Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Ditz, Lightweight, Mooncalf, Naïf: The Second-Class Status Of Stevie Nicks

Stephanie Lynn “Stevie” Nicks turns 65 on Sunday. As the lead singer of Fleetwood Mac and as a solo artist she has written and sung some of the most indelible songs of the rock era.

The band has long since entered the pantheon of Rock Greatness as a “legacy act.” When your local classic-rock station plays “Go Your Own Way” and “Rhiannon” back-to-back on “Two for Tuesday,” do you drum along on your steering wheel? Of course you do! You’re only human!

And yet. While Stevie—I’m going to call her “Stevie” because, like all icons, she invites familiarity while retaining a core of mystery—has enough solo hits to avoid complete dismissal, there’s a troubling willingness among amateur and professional rock critics to explain away her success. They try to credit it to her looks, her mystical image, her boyfriends, her collaborators—anything and anyone except, you know, her.

Robert Cristagau's "Consumer Guide" entry on 1979’s "Tusk" says the album reveals band mate (and one-time boyfriend) Lindsey Buckingham’s production genius—but “shows Stevie Nicks up for the mooncalf she’s always been.”

A 1997 profile of the band in Rolling Stone (a magazine that’s never interviewed a classic rocker it didn’t want to journalistically fellate) by Fred Schruers is dismissive of Nicks’ contributions:

It was Buckingham, of course, who left the gate open for the impostors with his repeated walkouts on the band, but he is also the creative linchpin of the fivesome. Nicks had her solo hits like "Edge of Seventeen" and a pair of great duets with Tom Petty… but Buckingham is the tormented genius you could lift out of '70s rock and set down, with his fierce chops and raging vocals, anywhere you like.

Bart Bull—before he was Michelle Shocked's husband—wrote this in Spin in 1987, while reviewing "Tango in the Night":

Of course, Stevie Nicks is worse than ever in some ways, but there's a pathetic aspect to her now that can't help but suggest that she's almost certainly human…. Stevie's main distinction is that she's a ditz, but she's such a huge ditz that it's impossible to parody her any more than she does herself. Lindsey Buckingham is at his least experimental here, but he never stops experimenting anyway. And Christine McVie is the exact counterbalance to Stevie, immersed in the craft of the popular song as Stevie is immersed in herself, and yet she's just as recognizable, just as distinctive, and far harder to pin down and parody.

I don’t want to turn this into a Lindsey vs. Stevie prizefight. God knows they’ve done enough of that themselves. (Just count the number of times the word “win” and its permutations appear in their songs about each other.) It is not an either/or proposition. People can and do like both. Stevie is certainly the better lyricist, singer, and, I believe, all-around songwriter. Lindsey is a masterful guitarist and visionary producer.

But why is Lindsey forgiven his limitations, but Stevie not forgiven hers? Or perhaps the better question is: Why do Lindsey’s strengths carry more weight than Stevie’s? Why is Lindsey a genius and Stevie a ditz, a precocious naïf?

It’s not just Lindsey either. This happens with her other male collaborators, as well. Her record company insisted on the Tom Petty-Mike Campbell penned “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” as the first single from her debut solo album "Bella Donna," rather than any of the record’s other 10 songs that she wrote or co-wrote herself, including “Edge of Seventeen,” “Leather & Lace,” and “After the Glitter Fades”—all of which eventually performed well as singles.

Paul Fishkin, the record executive who launched her solo career, explained it in her "Behind the Music" episode: “We really worked hard… to make sure we had a rock song or two as the first single. We knew that we had a lock on… the rock programmers from the rock stations. And we also knew that a lot of those guys, even though they liked the way she looked, didn’t quite take her seriously because of that witchy, airy-fairy image that had come out of Fleetwood Mac.”

So she needed Tom Petty to vouch for her to some fucking Member's Only jacket-wearing DJs. Tom Petty lent legitimacy to Stevie, but not vice versa.

Why can’t the performer and writer of “Landslide,” “Sara,” “Rhiannon,” “Gypsy,” and “Stand Back,” not to mention Fleetwood Mac’s only U.S. number-one hit, “Dreams,” plus a shit-ton of other tremendous songs that are famous to her rabid “chiffon-head” fans, get the respect she deserves?

There are a lot of biases at play here, not all of which are entirely unearned. When you earnestly say things like, “My ballet teacher believes that my head was cut off in another life. I totally give with my body except for my neck,” well, you’re inviting a certain amount of eye rolling.

