Songs that honor women musicians, past and present


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By Northern Star Staff

This week’s playlist is dedicated to all of the women in music out there. Happy Women’s History Month.

Nick’s picks

  1. Big Thief – “Change”
  2. Carole King – “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
  3. Aretha Franklin – “All the King’s Horses”

Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker is one of the best musicians I’ve ever had the cosmic luck of hearing. I have a hard time picking a song to talk about Lenker and the rest of Big Thief because each song is entirely different and features different parts of the group’s skills. Throughout all of this genre shifting, Lenker’s vocals and lyrics stand supreme. For me, the go-to place to examine Lenker’s lyricism is on “Change,” the opener of their newest album. As Lenker sings “Would you stare forever at the sun / Never watch the moon rising? / Would you walk forever in the light / To never learn the secret of the quiet life?” I feel almost shoved back into my brain, forced to look at the life I’ve been living. Lenker shows that we know only what we know – and that we’re missing out on so much more. The moments of joy now are only joyful because we know what sorrow feels like, and it’s this “change” that Lenker focuses on when she asks “Would you smile forever, never cry?” at the end of the song, letting the instrumental take over, leaving the question hanging in the air. 

Carole King is hands down one of the most underrated songwriters out there. The final song on her 1971 record “Tapestry” is one of my favorite songs ever written, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” King’s writing on this song is iconic. An empowering song about the way that love can make someone feel whole, King’s glorious piano playing strikes at the core of the song’s elevation of love, examining it as an existential phenomenon. While King’s voice on the song is fine, there is one version that blows the album’s version out of the water. In 2016, when Carole King received the Kennedy Center Honor award, her friend Aretha Franklin came out of retirement and gave the performance of a lifetime. Franklin was sick during the performance and died a few years later. But, because of King’s artistry and their glorious friendship, we got one of the best performances ever and a story and song that will make me cry most times I hear it. 

Aretha Franklin is quite possibly the best musician of all time. She has the best run of three albums ever: 1971’s “Aretha Live at Filmore West,” 1972’s “Amazing Grace” and 1972’s “Young, Gifted and Black.” I’ve been a fan of Franklin my entire life with her being my second musical obsession ever, right after Stevie Wonder. Franklin is known for her strong, powerful voice that can maneuver wherever she feels the music needs to go, but no one ever talks about her songwriting chops. “All the King’s Horses” is off Franklin’s album “Young, Gifted and Black” and is one of the songs on the record that she herself wrote. The song starts with the smoother side of Franklin’s voice and an instrument no one would expect in ‘70s soul, a celeste. The ringing sound of the celeste – which is known to modern listeners for its role in the orchestral classic “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” – pairs well with Franklin’s vibrato-laden vocals. As the song picks up for the chorus, Franklin lets her voice hit full fury and it’s an experience that goes beyond words. Just go and listen to the Queen of Soul, please. 

Sarah’s picks

  1. Heart – “Magic Man”
  2. Berlin – “The Metro”
  3. Adele – “Skyfall”

Hard rock sisters Nancy and Ann Wilson sing Heart’s hit “Magic Man.” This old-but-gold song was released in 1975 and has that old rock feel that makes you want to blast this in your car, windows down. Ann Wilson is the lead singer, singing about a love she had with a man. She recalls the love was passionate and vibrant amidst everyone saying this man was a magic man, meaning he might disappear from her life and leave her alone. Heart released prime ‘70s music and the Wilson sisters prove to possess show-stopping vocals. Accompanied by the epic guitar solo and stimulating percussion, “Magic Man” is a song that can’t be missed when listening to 1970’s greatest hits. 

Throwing it back 42 years, “The Metro” was an introduction to new wave to many. Sung by Berlin’s vocalist Terri Nunn, the song contains electronic riffs and a synthesizer that creates sounds that replicate a German fire truck mixed with an ambulance siren noise. The music is nothing short of electronic dance and uses the period’s technological capabilities to deliver that. The song sounds as if the listener is walking through a metro train, looking out the window as the landscapes zoom by. Nunn was in her early twenties when Berlin released this song, but her sophisticated vocals make her sound much older, giving the song an old-timey vibe. 

Adele is the queen of sad and powerful songs, and “Skyfall” is no different. Adele collaborated with Paul Epworth, an English music producer, to create a musical theme song for the 2012 James Bond film also titled “Skyfall.” The next year, the song won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and a Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media. The song is sung in a first person style, capturing the thoughts of someone who is about to die, shown in the lyrics “For this is the end / I’ve drowned and dreamt this moment.” Given the context, that person is probably Bond. The song also expresses how death will have Bond and others facing the great emptiness together. Adele gives off the implication that whatever character she wrote the song for is expecting death to claim them and has accepted their fate. The lyrics “I’ve drowned and dreamt this moment / So overdue, I owe them / Swept away, I’m stolen” show how that person believes themselves to have lived life far longer than they expected to.

Daniel’s picks:

  1. Shirley Bassey – “Goldfinger”
  2. Tina Turner – “Goldeneye”
  3. Dolly Parton – “9 to 5”

Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” is a piece most prominently known for being featured in the “James Bond” film of the same name. The song was composed in part by John Barry and Anthony Newley, the latter of whom wrote the lyrics with Leslie Bricusse. The song refers to the film’s antagonist Auric Goldfinger, who is described in the song as “the man with the Midas touch.” The lyrics perpetuate the threat of Goldfinger himself, for anyone, possibly referring to the character of Bond to “beware his heart of gold” and his “kiss of death from mister Goldfinger.” In 2013, Bassey performed the song at the 2013 Oscars in tribute to the “James Bond” franchise’s 50th anniversary. 

