The celebrated classicist Mary Beard in her lecture ‘The Public Voice of Women‘ outlined how and why female voices in spheres like culture and politics have been attacked and silenced across time. She traced it back to Homer’s Odysessy, through to Shakespeare where a raped woman has her tongue ripped out, right up to the present day and the online trolling of women. Beard goes on to explain that:
‘it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it.’
In the music industry this seems more tragically true than ever. Women are outnumbered in every aspect of the business, those who venture into its pit are treated like a novelty; they are sexualised, objectified and their voices ultimately sidelined.
So don’t underestimate how important it is that women like Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, Juliana Hatfield and now Margo Price have released albums in 2017 that are fiercely personal and yet concern themselves with wider political ideas. Price has emerged as a true outlaw hero of country music since the release of her debut album last year and the EP ‘Weakness‘. Her follow up, ‘All American Made’ is a statement of intent: she’s here to sing about the social issues she sees in the world and she’s not ready to make nice.
That Dixie Chicks reference may seem passé but just this week a man on Twitter told Margo to ‘shut the fuck up on politics already lady’ with such venom it took my breath away. Margo triumphantly stood up for herself and shot him down but the fact that women are still being spoken to in this way is devastating. The Dixie Chicks were told to ‘shut up and sing’ because their music concerned female lives, when they spoke out on politics they entered the male sphere. The collapse of their career and the death threats they received were shocking but they would not be silenced, channeling their experiences to record one of the most powerful songs you will ever hear. Such bravery has not exactly inspired many others in country music to talk on politics but Price is the exception. In a recent interview she stated, ‘Our voices are all we have right now, and it’s important to use them.” On her debut she wrote in the first person voice – it was her autobiographical concept album. Now she’s found an audience her second album also starts to look outwards to issues affecting others.
All American Made begins where Midwest Farmer’s Daughter left off, with songs that address her own personal experience. The opener Don’t Say It is a call for R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – she won’t stand for the hypocrisy and arrogance of someone who says they love you but treats you like shit. Then ‘Weakness‘ takes an inward analytical look at her own identity. Price’s ability to understand and expose her own flaws and ‘darker shades’ is what makes her such a compelling artist. Her steely determination hardens further on the next song where she declares ‘a little pain never hurt anyone’.
Perhaps it’s fitting that in the year after that presidential election this album has a song called ‘Learning to Lose‘, featuring Willie Nelson. Even though it was written before the election, with prophetic lines like ‘I’m so far away from where I’ve started but no closer to where I belong’ ‘was it bad luck or just design’ and ‘how long must I pay all these dues/is winning learning to lose‘ this could be a lament for Hillary’s defeat. Think about how often her voice was dismissed and silenced both during and after the campaign. The possibility of a female president seems further away than ever. When Margo and Willie sing this together you feel the power of two people reaching across the generations and seeking answers about fate’s cruel consequences.
Female philosophers have long argued that the personal is political. The songs ‘Pay Gap’, ‘Nowhere Fast’ and ‘Wild Women’ appear to take that mantra as their inspiration, dealing with the inequalities and double standards faced by women: they must work, leave behind their children yet earn less and be judged more harshly for their behaviour. On ‘Pay Gap’ Price sings dismissively ‘don’t give me that feminism crap’ and it’s hard to know if she’s speaking from a man’s point of view or if she just thinks we shouldn’t have to fight so hard for our basic human rights. The line does jar with me, as these three songs feel like powerful feminist statements.
At this point in the album I found myself thinking about another part of Beard’s lecture where she explains that speaking out for women’s rights has been historically the only acceptable form of female public speech.
‘Women…may in extreme circumstances publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole.’
While this has rapidly changed over the last century it is still true that most women are expected to be concerned with domestic affairs. Bjork has recently explained how this translates to the music industry where women are:
‘allowed to be singer songwriters singing about their boyfriends… if they change the subject matter to atoms, galaxies, activism, nerdy math beat editing or anything else [other] than being performers singing about their loved ones they get criticised.’
If visionaries like Bjork struggle to be taken seriously when singing about controversial or diverse topics then you know this is a real problem. To expand your horizons beyond what is expected of you as a female artist is challenging, but liberating too and you feel Margo is relishing singing these more politically conscious songs.
We now head into the ‘Heart of America‘ where Price’s family worked on a farm, getting by ‘with their own two hands’ until the men in suits came along and took ‘every field my family owned.‘ It’s the story of poverty and hardship but the ‘we just do what we can‘ line is optimistic, as is the next song ‘Do Right By Me’. Some people are poor, everybody’s drunk, the only dream people have is ‘to win the lottery‘ but maybe you can still get the chance to ‘sing your own song‘ if you respect yourself and other people.
The album finishes on a melancholy note. On ‘Loner‘ life is a curse filled with marriages, mortgages, sickness, ‘invisibles chains‘ and working to ‘buy shit you don’t need’. To stand out and fight against the system is important, even if that means you end up alone. Then the title track begins with clips of politicians, talking about the state of the nation. This song was written during Obama’s presidency as though they could see the future but I guess it proves that time passes but nothing changes. Poor people are struggling and the rich just get richer. The echoes of voices through the song are haunting, as is her reaching out to her hero ‘Tell me Mr Petty what will happen next?’ She wonders if the president gets any sleep at night and how people on welfare can cope. The refrain ‘all American made‘ feels like a condemnation as much as commentary. Look at what we have created and weep. The final blurring of speeches from both sides of the political divide is a perfect way to end this album, a hopeful call for unity and understanding.
Don’t listen to any criticisms that the sound of this album is ‘retrograde’ or ‘throwback’. Playing instruments is an expression of power, a way to be heard as much as singing or lyric writing. That’s not old fashioned, that’s just genuine artistry. The sounds on this album are a microcosm of American music: country, rock, soul, blues, folk and even Latin inspired rhythms are here too. Forget about her previous attempts to appeal to the country music market, Margo was never going to be a success there and she probably knew that from the start. The mainstream music fan is deaf to intelligent articulation and traditional instrumentation – the days of crossing over from the indie scene are long gone and maybe that’s a good thing. You can have a career without concerning yourself with radio or the charts which can only encourage originality and creativity.
So will this album elevate Margo Price to the same level of success as her Americana contemporaries Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson? She certainly deserves to be rewarded and recognised as equal to them. If this doesn’t happen then perhaps we need to look to history to understand why. In Mary Beard’s lecture she discusses at length how we are culturally conditioned to hear a man’s deep voice and think we are listening to wisdom. When we hear a woman’s voice, she says people ‘have not learned how to hear authority in it’ (hence why Margaret Thatcher deliberately lowered her voice after becoming PM). And isn’t that depressingly true in music too? I’ve read criticism of Margo calling her voice ‘weak’ more than once and that ingrained prejudice against female voices is one reason why women have struggled to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts – and not just in music. It’s dispiriting but as Mary Beard argues we need to continue with ‘consciousness raising’ about our history and prejudices. Until things change all we can do is keep promoting women in the hope they will be heard.
Margo wrote many of these songs with her husband Jeremy Ivey, even if the name on the album cover is her own – proving collaboration can be used to elevate women’s voices rather than repress them. This album is a powerful personal and social statement but it doesn’t attempt to tell people what to think or who to vote for, instead it’s a subtle exploration of what it means to be ‘All American Made’.