And it’s true she’s not an accomplished instrumentalist. As Lindsey Buckingham has correctly observed many times, her voice is her instrument. She can play piano and guitar well enough to write her songs, but she does need a producer/arranger to help turn her compositions into radio-ready records. So do lots of artists! And it’s not as if she’s uninvolved in the production. It’s not as if she doesn’t have ideas and opinions about how she wants things to sound!

And anyway, have you heard her demos? I have. They’re mysteriously good. The playing may be rudimentary and inexact, but her senses of melody, harmony, and phrasing carry them. They are no less wondrous for being simple.

But basically, the obvious answer is sexism. Sexism defines a sphere of life for women and then trivializes that sphere, or, alternatively, punishes women who don’t restrict themselves to that sphere. Because young Stevie was a pretty girl who sang about love, and Welsh witches, and crystal visions, and blue lamps, and styled herself like a glamorous-Dickensian-waif-cum-Californian-hippie, she was accepted yet trivialized. Because older Stevie had the nerve to age and gain weight and still dare to cast herself as a romantic heroine, she’s been punished: derided as a ridiculous crone stuck in a fantasy world.

What I wish these people would do is actually listen to her songs. Yes, there’s a certain amount of decoding that needs to happen to translate the “Stevieisms” into regular speak, but it’s possible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suddenly slapped my forehead and thought, “Oh! That’s what that means! That's so true!"

Once I understand what she’s saying, I find myself relying on her phrases again and again. When I bungle something spectacularly and need to start over I think, “In the web that is my own, I begin again.” Whenever I feel ego suffocating a relationship I think, “Rulers make bad lovers—you better put your kingdom up for sale.” If I feel myself longing for something unreasonable, I admit, “Where is the reason? Don’t blame it on me—blame it on my wild heart.” And when I find myself bewitched by someone I want to throw my arms around them and say, “Sunflowers and your face fascinate me.” Her words stick, and that must be some kind of endorsement.

If they were to really listen, what these critics would understand is that her work has never really been about mysticism. That’s the window dressing, the envelope, the exquisite spun-sugar sculpture atop the cake. The real subject of her work is powerful women: the joy of professional triumph, the limitations of one’s power, the difficulties of finding and sustaining love.

What could be less flaky of a subject? I suppose she could sing her itemized tax deductions, but that wouldn’t have quite the same ring, would it.

A lot of people do get it, and Stevie has become something of a latter-day feminist icon to a generation of dreamy, artistic teens and twentysomethings. This is funny too, considering Stevie has never really embraced the term feminism.

During a radio interview in 1979 to promote "Tusk," she was asked about being a pioneer in male-dominated rock-and-roll.

“I hope that Chris and I helped a little, for women. Because, I mean, I’m not any kind of… I’m non-political; I’m not a women’s liberation person. I don’t care about any of that because I’m fun; I have great friends, money, wonderful dogs; I don’t need to be a women’s liberationist. And I don’t need a man to take care of me, so I don’t have to fight it. I hope that we have opened some doors. Because it seems that there are a lot more women singers around now than there were when Chris and I started. I mean, to me, it’s like yesterday that Christine and I were brand new. We were the ones being talked about. And now we’re the old grandmothers of rock and roll. I’m going, ‘God! I’m just 15 and a half really! What is this?! I’m the biggest punk rocker of all!’ And suddenly, me and Christine are the mother lode, you know? It’s weird, very strange. But anyway, I hope we helped.”

Not exactly Gloria Steinem, is she? And yet, I don’t think the girls who idolize her are wrong. Because despite Stevie’s aversion to the F-word, she’s lived like a feminist, by which I mean that she lived the life she wanted.

She shacked up, unmarried, with Lindsey Buckingham for five years in the early ’70s when most “good girls” wouldn’t have done that. She had a lot of love affairs because she wanted to, okay? (Sidebar: Can you imagine the slut shaming she would get from the tabloids today? Taylor Swift certainly can.) She did a lot of drugs. She wrote songs about drugs, and anger, and love. At the height of her late 80s/early 90s tranquilizer addiction, some of them were appallingly bad. She figured out that drugs were stupid and she cleaned herself up. She chose her career, again and again, over men, over babies, over domesticity. A woman can certainly be a feminist and a wife and a mother and a homemaker, but the point is she didn’t want to be. She wanted to be who she is. She wanted to be a star.

So when people scoff at Stevie as a lightweight, I want you to set them straight. Do it for Stevie. No, fuck that, Stevie’s fine. Do it for your daughter, sister, mother, aunt, friend, girlfriend, wife. Do it for all the girls who long to rule their lives like a bird in flight.