“Goldeneye” by Tina Turner is another well-put together Bond song by a female artist. The song is a lot more vague compared to Bassey’s tune. The meaning of “Goldeneye” has constantly been up to interpretation. Many think it’s simply alluding to the villain in the film the song is featured in, much like “Goldfinger.” Others, such as myself, stretch it even further, believing it alludes to the rocky rise Pierce Brosnan, Bond’s actor in this film, trekked to get the role. While “Goldfinger” has a bombastic and almost villainous sound to it, “Goldeneye” feels more slithery in its instrumentals before blowing out in its final measures as Turner belts out the danger of the goldeneye.

“9 to 5” by Dolly Parton is a song also written for a film of the same name. Both pieces tackle gender inequities in the workplace. The film and song handle the subject matter through a comedic tone in order to get the message out to a widespread audience. Parton’s inspiration for the instrumentals of the song came from rubbing her acrylic fingernails together to make the sound of a typewriter and even used a sound sample of rubbing her nails together in the song as background noise. The song would later go on to win a Grammy for Best Country Song and Vocal Performance by a Female artist in 1981, as well as a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Motion Picture Song.

Anika’s Picks

  1. Taylor Swift – “New Year’s Day”
  2. Mitski – “Two Slow Dancers”
  3. Mazzy Star – “Look On Down From The Bridge”

Out of all of Taylor Swift’s songs, “New Year’s Day” is one of the few that contains only her vocals and a piano. It is an outlier in her discography, but especially for the album it’s on. “Reputation” – Swift’s 2017 release – was a comeback album. Thus, the other 14 songs on the album contain very 2017-esque production and detail how she’s coming back from all the drama – friends who turned on her, widespread public hatred and a leaked phone call – she faced. Then, she closes it out with “New Year’s Day,” a song that beautifully describes how deeply she loves a romantic partner, singing the line “Please don’t ever become a stranger / Whose laugh I could recognize anywhere.” It is an incredibly vulnerable ballad about how she will love this person no matter what happens – even if she can’t have that kiss at midnight. 

I am on a roll with album closers: Mitski’s “Two Slow Dancers” is the last song on “Be the Cowboy” – ironic, because it’s the first song by her I remember listening to. Suiting Mitski’s brand, this is another slow, melancholy song about two former lovers who reunite in a school gym for one last dance before returning to their lives. It is an absolutely brutal song because you can hear the bittersweetness and longing in the lyrics – two people who will never share anything more than this dance in their old high school, even if they want to have more. This is highlighted in the bridge, where she desperately repeats the line “To think that we could stay the same” three times before closing the song out with “But we’re two slow dancers last ones out” repeated thrice as well. Mitski’s haunting voice suits these feelings scarily well, adding to the tragedy of the two. All this is why I was standing in a crowd of people who were bawling when she sang this as the final song of her encore at her show last June.

And for my final album closer – a theme chosen purely by coincidence – I present another tragic track. Mazzy Star, an indie-rock band from the ‘90s, released this song on their 1996 album “Among My Swan.” “Look On Down From the Bridge” is hypnotizing – the steady but soft snare beat and the low synths create a lethargic pace for the track so lead singer Hope Sandoval’s gentle vocals can carry listeners through the story she’s telling. It is not a happy one; the song carries us through the narrator’s thoughts while contemplating suicide. In the beginning, the narrator notes how up where they’re standing is nothing but rain and unhappiness, but down where they’d jump there are fountains and brightness. Toward the end, however, the narrator states that they are waiting, that maybe they will change their mind. There is no way of telling what they chose to do, but that mystery is what keeps me coming back to listen.

Eli’s picks

  1. Weyes Blood – “A Lot’s Gonna Change”
  2. Loretta Lynn – “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)”
  3. Aimee Mann – “Red Vines”

Combining influences from ‘70s soft-pop groups like the Carpenters and the spacey, dreamlike music of Mazzy Star and Spiritualized, Weyes Blood’s “A Lot’s Gonna Change” revives a long dormant genre while still sounding fresh and innovative. As the opener of her 2019 album “Titanic Rising,” the song perfectly sets the scene for the rest of the album. The contrast between sweeping orchestration and ambient synth textures will give you the impression that you’ve never heard anything else like it before, and that’s probably because you haven’t. While music that draws heavily on nostalgia can be boring and unoriginal, Weyes Blood takes a classic style of music and turns it upside down, adding a daring modern twist.

At a time when country music was dominated by men, Loretta Lynn was a trailblazer. A perfect example of this is “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” a song about a woman who is fed up with her husband’s drinking problem. The narrator takes a feisty, no-nonsense stance about the issue and refuses to forgive him until he’s cleaned up his act. The song serves as an interesting counterpart to the multitude of country songs by male artists that glorify drinking. Lynn marched to the beat of her own drum and ignored the conventions and standards of the genre, instead paving her own path with refreshing and honest songs that only she could have pulled off.

Aimee Mann’s songs are depressing but not bleak. Beneath the pain and desolation in her lyrics, there is always a glimmer of hope. Paired with the distinctive spatial, textural style of producer Jon Brion, “Red Vines” stands out as one of Mann’s best songs. According to Stereogum, the song was written about her friendship with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson had quickly skyrocketed from being a low-budget independent filmmaker to one of the most revered directors in Hollywood. With lines like “Everyone loves you, why should they not,” the song provides a captivating glimpse into the mind of an artist struggling to navigate their newfound fame.