “oh, look at John getting all those nutty ideas from Yoko again, psha.” (Note that in the intro to this video he says Yoko first said the title line to him in 1968 and that he got the point in 1970.)

Also, possibly John figured it would be harder for people to accuse Yoko of racism than himself? But I don’t doubt there was an element of I’m-not-racist-look-who-I-married defensiveness there, too.

(And as for Dick Gregory, who allegedly gave Lennon his approval…er, isn’t this the guy who named his autobiography Nigger in 1964 and then said that from now on, when people said that word they were just promoting his book?)

9 Yolanda C. May 1, 2009 at 6:37 pm

One question I would ask: How well did John understand intersectionality, if he did at all? Shit, even so-called radical white feminists didn’t get it about women of color/lesbians/transwomen back then.

Don’t forget that John was horribly bad on all types of oppression—he was a straight-up homophobe and anti-semite years after his establishing a life with Yoko. Remember the horseshit he reportedly said to Brian Epstein about A Cellarful of Noise? Also, in his landmark 1971 interview with Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, he uses the homophobic f-word up and down to describe men he doesn’t like.

I’d like to think that if he were alive today, John would challenge his white hetero cis-male privilege in all its forms. But we’ll never know that, will we?

10 Cara May 1, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Yes, John was also a serious homophobe and anti-Semite, and he was extremely mean to Brian. He and Brian were close, and John has a tendency to be nasty to a lot of people he was close with, and hit them where it hurt — but of course while he’d therefore go ahead and make fun of Paul’s songs, he’d make fun of Brian’s sexual orientation and Jewishness.

Which is obviously quite fucked up. Not defending it, of course. If he was going to be an ass, he should have found a way to do it that wasn’t displaying a form of prejudice.

Oh, he was supremely ableist, too. There’s a whole lot of scenes of him from the touring days doing his version of a “spastic,” and it’s really quite atrocious. Of course, the audiences and the other Beatles all laughed. The worst part is that when it comes up in the Anthology, rather than saying “yeah, we were really quite awful, and I’d like to think that John would be embarrassed about that today because I sure am,” all of the Beatles defended it, attributing it to stress, goofing around, and not meaning to hurt anyone. This was the 90s. It’s absolutely appalling.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, I wanted to point out that in his last years, John seemed to at least partially overcome the homophobia thing. In All We Are Saying, he reacts quite casually to questions about Brian and his sexuality, acting quite blase about the whole thing, saying basically “yeah, Brian was in love with me, and we were really good friends, so what?” and shrugging it off when asked whether or not the rumors that they’d had a sexual relationship were true. As in, rather than being like “no, I don’t know how those rumors started, bullshit, I’m 100% straight” etc (like how Paul has valiantly defended John’s heterosexuality in years since), he seriously said that the two had a deep emotional friendship, but “the relationship was never consummated.” And that was that.

Of course, that could also be guilt over how he treated Brian when he was alive since Brian was then dead.

11 Cara May 1, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Um, all of which is to say I guess in a very roundabout I can’t say anything about the Beatles in a way that is even remotely brief way, that no. John almost certainly did not understand intersectionality.

12 kaykay December 5, 2009 at 2:51 pm

to Meowser, where is the proof that that’s what Supewoman was about? all i ever hear is the suggestion that that’s what it’s about but it’s never from a music critic or journalist. thanks.

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