Amy Mulvihill lives in Baltimore—on purpose! She tweets here.

32 Comments / Post A Comment

Jane Donuts (#2,857)

Thank you for writing this. I've been saying it for years!

testingwithfire (#244,161)

I saw Fleetwood Mac in Boston a couple of weeks ago. The show I saw made it very apparent that while Buckingham and the guys are spectacular musicians and Buckingham is a very good writer, Nicks' and Christine McVie's songwriting chops made the band the standout act it was in the 70's and (sadly absent McVie) still is today. Try to imagine "Rumours" or any of the 70's/80's records without Nicks and Christine McVie. Go on, try. No "Dreams"? "Sarah"? "Rhiannon"? "Songbird"?

True to (sexist) form, however, Nicks and the (female) backup singers were undermiked throughout the entire show. I guess you don't go to a big arena show for great sound quality, but it was really noticeable especially at first. The drums and bass overpowered everything for the first 1/2 hour. At one point Nicks walked offstage and I said to my friend, "I bet someone's getting bitchslapped right now for the poor miking job." When she came back things were a little better, but not much.

Claire Zulkey (#6,639)

I am not a huge Fleetwood Mac or Stevie Nicks fan but this is awesome. I sent it to my dad (who is a FM fan), warning him of course that there are swears in it. Now I'm listening to "Stop Draggin' My Heart".

jolie (#16)

Maybe also do it for the women who are really sick and tired of having eyes rolled at them for their belief systems that involve past lives and such, hmmm?

I really enjoyed this but seriously, back of the witches among you. We will fuck you up, no joke.

@jolie Eek! Sorry! Please don't fuck me up!

jolie (#16)

@Amy Mulvihill@twitter I'LL SPARE YOU THIS TIME. (But really, this was wonderful, Wicca-shaming aside.)

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

I don't get it. It's a feminist issue that Chrissie McVie gets respect and Stevie Nicks doesn't?

jolie (#16)

@SidAndFinancy Referring to her as 'Chrissie' doesn't go a long way in supporting your thesis that she gets respect.

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

@jolie That's her nickname. I don't call Ringo Starr "Richard."

jolie (#16)

@SidAndFinancy Professionally she goes by 'Christine' but you chose to use the familiar and diminutive 'Chrissy' in your comment. Maybe that wasn't the best choice!

@SidAndFinancy Well I think Christine McVie has had her share of detractors too. She was less of a target than Stevie though because 1) she played an instrument showing demonstrable skill—much harder to dismiss when the talent is right there in your face 2) She didn't want to be a star. She was happy to be in the background, in a seemingly supporting role. Much easier to accept. And yeah, I do think that is a feminist issue.

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

@Amy Mulvihill@twitter If you compared her treatment to that of, say, Robert Plant, who also stood around shaking a tambourine for large portions of shows, I think it would better make the point.

By the way, I am a fan of both of the women of Fleetwood Mac. (All three, actually, including Bekka Bramlett.) But the pre-Buckingham/Nicks era was the best.

@SidAndFinancy Yeah, I didn't really compare her with Christine in the article. I was just responding to your comment which did compare them. I did compare her treatment with Lindsey's though. And yeah, the Robert Plant comparison is apt, too. Always nice to talk to a fellow FM fan. I like pre-Buckingham Nicks FM too, but Buckingham Nicks-era is my personal favorite.

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

@Amy Mulvihill@twitter You did choose the Bart Bull quote, though.

When I was young, I just assumed "Stevie" was the man and "Lindsay" was the woman.

jolie (#16)

@SidAndFinancy Naw, I know you didn't. Like I said, just a bad choice. We're all allowed those!

LondonLee (#922)

I like her plenty but you only have to listen to 'Tusk' to hear why Buckingham is considered a genius while Stevie was happy doing the same old, same old.

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

This also makes me think about Ann Wilson. I guess she played flute, but she isn't really considered a musician and gets plenty of respect. Even though she also wrote plenty of Jethro Zeppelin mystical sprite lyrics.

amativus (#9,835)

1) I'm so glad you posted that backstage "Wild Heart" clip because it's my favorite video on YouTube, hands down, even more than all the dumb cat videos so dear to my heart.

2) I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, then, on rock critics' general adulation for Kate Bush. She also got a lot of dismissive 'fairy sprite' talk, but she also got praised as a creative force and is credited for her huge influence over later artists.

jbrown (#244,171)

Stevie isn't comfortable calling herself a feminist because she has not lived like one, contrary to popular belief among her "chiffon-head" fans. Despite the writer's clarification "A woman can certainly be a feminist and a wife and a mother and a homemaker" she goes on to advance this false assumption: "but the point is she didn’t want to be. She wanted to be who she is. She wanted to be a star." That's where Stevie's iconic image works against her. Leaving aside the fact that pre-iconic Stevie Nicks often spoke of her desire to be both a wife and mother, a true feminist doesn't want to be a star, but a serious writer or a respected vocalist. As with the writer herself, even Stevie's core fan base doesn't see her that way. Therefore, how can anyone blame the male dominated music industry, and mostly male rock critics for the lack of understanding about Stevie Nicks? They judge her image the same as her fans do. She's always depended on talented and powerful men to advance her career, and she doesn't apologize for it, nor should she. She's certainly due more credit and respect as a songwriter than she gets, but proposing the idea her demos can stand on their own as compositions is something only a "chiffon-head" would say. Just another case of her iconic image working against her.

bitzyboozer (#6,867)

@jbrown "…a true feminist doesn't want to be a star, but a serious writer or a respected vocalist." I don't think you or anyone else gets to decide that, actually.

@jbrown A "true feminist" is just a person who believes that believes in equality for all genders. As bitzyboozer says, you don't get to decide what a feminist wants to be. In fact one of the main points of feminism is that women should be able to decide who and what they want to be for themselves. And if you want to be a star, then hell yes, be a shining, brilliant star! So go feminism, and go Stevie Nicks.

bitzyboozer (#6,867)

Nodding my head so hard right now.

Caroline@twitter (#244,187)

Actually, Stevie does call herself a feminist now. When Fleetwood Mac performed in Chicago last month, she dedicated "Landslide" to Tavi Gevinson and gave a really wonderful short speech about feminism and being a strong woman:

liznieve (#7,691)



brand (#244,226)

@Caroline@twitter uhhhhhhhh sorry girl. If you actually LISTEN to what Stevie says in that clip (I'll get right to the meat) "…it's about feminism, and being a feminist, and being a strong woman–and I'm like, I'M SO NOT THAT, but at the same time I don't know exactly why I'm watching this but I love this little girl…" So no–Stevie doesn't CALL herself the F-word in 2013. Even though she's glad Tavi (and others) listened to her lyrics, found inspiration in them, and became a "powerful" woman. Call it a contradiction, but Nicks never parses words. Don't call her a feminist until she calls herself one.

Bill Peschel (#170,856)

After seeing the 'Gypsy' video, I'm reminded that it is hard to take someone seriously who prances like a drum majorette and watches herself before a mirror doing ballet splits, and (in the 'Stand Back' video) spreads her silken wings on a grocery-store conveyor belt.

Not that I'm disagreeing with your point, just that she really had the deck stacked against her.

(You might also add that despite the respect for Buckingham's chops, his solo career had far fewer hits than Nicks'.)

LondonLee (#922)

Forgive me for lumping a certain type of gypsy-mystic female rock star together, but Kate Bush>>>>>Stevie Nicks

am4 (#235,425)

Thanks for this piece.

Something I read years ago: Stevie had befriended Tom Petty and asked him to write a song for her for Bella Donna. He wrote "The Insider," a slow song, but she wanted a rocker. When she was in the studio to sing on his Hard Promises album, she heard a demo of "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," which Tom had written and decided not to use. Stevie put on the vocal and Tom gave her the song. It's a good song, but it's really Stevie's vocals that made it a hit. And Tom ended up putting "The Insider" on Hard Promises, with Stevie providing gorgeous harmony. She also sings another harmony on "You Can Still Change Your Mind" on that album. Sends shivers down my spine to this day.

She's not afraid to play a supporting role and often shines at it. Listen to "Gold" or "Midnight Wind" by John Stewart or a live performance of "New York Minute" with Don Henley. On each she's respectful and supporting of the lead–she's a sweet girl–but she can't help but walk off with the songs.

Regarding her lyrics, yes, sometimes they're too vague or confusing for some. At those times, "don't listen to her. Listen through her." And wait for the emotional truths and devastation, the acknowledgement of brutality and indifference and struggle, often with nature as her idiom. "My first mistake was to smile at you." "And the planets of the universe go their way." "Will you ever win?" "The landslide will bring it down." "The whole thing's phony." "You can consume all the beauty in the room, baby." "You used to be my love; I make excuses for you."

On Sunday I will lift a glass to toast the gypsy that remains.

astreacker (#244,199)

Stevie Nicks changed my life. I am so grateful for this article!

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